More than two years after a dog choked to death on government poison meant for coyotes, a federal agency says the trap was illegally placed too close to a road in eastern Utah.
In a letter to the U.S. Agriculture Department's Wildlife Services, officials said the cyanide capsule was within 50 feet of a public road or pathway, violating a rule intended to protect people and domestic animals.
The Environmental Protection Agency's letter was a "notice of warning." Further violations could lead to harsher enforcement against the USDA.
"You need to take all necessary actions to correct and prevent the recurrence of the above violations," the EPA said in the March 20 letter, which was released Friday by a group trying to stop use of the poison.
Sam Pollock, whose black Lab mix died from the poison, said he's pleased with the letter.
"I'm thrilled that someone in one of these government agencies has finally said this is wrong," Pollock said Friday.
In February 2006, Pollock, a biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, was hunting rabbits with 2-year-old Jenna on federal land near Brough Reservoir, about 20 miles southwest of Vernal.
He said his dog triggered a trap about a foot from the road. The small tube-shaped capsule, called an M-44, shoots a pellet of sodium cyanide, which mixes with saliva to create deadly cyanide gas.
It's intended to kill livestock predators such as coyotes. Pollock said his dog died in about 90 seconds.
The Utah Department of Agriculture and Food investigated, concluding the poison had been placed along a "utility trail" with power lines not a true public road. But EPA disagreed, saying the area qualified as a "public road" or "pathway" and therefore the M-44's placement was a violation.
"Our position is it's a road that's open to the public," said Tim Osag, senior enforcement coordinator at the EPA's office in Denver.
Pollock in 2007 sought $100,000 from the federal government, but the claim was denied in October. He said the EPA's letter may allow him to pursue his legal case further, though he hasn't made a decision.
"It might give us some legs to stand on," he said.
A spokeswoman for USDA's Wildlife Services, Gail Keirn, said the agency is preparing a response to the EPA.
"At this point, we don't feel it's appropriate to comment on the specifics," she said.
The case is playing out amid larger questions about whether M-44 should be used by wildlife agencies anywhere in the country. In the same year that Jenna died, the poison also killed more than 12,000 coyotes, including 630 in Utah, according to federal figures.
Several environmental groups are trying to get it banned. A petition is pending with the EPA along with a bill in Congress.
"What happened to Sam Pollock and his dog is unfortunately all too common," Wendy Keefover-Ring of WildEarth Guardians said in a statement. She claims M-44s have killed hundreds of dogs.
"These devices are unnecessary to protect livestock and yet they pose imminent harm to people, their pets and to a whole host of species," Keefover-Ring said.
Pollock moved to North Carolina about a month ago and still works for the Fish and Wildlife Service. He's only gone rabbit hunting once since Jenna died.
"It kind of ruined it for me," he said.