Wildlife Services: The obscure government agency “servicing” wildlife with cyanide pipe bombs, leg traps, and helicopter gunners

Wildlife Services: The obscure government agency “servicing” wildlife with cyanide pipe bombs, leg traps, and helicopter gunners

This US agency has been called "secretive" and "unaccountable"

PoliticsJuly 16, 2020 By Will Brendza

In 2017, Canyon Mansfield was outside playing with his dog near his home in Pocatello, Idaho, when he stumbled upon a chemical-explosive-device. The bomb, known fondly among agriculturalists as an M-44, exploded in Canyon’s face, discharging toxic sodium cyanide all over the 14-year-old boy and his dog, Kasey.

Canyon had to be rushed to the hospital, to the emergency room, where he was treated for acute cyanide poisoning. Still to this day, he gets crippling migraines and a numbness in his hands that he never felt before the incident.

Kasey, his dog, died almost instantly.  

The longtime local Sheriff, who responded to the frantic 911 call, was just as perplexed by the incident and the origin of the cyanide bomb as Canyon’s parents. Where had this device come from? They all wondered. Who had put it so close to the Mansfield’s family home? And why?

None of them could have possibly guessed in that moment, that it was an agency of their own government who had put that pipe bomb there. But when they found out, their confusion and sadness, turned quickly into an unbridled rage.

“The United States government put a cyanide bomb 350ft from my house, and killed my dog and poisoned my child,” Canyon’s mother, Theresa Mansfield, told The Guardian. It’s something that, understandably, still infuriates her to this day.

An M-44. Image courtesy of Google. 

If you’ve never heard of Wildlife Services, you aren't alone. It’s a very obscure branch of the United States Department of Agriculture, which very few people seem to know about. One, which has been called a “rogue agency” that is “secretive” and “unaccountable.”

Sherriff Lorin Neilson, who responded to the Mansfield’s call, had no idea who Wildlife Services was, or that they were out planting cyanide pipe bombs in his county, so near to people’s homes.

“I am telling you, I was in the total dark,” said Nielsen. “I had no idea [Wildlife Services] existed and why they existed and it still boggles me.”

So why do they exist?

It’s a good question. If you look at the Colorado Wildlife Services website it says their assistance activities include: protecting livestock from predation by coyotes, black bear and mountain lion; protecting civil and military aviation from “wildlife strikes;” managing damage caused by migratory birds; monitoring for wildlife diseases; and protecting property from beaver damage.

Their mission statement reads: “WS conducts programs of research, technical assistance, and applied management to resolve problems that occur when human activity and wildlife conflict with one another.”

Which all seems fine and dandy on its face. “Managing,” “monitoring,” and “protecting” are all positive-sounding ventures for a government program to pursue. Even the name itself, “Wildlife Services” sounds like an animal-friendly amenity.

However, when you start reading deeper into these “services” they start to take on a somewhat darker meaning: In order to protect property from beaver damage, WS “routinely” uses bombs to blow up beaver dams. In order to protect livestock from predators WS sets snares and leg traps, and plants cyanide bombs (that few people seem to know about) throughout our country’s wildernesses. In order to manage damage caused by migratory birds WS goes on depredation hunts, killing/capturing birds that pose any issue to farmers.

WS essentially acts as the government sponsored hit-men for America’s agriculture industry — the dirty work guys. If there’s an animal that’s bothering your farm, ranch, airstrip or home, WS are the guys to call. They’ll show up with cyanide pipe bombs, beaver bombs, and/or hunting traps.

Sometimes they’ll even bust out a helicopter to gun down coyotes, wolves, bears and wild boar from the sky, like Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore from Apocalypse Now.

Wildlife Services, on the job. Image courtesy of Google.  

“The focus of a government trapper [WS agent] is protecting the livestock industry by killing predators,” said Carter Niemeyer, a retired WS agent, in a Harper’s Magazine interview. “Ranchers call us up, and the system kicks in, guns blazing.”

Which, to be fair, is necessary in some instances for ranchers and farmers. Someone’s got to help them fight off coyotes and mountain lions. Someone’s got to help them keep migrating birds off their produce. Someone’s got to help control diseased animal populations.

But the methods of WS are both ethically questionable and more than a little reckless.

WS’s track record for dangerous accidents (particularly those concerning M-44 cyanide bombs) isn’t great. Since 2000 they’ve accidentally killed 40 different house-pets (like Kasey) with their Devil-may-care M-44 usage. And while it is true that there haven’t been any lethal human accidents (yet), it’s also true that there have been 44 accidental human exposures to WS cyanide bombs since 1984.

And, most disturbingly, according to Rex Shaddox, a former WS employee interviewed by Harpers, they’ll sometimes test M-44’s on live dogs from local pounds for “educational purposes.” He recalls an incident in that interview, where his supervisor, a man named Charles Brown, summoned his agents to a local dump, where a truck from the pound met them. Brown started grabbing dogs out of the truck and testing M-44 cyanide capsules on them.

Brown would open the poison capsule and direct the cyanide jet into the dog’s throat. He’d let it start convulsing and foaming at the mouth before he finally saved it with some amyl nitrate (an immediate antidote to cyanide poisoning).

Only, to open another capsule in its mouth, and poison it again.

“He and the other [agents] thought it was funny,” Shaddox said. “[The dog is] convulsing and dying, and he’s laughing. And this is what he’s teaching his men. That was just a hell of a way to die. No sympathy, no feeling, no nothing. I’m no animal-rights guy. But heartless bastards is all they were. Right there, that’s the culture. And these are federal employees. This is what your government is doing to animals.”

That anecdote, in combination with the fact that WS reportedly killed some 6,500 animals in 2018 alone, gives you a picture of what kind of agency we’re dealing with here. And get this: WS estimates that, conservatively, only 50% of all their M-44 discharges kill their intended target species. Meaning that at least half the time when one of these bombs goes off, it kills an animal that wasn’t supposed to die.

Oops. Oh well.

Sill, these explosive devices remain one of WS’ most prolific instruments of extermination. They have been touted by sheep farmers as a “critical tool” with a “proven track record for protecting livestock and the environment.”

But the organization that is planting these bombs is operating without much oversight. They are highly decentralized and often operate in an area, without the knowledge of local law enforcement. They decide internally how many M-44 bombs to plant in the wilderness and where. And, while WS says that they are committed “to safe and responsible use of these devices,” there is clearly some precaution left to be desired — and for that matter, any level of moral accountability at all.

This is a very unusual government agency, to say the least. One, that the agricultural industry of America stands by and behind — and one which operates in the shadows. They profess to do research, but realistically, it seems that their main function is to kill animals. Whether that’s coyotes or birds bothering agriculturalists, geese bothering people in Denver’s parks, prairie dogs digging up open space or ranch-land, wolves stalking cows or bears busting into garbage cans — if there’s an animal that needs killing, Wildlife Services are the guys to call.

Here’s the number for their Colorado office, in case you’re so inclined: 303-328-9047.