WASHINGTON - Dennis Slaugh and his brother were riding all-terrain vehicles when they noticed what looked like a survey stake, marking federal land in Utah's rugged Cowboy Canyon.
Curious, Slaugh touched the stake, and it exploded, spewing a cloud of sodium cyanide in his face and chest. Slaugh, 65, said he suffers long-term health effects from the 2003 incident. He has difficulty breathing, vomits almost daily, and can no longer work because he is too weak.
The cyanide device, called an M-44, is one of two poisons used by the federal government to kill coyotes and other wild animals that threaten livestock. M-44 and sodium fluoroacetate, commonly known as Compound 1080, are distributed by the Wildlife Services agency, an arm of the Agriculture Department. The poisons killed more than 14,000 wild animals in 2006, including coyotes, foxes, and wolves.
The Agriculture Department says the devices are a relatively humane way to kill predatory animals, and because the poison is contained in specific delivery devices, the risk to non-target animals is reduced.
Compound 1080 is used in "livestock protection collars" strapped onto sheep or goats, while sodium cyanide is used in an ejector that has bait designed to attract predators but not livestock. It releases poison into the wild animal's mouth.
After years of complaints by environmental groups, the Environmental Protection Agency is investigating Slaugh's poisoning.
"It's only a matter of time before someone is killed," said Brooks Fahy, executive director of Predator Defense, an Oregon-based group that works to protect coyotes and other wildlife.
"These devices cannot differentiate between a coyote, a wolf, a dog, or a person," Fahy said.
The EPA investigation comes as the agency considers a proposal to prohibit use of the poisons on federal land. A bill by Representative Peter DeFazio, Democrat of Oregon, would go further, banning the poisons altogether.
He called the toxins super poisons that could be used by terrorists to harm Americans. Compound 1080 is so lethal that a teaspoonful can kill dozens of people. There is no known antidote.
Representative John Salazar, Democrat of Colorado, called DeFazio's fears overstated.
Use of the pesticides "is highly target-specific, in limited applications, and in compliance with the regulations of the EPA and local jurisdictions," Salazar wrote in a letter urging colleagues to defeat DeFazio's bill.
Salazar encouraged colleagues to "stand up for the thousands of livestock producers in our country who provide the world's most abundant food supply and oppose this legislation."
The bill comes as the EPA has taken a long-delayed step toward banning use of the poisons on federal lands. The agency has set a March 5 deadline for public comments on a proposal drafted in response to a petition from a coalition of environmental groups.
The EPA has not reached a decision on the petition and is conducting its own analysis to determine whether the pesticides "pose unreasonable adverse effects on the environment," said Dale Kemery, an agency spokesman.