One Year Later – No Agency Accountability for Couple Living in Rural Utah
Vernal, UT-From the highway, a dirt road makes its way onto federal lands. The entry gate was marked with a sign that warns visitors that predator poisons are being used in the area. The man, accompanied by dog, drove his truck through the gate and set out as dawn approached.
Later, when sun was at its winter zenith and the rabbits had hunkered down for siesta, the hunting day ended for the man. It was February, near the close of the Utah rabbit-hunting season. That day, which had started out like all of the other outings taken in the three preceding months, ended in a nightmare that the man could not have anticipated or imagined. A bureaucratic web would enshroud him; a web the man unsuccessfully tried to unravel in the year that followed.
On February 21 2006, Sam’s two-year-old dog Jenna accompanied him on a rabbit hunt in the Utah desert near Vernal. They hiked on federal lands that were managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The BLM is the largest federal land management agency. It administers lands for the public, for livestock growers, and mineral and gas miners. BLM lands are located in some of the driest and harshest climates in the West.
Jenna trotted a few feet behind Sam in a landscape dotted by sagebrush and cattle and marked by rolling hills. They were headed back to Sam’s truck on a dirt road rutted by tire tracks under a powerline. The powerline provided a convenient navigational tool to find the truck in the desert expanse.
By the edge of the road and between two rocks, a smell enticed Jenna that Sam could not detect. She tugged on a lure sticking up from the ground that was specifically intended to attract wild canids such as coyotes and foxes, but also calls to domestic dogs. A pellet of sodium cyanide shot into Jenna’s mouth from a spring-loaded device called an M-44. Sam heard a commotion and whipped around. “Jenna started gagging, frothing, and then threw up,” said Sam. He saw the spent M-44 and his heart sank. Sam had seen a sign on the entry gate onto the BLM that had warned of predator toxicants. He later told state investigators that he thought the M-44s would be clearly marked in the field; the M-44 that killed Jenna had not been marked, Sam told the state investigator.
“I held her in my arms,” Sam stated. “She was terrified and scared, and I was completely helpless. She died in my arms about a minute-and-a-half after she was poisoned.” Sam hoisted Jenna over his shoulder. Her mouth close to his. While in the truck, he felt faint and noticed a metallic taste in his mouth. He washed his hands with pads soaked in alcohol, but did not take his symptoms seriously although he had been exposed to cyanide gas.
Federal agents who work for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) Wildlife Services (WS) poisoned Jenna. That fact is not in dispute. What is in dispute, had WS broken the law? According to Sam’s statements, it appears that WS violated at least two use restrictions under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA).
In violation of FIFRA no “elevated sign” was “placed within 25 feet” of the “individual M-44 device warning persons.” Also, the M-44 was not “placed at least at a 50-foot distance or at such a greater distance from any public road or pathway.” Photographs later taken by the Utah Department of Agriculture indicate that the M-44 was on the roadway itself.
Each year, WS kills approximately 100,000 mammalian carnivores (mostly coyotes) with poisons, snares, and traps and guns fired from low-flying aircraft. (In their fiscal year 2004, WS killed a record total of 2.7 million animals.) Unfortunately, this blanket method kills many animals, including species that are protected under the Endangered Species Act, and pets, but not necessarily individual animals implicated in killing livestock. Conservation biologists call this the “sledgehammer” approach to wildlife management.
WS is mandated by Congress to protect agriculture. WS’s operating fees come from taxpayers and from livestock organizations such as the Woolgrowers and Cattlemen.
Ironically, Sam works for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the agency charged with conserving wildlife. Sam began making inquiries about Jenna’s death using his contacts and through the Internet. He called every conceivable agency. He wanted to understand what had happened to him, but more importantly to get the government to warn others and to prevent this from happening again. He is specifically concerned about the threat that M-44s might pose on children should they stumble upon them.
Sam called the BLM in Utah. A biologist told him that M-44s were routinely used on the BLM but not marked “because WS didn’t want them tampered with.” Sam called the Utah State Director of WS, Michael Bodenchuk. He asked the Director for maps indicating where M-44s were being used so he could avoid those places. The Director told him he could not have a map because “people would go mess with them.” Sam called his county commissioner, who took his number but never returned his call. Sam called the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the agency charged with regulating these pesticides, where he left approximately 12 messages. Three EPA employees returned his call, but told him to call someone else because he had the wrong department. Days after the incident he found Sinapu on the web and called me.
I wrote a press release for Sam, which the Associated Press picked up in March. In August, the Salt Lake Tribune reported another dog poisoning incident that occurred in April near Fillmore, Utah. A German shepherd had been poisoned by an M-44 and its owner, Sharyn Aguiar, filed a tort claim against WS. WS denied the claim. According to their records, which I received through the Freedom of Information Act, Utah WS Director Bodenchuk was concerned that a rash of people might bring their dead dogs to public lands and claim they were killed by M-44s.
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The poisoning of dogs and even endangered species such as wolves, grizzly bears, and California condors with M-44s has become far too routine. The agency charged with overseeing pesticides’ use, the EPA, has become too complacent. A year after these dog poisonings occurred Utah, WS is still not held accountable. The EPA denies that the M-44 was on a road – despite photographic evidence. The matter, they hope, has been quietly swept under the carpet. Not so.
In January 2007, Sinapu requested that the EPA ban sodium cyanide and Compound 1080, another predator toxicant. The EPA classifies both agents as having the highest degree of “acute toxicity.” A coalition of groups including Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), Beyond Pesticides, Forest Guardians, and Sierra Club signed Sinapu’s petition. The Associated Press picked up our story and as a result it received press coverage from approximately 40 venues including the Washington Post, the New York Times, National Public Radio, and even the U.K.’s The Guardian. Other print stories ran in the Billings Gazette and on eenews.net.
The petition asks EPA to immediately suspend the use of these poisons for lethal wildlife control on the grounds that they pose “unreasonable adverse effects on public health, the environment” and federally-listed threatened and endangered species. In particular, the petition cites:
- USDA Inspector General issued audits that showed that WS had only poor inventory control over “dangerous biological agents”;
- Deaths to dogs and other domestic animals, as well as threatened and endangered species such as wolves, grizzly bears, and California condors; and
- The wide-spread availability of non-lethal alternatives for predator control.
Each year, M-44s account for the deaths of approximately 12,000 mammalian carnivores while fewer than one hundred such deaths are attributed to Compound 1080, a toxicant that has been banned in several countries and most U.S. states.
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A month after Jenna was poisoned, officers from the Utah Department of Agriculture came to Sam’s house to interview him and take his affidavit. Sam told state investigator Cody James about walking on the BLM road under the powerline, and how Jenna was poisoned, and how he held her until she died and how he carried her between one-half mile to one mile to his truck. He told the investigator that he felt funny while driving home and had a peculiar metallic taste in his mouth, but attributed it to shock of Jenna’s death. He told the investigator he never saw a sign marking the M-44 device in the desert. He told the investigator he never went to the doctor, nor did he take Jenna to the vet. He told the investigator he buried Jenna himself before Sarah got home so she wouldn’t see the dog. He told James that he would not sue, but that he wanted the government to take notice and to take action.
According to Sam, Utah Department of Agriculture went to the BLM site a month after the incident. The State took neither Sam nor WS with them. According to Sam, the James was able to find the exact spot “because he saw an area that showed disturbance.” The state agent took photos of the exact spot – it was now easy to see because a small white tag tied to a bush above the two rocks that had housed the M-44 fluttered in the breeze.
A year has gone by since Jenna died. For months, Sam’s calls to the Department of Agriculture went un-returned. Finally, state agent Cody James told Sam that WS was acting according to federal laws and that the matter was closed. Sam then called the EPA, which oversees the Utah Department of Agriculture. EPA official, David Golden, told Sam that the M-44 was not on a road in violation of federal laws.
Sam believes the matter was not taken seriously because he told the state agent that he did not want to sue.
On the first anniversary of Jenna’s death, we hope for Sam and Sarah, for the public and their pets, and for the wildlife—wolves, bears, coyotes, lynx, condors, foxes, bobcats, etc., that the EPA will take notice of Sinapu’s petition to ban sodium cyanide and Compound 1080. These toxicants pose an unacceptable hazard to people and to the environment.
“It is literally unsafe to walk one’s dog on federal lands in Utah, and very likely in other states as well,” said Wendy Keefover-Ring of Sinapu. She added, “These chemicals have been used in biological warfare and could be again. Yet, WS cannot keep track of them nor who has access to them, according to two federal audits. Therefore, the manufacture, distribution, and use of these agents must stop, and WS must be held accountable.”
Wendy Keefover-Ring, Sinapu: 303.447.8655, Ext. 1#