By Gabrielle Gasser

What would you do if you came across an M-44 device while hiking on public land?

First, you might not know what an M-44 is. Its an explosive, cyanide-filled capsule used to kill wild predators like coyotes, feral dogs and foxes. The possible outcomes of your encounter might include watching your pet die, being poisoned by the gas yourself or dealing with lifelong medical problems.

Jamie Drysdale’s film “Lethal Control,” which is set to be screened Thursday at the National Museum of Wildlife Art, focuses on the use of these devices on public lands.

Drysdale received his master’s degree in environmental journalism from Montana State University in 2018, and the film was his final project.

Though his peers were attuned to environmental issues, no one around him had heard of Wildlife Services, a U.S. Department of Agriculture program, even fewer knew what it did.

That was a red flag, Drysdale said, and eventually led him to research Wildlife Services’ deployment of M-44s and the heart-breaking stories that have resulted.

Canyon Mansfield stands atop the hill where his dog, Kasey, was killed by an M-44 “cyanide bomb” near Pocatello, Idaho, in 2017. Jamie Drysdale/Courtesy Photo

Wildlife Services’ website states that the agency’s mission is “to provide Federal leadership and expertise to resolve wildlife conflicts to allow people and wildlife to coexist.”

M-44s are one tool Wildlife Services has used and continues to use to resolve such human-wildlife conflicts.

In 2017, the week Drysdale began to research Wildlife Services, an M-44 killed 14-year-old Canyon Mansfield’s dog, Kasey, after the family pet accidentally triggered one of the devices in the backyard.

Canyon watched his pet succumb to cyanide poisoning. Two other dogs near Casper died that same week.

When Drysdale heard about the Mansfields, he reached out. “Lethal Control” tells the family’s story and explores Wildlife Services’ use of M-44s more broadly.

Since Kasey’s death, the Mansfields have been staunch advocates of banning the use of M-44s. They’ve visited Washington, D.C. two times to lobby lawmakers and ensure that their story is not ignored or forgotten. This spring, Drysdale and the Mansfields screened “Lethal Control” for a congressional audience.

With the film, Drysdale’s main goal is to get information about Wildlife Services and its practices out to the public. Drysdale said the film focuses on M-44 devices because they reveal “the most glaring, in-your-face tactic that [Wildlife Services] uses that is so archaic.”

Drysdale said many people in the West outside of his program are unaware of the existence of the agency or what it does. He wants to “shine light on practices used by Wildlife Services” and put the facts out there, “exactly as they are.”

“The issues in the film speak for themselves, and some of the practices are so galling and apparent that I don’t have to editorialize in the film and I can allow people to make their own conclusions,” Drysdale said.

A national movement

Kristin Combs, executive director of Wyoming Wildlife Advocates, would also like to see the general public educated about M-44s and Wildlife Services.

“Unfortunately, a lot of wildlife decisions are driven by politics not science, and so we are trying to get as much science out there as possible,” Combs said.

Wyoming Wildlife Advocates use public information campaigns to ensure citizens are aware of issues and opportunities to speak out. Most people aren’t aware, Combs said, that Wildlife Services is “using taxpayer dollars to kill our native wildlife.”

For organizations like Wyoming Wildlife Advocates, Combs said, the main goal as it relates to devices like M-44s is advocating for Wildlife Services to use alternative, nonlethal methods and coexistence techniques. Combs said it’s important to get rid of the “knee jerk reaction,” often from ranchers who call Wildlife Services rather finding another solution.

U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, a Democrat from Oregon, introduced a bill in May to ban M-44s across the nation. Oregon recently banned the use of the the devices, and a 2019 court ruling stopped Wyoming from using them until an environmental analysis of their effects on wildlife is completed.

Drysdale and Combs emphasize how important it is to educate the public about the use of lethal control measures. Combs encouraged individuals to write to elected officials as well as agencies like the Bureau of Land Management to stop the use of M-44s on public lands.

The Mansfield family will be present at Thursday’s screening for a panel discussion and question-and-answer session, along with representatives of Wyoming Wildlife Advocates, Wyoming Untrapped and the Wyoming chapter of the Sierra Club, as well as the Western Watersheds Project and the Center for Biological Diversity.