Taking a Stand Against Wildlife Poisons

by Bob Sallinger, Director of Conservation

For far too long, the use of poisons has been a weapon of choice for agencies and individuals concerned about addressing wildlife conflicts. This spring, Oregon made two major advances in removing indiscriminate, inhumane, and dangerous wildlife poisons from our landscape. Portland City Council banned the use of the avicide (bird poison) Avitrol from lands owned or managed by the City of Portland, and the governor signed a ban on the use of M-44 sodium cyanide devices statewide. In taking these important steps, both the City and the State have hopefully catalyzed campaigns that will have impacts at a national scale.

Birds Falling from the Sky: Avitrol

Avitrol is a neurotoxin that causes “acute oral and dermal toxicity for birds and mammals.” It is marketed as a humane, safe, and ecologically sound way to address conflicts with birds. However, it is anything but safe, humane, or ecologically sound.
Target birds are fed the poison at bait stations. The poison is designed to cause an “alarm response” in birds, which in turn is supposed to scare the rest of the flock from the immediate area. The “alarm response” consists of convulsions, paralysis, leg pedaling, and screaming and can continue for a period ranging from minutes to hours.

American Crow
American Crow, photo by Scott Carpenter

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) mandated label states that “birds that react and alarm a flock usually die.” The EPA requirement that applicators must keep the area free of people and pets until all dead birds are collected and removed is entirely unrealistic as poisoned birds can travel many miles before the poison takes effect, putting people, pets and non-target wildlife at risk of secondary exposure.
Portlanders saw firsthand the impacts of this poison in confirmed Avitrol poisoning incidents that occurred in 2014 and 2018. In November 2014, dead and dying crows were found across downtown Portland in an area that extended from Chapman and Lownsdale Parks near City Hall to Waterfront Park.

In January of 2018 residents of the King neighborhood in NE Portland witnessed crows, in an incident that extended over more than 30 city blocks, literally falling from the sky and slamming into the pavement. Some birds were dead on impact while others convulsed and screamed on the ground before dying. Not only did these birds die cruel and horrific deaths, but their poisoned carcasses scattered across our urban landscape also put people, pets and non-target wildlife as real risk.

These incidents required responses by local, state and federal agencies, and Portland Audubon added extra staff and volunteers for days following the poisoning so that dead birds could be quickly removed from the environment and transported to diagnostic labs.

On June 5, 2019, the Portland City Council voted to ban the use of Avitrol and other avicides on all lands owned and managed by the City of Portland. Commissioner Nick Fish, who led this effort, stated at the hearing, “These poisons have absolutely no place anywhere in our community. They not only put our birds and wildlife at risk, but they also put people and pets at risk as well.” While the City does not use bird poisons and is preempted by state law from going further in terms of extending this ban beyond city lands, it is still an important step. It sends a strong message to the community that these types of poisons are dangerous and inappropriate. It sends a strong message to the Oregon Department of Agriculture that it should consider giving local jurisdictions more authority over regulating toxic pesticides within their jurisdictional boundaries.

Finally, it sends a strong message to the EPA that it needs to consider removing this poison from the market altogether. We were pleased by strong statements by City Council members that they plan to continue to work with Portland Audubon to ensure that these messages are heard by state and federal agencies.

Coyote, photo by Hayley Crews

Cyanide Bombs: M-44 Sodium Cyanide Devices

M-44 sodium cyanide devices are spring-ejected cyanide capsules that are staked to the ground and wrapped in cloth smeared with scented bait to attract coyotes, foxes and feral dogs. When an animal tugs and bites on the baited cloth, the cyanide capsule explodes into the animal’s face where it combines with saliva to create cyanide gas, causing suffocation, convulsions and death. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has identified sodium cyanide as “highly toxic to warm-blooded animals” and placed sodium cyanide in Toxicity Category I, indicating the greatest degree of acute toxicity, for oral, dermal and inhalation effects. M-44s have accurately been described as “cyanide bombs.”

The primary user of M-44 sodium cyanide devices is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services division, which has scattered these devices across the western United States primarily to kill predators that prey on livestock. Between 2000 and 2016, Wildlife Services reported killing 246,985 animals including 4,621 animals in Oregon using M-44s. M-44s are notorious for documented killings of vast numbers of non-target wildlife and pets. They have also resulted in death or severe injury to humans.
On May 6, 2019, Governor Kate Brown signed into law Senate Bill 580 banning the use of M-44 sodium cyanide devices in Oregon, after the bill passed the legislature with strong bipartisan support. Portland Audubon was proud to advocate for the legislation with partners including Oregon Wild, Humane Society of the United States, Humane Voters Oregon, and most notably, Brooks Fahy at Predator Defense, who has devoted decades to fighting these devices and was the driving force behind this bill.

The Poisoning Continues: Ravens in Northeastern Oregon

Even as we celebrate these important wins, the parade of poison continues in Oregon. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is currently considering a permit application from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) to poison up to 1,500 ravens in Baker County using eggs baited with the poison DRC-1339. ODFW asserts that this poisoning is necessary to protect nesting sage-grouse. However, ODFW has collected no data to support this assertion and is ignoring other obvious causes for sage-grouse declines. In a stunning admission, ODFW confirms that it believes that because of ravens’ propensity for caching food, only one out of every four poisoned eggs taken will actually be consumed by a raven.

In order to kill 1,500 ravens, ODFW will need to see ravens take 6,000 poisoned eggs of which they anticipate upwards of 4,500 will be scattered across the landscape for non-target wildlife and other animals to consume. Portland Audubon is strongly opposing this permit.

Looking Forward

There are many proven strategies for addressing wildlife conflicts. It is long past time to remove inhumane, indiscriminate, and dangerous poisons from the tool box. The banning of Avitrol on City of Portland lands and M-44s statewide should send a strong message to the EPA that it is time to eliminate these indiscriminate, inhumane, and dangerous poisons nationwide. Look for upcoming opportunities to help send that message.

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