US lifts ban on poison aimed at coyotes, but controversy persists

After years of dispute and conflicting evidence, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has lifted a 13-year ban on a potent poison used to kill coyotes in the West's rangeland. The decision, to take effect Thursday, allows ranchers who graze sheep and goats on federal land to use the poison Compound 1080, or sodium fluoroacetate.

The livestock will wear collars, fitted with poison-filled pouches, designed to kill any predator that bites into them. Predators such as the coyote generally attack their prey in the neck.

Ranchers have long argued that coyotes seriously deplete their livestock and that use of the poison Compound 1080, already in wide use on private lands, is the best way to stop them.

But the EPA action represents only a partial victory for Western sheepherders, already reeling from the market competition of synthetic fibers and imported mutton. They would prefer to scatter small chunks of 1080-laced meat around the rangeland to kill coyotes rather than use a collar system that sacrifices a sheep for every coyote killed.

But even after four years of hearings and rulemakings, the decision itself may not be final: A legal challenge to the EPA's decisionmaking process is pending in the federal court of appeals in Denver.

The decision has raised an outcry from environmentalists, who charge that Compound 1080 will kill government-protected species -- such as grizzly bears, hawks, and eagles -- as readily as it will kill coyotes. Environmental groups say they are particularly concerned about the possible hazards posed by lost or leaking collars.

``The potential for misuse from 1080 collars is tremendous,'' says Susan Hagood, a wildlife management specialist with the environmental organization Defenders of Wildlife. ``There is no way the EPA can prevent this from happening,'' she says.

The EPA calls the collar system a ``selective means of predator management, since it controls only those coyotes which prey on livestock.''

In the past, ranchers were allowed to set 1080-laced bait on federal lands for sheep predators, like the coyote. But after evidence mounted that other animals, including several endangered species, were threatened by it, President Nixon banned use of the poison in 1972.

Though the Nixon administration allowed other methods of predator control, including trapping and shooting, ranching groups pushed to lift the 1080 ban.

After the Reagan administration took office in 1981, several ranching groups, officials of states with large ranching interests, and the Interior Department under secretary James Watt applied to the EPA to lift its ban.

The EPA decision spells out a long list of requirements for ranchers who plan to use the collars. For example, in recognition that many ranchers employ illegal aliens from Central America to tend their flocks, one rule requires that any range area where 1080 is used be posted with warning signs in English and Spanish.

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