Uptick in Rat Poison Deaths Raises Questions

A red-tailed hawk is treated after being subjected to poison.

Rat poison (also known as pesticide or, more specifically, anticoagulant rodenticide) does not kill rats right away. When a rat goes inside one of the poison bait boxes located in plain sight at almost every local shopping center, and then comes back out, it is full of poison and becomes a slow-moving target for predators as it begins to die. Then, when dogs, owls, hawks, coyotes and bobcats eat the rat, the poison moves up the food chain killing and sickening our local wildlife, and sometimes even affecting pets and children.

New information from the California Wildlife Center (CWC) suggests the issue is getting worse, not better, in the Malibu area.

Stephany Lewis, full-time wildlife veterinarian at the CWC, located just outside Malibu in Calabasas, treated 11 patients in the past year suffering from “secondary anticoagulant rodenticide toxicosis.” This was more than twice the number of the previous year. She said that because sick wildlife tend to hide, the number of patients that actually make it to her exam table are just the tip of the iceberg and come in too late—80 percent of poisoned raptors die within the first 24 hours. 

She said recent studies of local wildlife conducted by Dr. Seth Riley showed that anti-coagulant rodenticides (ARs) were detected in 90 percent of all local bobcats, with 77 percent of those cats exposed to more than one type. All 19 bobcats that died of severe mange during the study had AR exposure.

In recent weeks, discussion over what can be done within the city has come before council, with activists unhappy there is no formal ban in place. When reached for comment, City Attorney Christi Hogin described the many steps the city has taken to combat the issue locally. 

“The City of Malibu has banned the use of rodenticides on all city-owned property and the city has adopted a program to discourage the use of rodenticides by private property owners,” Hogin said, pointing out the city has a pamphlet discouraging the use of rodenticides available on its website. “The city does not contract with any contractors that use the rodenticides and the city is about to place a number of raptor poles, which [are] an extraordinarily more effective way of controlling rodents than the poisons.”

What the city has not done is draft an ordinance banning the pesticides from private property, a move other jurisdictions have taken. LA County and the California Coastal Commission finalized a Santa Monica Mountains Local Coastal Plan (LCP) in October 2014 that restricts pesticides in the county’s unincorporated Coastal Zone, which borders Malibu on three sides.

Weeks later, local nonprofit Poison Free Malibu made public comment to city council suggesting Malibu follow suit with a Local Coastal Program (LCP) amendment that also restricts pesticides. Malibu’s 2002 LCP restricts insecticides, herbicides and toxic chemicals with the potential to significantly degrade Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Areas (ESHAs), but not rodenticides. 

On Nov. 24, 2014, Council Member Skylar Peak made a motion for city staff to start the proceedings to amend Malibu’s LCP and enact a ban. On Dec. 8, the “Resolution to Prohibit the Use of Anticoagulant Rodenticides Citywide” was unanimously approved by city council. 

That ordinance never saw the light of day.

Hogin argued precedent-setting LCPs that had been put into effect by seven other localities in California to ban pesticides, some going back at least 25 years, were illegal. These include LA County, Santa Monica Mountains, Santa Cruz County, UC-Santa Cruz, Halfmoon Bay, the town of Samoa (Humboldt County) and Solano Beach.

“The reason the city has not done the last step, which is to ban the use of rodenticides by private businesses, is we’re preempted by state law,” Hogin described on a phone call with The Malibu Times Tuesday.

Hogin pointed to a statute in the California Food and Agricultural Code that expressly prohibits local governments from regulating pesticides. The code, under section 11501.1 (a), reads, in part: “no ordinance or regulation of local government … or a local regulation adopted by the use of an initiative measure, may prohibit or in any way attempt to regulate any matter relating to the registration, sale, transportation or use of pesticides.”

The LA County Office of the County Counsel wrote to Hogin in September 2015 explaining why they did not agree with her analysis. Months later, the California Coastal Commission wrote to Planning Director Bonnie Blue, in January 2016, to supply a more detailed legal analysis, and recommended that Malibu proceed with its LCP pesticide amendment.

Those entities argued that, contrary to the code, coastal zone areas can ban pesticides because the California Coastal Commission, a statewide agency, allows it via the wording in an LCP. The commission has a history of encouraging localities like Malibu to amend their Local Coastal Plans to control rodenticides; its website even gives examples of pesticide regulations in its guide to creating LCPs.

Peak tried to revive the LCP amendment two years later, on May 29, 2018, at which point city council unanimously approved going forward again; nothing has come before the council in the 11 months since that meeting. 

When Peak was sent a message to ask about the delay, he messaged back, “We take time to think things through. Many times, I wish it acted much faster, but government lags.”

Kian and Joel Schulman of Poison Free Malibu allege the pesticide ban is opposed by city staff, specifically Hogin. “She’s still fighting it today,” Kian said.

For Hogin’s part, she said the city has been working in Sacramento to push the state legislature to either enact a statewide ban on anticoagulant rodenticides—which is preferred—or else lift the preemption so local cities can pass their own bans.

“If the city were to just say to the state, ‘We’re just going to go ahead and adopt [a ban]’ … I guarantee the state legislators would say, ‘Fine, now it’s off our back. Now we don’t need to fight with the chemical lobbyists,’” Hogin said. “It also gets them off the hook in a way that, honestly, they shouldn’t be off the hook.”