US-placed cyanide device ignites - and a Pocatello family is changed forever

Theresa Mansfield still plays competitive tennis, still rides her horses, still tends her menagerie of animals, which now includes a family of noisy geese, a colony of runaway bunnies and a rescued baby chipmunk. She still picks up Canyon, her son, from Century High School at 3:30 every afternoon.

But to her workaday routines she has added new duties: staying in touch with a network of activists, communicating regularly with journalists around the country, and lobbying officials to halt the federal government’s use of cyanide devices to kill coyotes and other predators.

It was one of those devices that went off in a field near her rural Pocatello home, injuring Canyon and killing his yellow Lab, Kasey, on March 16, 2017.

Then 14, Canyon was “doing what every parent wants their kid to do,” playing with his dog in a grassy field, and escaping the computer and the phone and the TV. Canyon noticed a pipe in the ground that hadn’t been there before. He bent to investigate and triggered it; the device sprayed his face and arms and hit Kasey, who was directly downwind. Canyon suffered nausea and numbness in his arms, and still has headaches and bad dreams about that day.

“I’ve tried to protect him,” says Theresa Mansfield, ticking off choices like the right movies and music, the right school, the right coaches and teams. “You know, all those things that parents try to do to keep their kids safe and try to protect them from being jaded too early in life. And then our United States government plants a cyanide bomb 350 yards behind my house and changes my kid’s life forever.”

She says this with cold fury. Theresa used to see angry activists protesting and wonder what drove such people to extreme action. Now that she finds herself one of them, she thinks she understands.

“I think something like what happened to me happened to them and the government doesn’t listen and so they just become more and more passionate,” she says. “And then you kind of become annoying.

“It’s become a cause for us.”

Later, she puts it this way: “I’m not going to be quiet until there are no more cyanide bombs. It’s not about the money. It’s about the cyanide bombs.”

An M-44. The devices contain sodium-cyanide powder that becomes a gas when it contacts moisture in the air. Bannock County Sheriff's Office

‘Blaming a kid’

The Mansfields live about 6 miles from Pocatello up Buckskin Road, which winds into the foothills east of town. Buckskin is dotted with rural homes on acreages that abut BLM land, not unlike the Boise Foothills, but with more trees. Arriving at the Mansfield house, a visitor is greeted with signs that read “Lab Crossing,” “Children at Play” and “Beware of the cat.”

In the past year and a half, the Mansfields have met and worked with other advocates, and with Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., to introduce a bill — “Canyon’s Law” — that would ban the use of the cyanide devices. They’ve visited Washington, D.C, to lobby lawmakers, and in June filed a lawsuit seeking at least $75,000 in medical and other damages and $75,000 for pain and suffering.

That was not a surprise. But the government’s response last month made bigger news, when it said that any government negligence was outweighed by the negligence of Canyon and his family.

Saying that he is at fault shows the government’s case is weak, says Canyon.

“Blaming a kid?” asks Canyon. “That’s all you got?”

Canyon is now 16, in many ways a typical teenager: making weight for wrestling matches, trying to schedule driver’s ed, finding time to study. But he talks to journalists with the polish of a veteran newsmaker. He is articulate and matter-of-fact as he relates his story.

He’s OK with being known as the “cyanide boy” if that helps make a difference, he says, and that is when his casual manner turns steely: “I don’t want to be a victim,” he says. “I want to be a person who was affected by this and changed the world.”

Canyon Mansfield with his dog, Kasey, before the March 2017 incident. Provided by Theresa Mansfield

‘Safe and responsible use’

Wildlife Services has not said much about the case, and a spokeswoman declined several Statesman requests to discuss the Mansfield lawsuit or cyanide devices generally. But the agency did provide a statement that said lethal tools for predator control are sometimes the only practical means to respond to damage to livestock. The agency said coyotes killed an estimated 118,000 sheep and lambs nationwide in 2015, valued at $12.1 million.

Wildlife Services “understands the public’s concern regarding the use of M-44s and is committed to the safe and responsible use of these devices. … (The U.S. Department of Agriculture) does not currently use M-44s in Idaho, nor are there any immediate plans to begin using them.” Should it use M-44s, the agency said, it will follow rules newly revised in February of this year.

The agency also has noted that despite critics’ use of the term “bomb,” the sodium-cyanide ejector devices are activated by a spring and have no explosive material.

‘At a tipping point’

For decades, Brooks Fahy has campaigned against the techniques that Wildlife Services uses to kill coyotes and other predators, especially use of M-44s. In past years, the executive director of Predator Defense has helped other families tell their stories to reporters and Washington lawmakers. But those stories haven’t had staying power, he said, and reporters move on to other news.

The Mansfields are different, Fahy says. The combination of a lovable kid, a feisty mom and a dad who is a physician has resonated far beyond Pocatello and Idaho. The Mansfields have appeared on CBS and Fox and National Geographic. Their story is being recounted in a soon-to-be-released documentary.

“Something has changed. They have hit a nerve,” says Fahy. “What’s extraordinary about this case is the level of public interest around it. You have a (family) and this young boy just going about their lives in their own backyard.”

Adds Fahy: “After being at this for so many years, I feel we are at a tipping point and it’s possible to ban M-44s.”

After Canyon was injured, Predator Defense, Western Watersheds Project and other groups petitioned Wildlife Services, which agreed to a temporary ban on the devices in Idaho. They remain in use in 15 other states.

Now Fahy and the Mansfields are campaigning to stop M-44 use everywhere, and permanently. “The Mansfields can’t let it go because they know — as I know — this is going to happen again.”

Mansfield photos_Nikki Siegel 8.12.2018-11.jpg
Theresa, left and Mark Mansfield have three children including the youngest, Canyon, right. The other two are at college in Utah and California. The family has received support from around the country, says Mark. “A lot of people in a lot of places have been amazing.” Nikki Siegel For the Idaho Statesman

‘What’s right is right’

The reaction from within the Mansfields’ community has been overwhelmingly supportive.

Reed Larsen’s Pocatello law office has a saddle in the corner and rodeo memorabilia on the walls. Larsen wears a cowboy shirt and a big silver belt buckle. He’s raised horses and cows, and counts ranchers among his friends. He’s not opposed to controlling predators.

Larsen represents the Mansfields in their suit against the government. He’s also one of the Mansfields’ neighbors up Buckskin Road. After Canyon was injured, Larsen learned that cyanide devices had been placed near his property, too, with no notice to him or his immediate neighbors.

“That outraged me,” he says. “It’s not part of this litigation, but as an attorney it helps fuel my motivation to make sure the right thing is done for the Mansfields, because this could have happened to my grandkids, who roam those same hills and area doing the same thing Canyon did.”

Bannock County Sheriff Lorin Nielsen looks like the grandfather he is, with a quick smile and snowy white hair. He’s been in law enforcement for 40 years, and sheriff for nearly 22 of those. He’d never heard of M-44s, and when he asked his fellow Idaho sheriffs, just two of the other 43 knew anything about them. None had been briefed on their use, or techniques to respond to an accident, as federal regulations require.

“I’m the elected sheriff. I’m supposed to protect the public. You’re putting out cyanide gas … and you’re not letting me know what’s going on?” he said..

“What’s right is right and what’s wrong is wrong. Whether it be a dog or a child — how do you justify this?”

His office’s investigation concluded that Wildlife Services didn’t follow protocol for notice and placement of the devices, which even in March 2017 were not allowed on BLM land. Local doctors and hospitals were not alerted that cyanide was being used, or how to handle an accidental human poisoning. The Idaho Department of Agriculture fined Wildlife Services $6,000 for violating its M-44 rules.

The day Canyon was hurt, Nielsen’s deputies responded. They ended up with cyanide on their clothes, and Nielsen had his deputies examined and decontaminated at the hospital. Worrying about the exposure of his own family of deputies helped him bond with Theresa Mansfield and her family.

“I admire her tenacity,” says Nielsen. “This is a citizen who has been wronged and needs to have justice.”

‘Victim blaming’

Mark Mansfield is a Pocatello family doctor who described himself as a Republican and a patriot who no longer feels the same about his government or his favorite holiday, Independence Day. He’s a hunter who doesn’t want to let the focus on a poison like cyanide become a discussion of predator control, which he doesn’t oppose.

“We can debate predator control, but I don’t want to,” he says. “I want to stay narrow. I want to debate cyanide bombs.”

Wildlife Services has revised its rules guiding use of the devices, but that’s no comfort.

“The fact is Wildlife Services didn’t follow their rules in the first place. And putting out such lethal things for anybody to stumble over is never a good idea,” Mansfield said. “It’s just never going to be OK.”

Walking the field above his family’s home where Canyon found the device, the grasses and aspens are starting to hint at fall. The walk brings Mark back to that day when he and the emergency room doctor frantically tried to figure out what had gotten on Theresa when she rushed to helping the dying dog, and what was stinging Canyon’s eye.

“We don’t know what it did to him long term,” says Mark Mansfield. “We don’t talk much about it. The neurologist said what’s done is done. We choose to move forward and fight and not focus on his headaches.”

Mark stops, choked up. “I can’t believe they would do that to a kid. And then you blame him?”

If there’s good that’s come from the experience, he said, it’s that he sees his family united in a crusade that has brought out his wife’s fighting spirit and strengthened his son’s character.

“The crusade is ending use of cyanide bombs,” he says. “When they’re gone, we’re done.”

Bill Manny: bmanny@idahostatesman.com

USDA Wildlife Services statement

WS understands the public’s concern regarding the use of M-44s and is committed to the safe and responsible use of these devices. M-44s are registered for use by WS in 15 states: Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Utah and Wyoming, Virginia, and West Virginia.

USDA does not currently use M-44s in Idaho, nor are there any immediate plans to begin using them. If USDA were to begin using them, we will comply with the Wildlife Services Directive 2.415. Here is the link for the directive: https://www.aphis.usda.gov/wildlife_damage/directives/2.415_m44_use%26restrictions.pdf

As you may know, predators cause substantial damage to livestock and poultry producers, particularly those with sheep and goats. In a 2015 survey of producers, the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) found that coyotes nationwide killed an estimated 118,032 sheep and lambs, valued at an estimated $12.1 million.

WS provides technical assistance to producers to help mitigate these damages. We encourage the use of a variety of tools—both nonlethal and lethal— to address predation on livestock. Nonlethal tools may include the use of livestock protection dogs, fladry, scare devices, and/or penning animals at night. Unfortunately, these may not always work or may be impractical in certain areas, thus the use of lethal tools, such as the M-44, may be necessary.