It was just after dawn on a chilly November morning, and the three surveyors were scratching about the barren earth southwest of Fort Stockton, Texas looking for the old cedar stakes that would give them their bearings. The men were members of a seismic team, jolting and bullying the earth out of its geologic secrets on behalf of a major petroleum company. One of them, 49-year-old Raymond Medford, reached down to tug at a gray pipe protruding from the chalky soil; as he did, there was a sharp report and something tore upward into the fleshy part of his hand. "What happened?" one of the other men shouted. Medford, confused and shocked, was running in circles. Then he calmed and said, "That thing went off! It had an explosion, whatever it was." A doctor in Fort Stockton looked at the bloody hand, administered first aid and sent the surveyor off to bed. An hour later Medford was dead.
Investigation showed that the pipe in the earth was a so-called "coyote getter," a deadly device loaded and cocked and set to shoot a cyanide charge into the mouth of any animal that pulled at its aromatic wick. If the local doctor had known that cyanide had penetrated deep into Raymond Medford's hand, he could have saved his patient. But the coyote getter had been unmarked, and the doctor had proceeded without the crucial knowledge that he was dealing with a notorious poison. The local sheriff acknowledged that the device should have been clearly marked but no charges were pressed following the inquest. As one of his deputies observed later, "Who wants to prosecute somebody for killing coyotes?"
A Colorado hunting guide and jack-of-all-trades named Bill Miles discovered several dozen sheep carcasses lying in an open corral east of Craig, Colo. He asked around and found that the sheep had been slaughtered and laced with sodium fluoroacetate, "1080," one of the most subtly dangerous poisons known to man. The carcasses were to be used by Government trappers to kill predators in the surrounding sheep country. Not far from the carnage ran a stream that fed Craig's public reservoir, but Miles was told not to worry; the carcasses would be positioned at strategic locations out on the sheep range long before their toxic contents could leach into the watershed supplying the town of 4,000.
But Bill Miles had had previous experience with the poisoning Establishment around Craig; he was on intimate terms both with the sheepmen of the area and their surrogates, the men of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and he had learned to distrust the one group as much as he distrusted the other. Miles mounted a daily watch on the pile of poisoned meat, and twice within two weeks he saw snow cover the carcasses and then melt into the watershed. He began making a photographic record of what was going on, and local sheepmen began to harass him. Not long afterward, Miles was told to mind his own business or suffer the consequences. When he continued to take daily photographs of the scene, three of his hunting dogs died on his doorstep. In the front yard of his house were tire tracks and leftover evidence of meat poisoned with thallium. Miles kept up his investigations of the poisoning practices and more than once nearly came to blows with fellow townsmen and the federal poisoners. His business fell off, and soon he moved away.
March 8, 1971
Dinosaur National Monument, straddling the border of Colorado and Utah, is one of the most environmentally sacrosanct portions of the U.S. Like all national parks, it is administered strictly in accordance with nature, and the intentional poisoning of animals within its borders is considered the ultimate offense against park law and order. In the spring of 1970 cowhands who worked for a rancher named Tim Mantle were searching for strays inside the park borders when one of Mantle's valuable Australian sheep dogs suddenly stiffened and died. A few minutes later another dog went into convulsions, and when the shocked cowmen dismounted to see what was wrong they found that the second dog had stopped breathing. By the time their vital organs were transported to a laboratory, diagnosis was difficult, but the best guess was 1080—the favorite chemical of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's death squads.
The incident happened four miles inside the park borders, but Dinosaur officials were not surprised. "I've found any number of live coyote getters inside the park," said one of them, a wildlife ranger, "and we've had plenty of other evidence that the poisoners come right across our borders." Just outside the park on a lonely access road, another park ranger had found the skinned remains of foxes, badgers and coyotes, and when he stopped to investigate a strange-looking pipe jutting from the earth, he set off a coyote getter and barely escaped with his life.
These three incidents, multiplied ad nauseam, characterize the programs of extermination and revenge that are in full swing throughout the Western half of the U.S. The programs already have brought whole species of animals to the edge of extinction and threaten still others. They also threaten Homo sapiens, that poor creature who lately has begun driving six miles out of his way to buy phosphate-free laundry soap, all the while turning his back on poisoning programs that are directly and specifically contaminating millions of acres of his country.
The coyote getters that explode every summer in the hands of unsuspecting people may be the least of the problem. To be sure, the very idea that the ugly devices lie in wait for both coyote and nature lover is annoying. The Denver Post suggested that the deadly gadgets be renamed "little boy getters," but that name would not have been completely descriptive. The cyanide-loaded cartridges are also old man getters, dog getters. Girl Scout getters, cow getters, fox and marten and wolverine and magpie and hawk getters. They are getters, in fact, of anything that has the natural curiosity to reach down and pull lightly on the carrion-scented wick that protrudes above the ground and wafts a smell of decay and musk to the winds.
But coyote getters—fascinatingly newsworthy as they may be—seem to be a negligible hazard, a minor earth pollutant compared to certain other poisons that are saturating the countryside. Dr. Alfred Etter, student of the conservationist Aldo Leopold and himself a former professor of conservation and ecology, told a congressional committee: "The fact is that poisons are being distributed all over the Western states year after year by federal, state, county and private interests, and are often left in the environment to poison any animal that happens to have a taste for meat, tallow, oats, honey or rice, or even a curiosity about foul-smelling attractants."
Etter was not talking about the DDT and parathion and mercury compounds and other pesticides and fungicides and herbicides with which overzealous industrialists and agriculturists and exterminators and ordinary citizens are inadvertently poisoning the earth. He was talking about poisons used specifically and purposely to kill animals. These include the cyanide that is found in coyote getters, the arsenic that is put out in honey buckets, the thallium that is impregnated into bait carcasses, the strychnine that is encased in sugar-pill coatings, and 1080, a pinch of which is toxic enough to send several dozen adult humans into writhing, convulsive death.
To add to the efficiency of miracle poisons like 1080, there is a new sophistication in poisoning techniques. At one time the West was protected by its very limitlessness; a pioneer might strap on snowshoes and trek 10 miles across a mountain, shoot a grizzly, lace its body with strychnine and call this activity a day's work. But nowadays the poisoner works from airplanes, trail bikes and tough pickup trucks that carry him and his thallium bait bucket and his coyote getters to every corner of the range in a few easy hours.
"The whole sheep range out there, why, that whole country's plastered with poison," says crusty Paul Maxwell, former trapper and bulldozer operator and now president of the National Council of Public Land Users. "As soon as it gets cold enough so the poison baits will keep, they've got traps and 1080 stations and getters and strychnine and arsenic and everything else all over this countryside, and hardly any of it marked. The people who could crack down on this—the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management and the different state fish and game commissions—why, they're advocating poisoning, too! The people we're entrusting with taking care of our public land are out contaminating it. I assume they must be padding their pockets from the stockmen."
Says an equally perturbed Wyoming trapper, "Up here they're killing wild animals faster 'n they can be born. Many sheepmen who use the national forest for grazing go in with sacks and sacks of strychnine pellets, some in peanut butter, some in honey, and throw 'em around like seed, and they kill everything in the area before they bring their sheep in." To supplement this frenzied poisoning by private ranchers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service annually distributes tons of 1080-baited meat, bangs coyote getters into the earth by the tens of thousands, throws strychnine pellets across the countryside by the hundreds of thousands and utilizes several dozen other killing techniques, including aerial hunting and the gassing of dens.
In response to these pressures, the number of wild animal species is dropping, but the Fish and Wildlife Service's annual budget for killing and poisoning rises inversely in magnificent adherence to Parkinson's Law. (The budget for the Wildlife Services program in 1971 was $8,092,300. In 1960 it was $4,370,935.) The money, of course, comes ultimately from he very taxpayers and consumers who stand to lose the most from this systematic annihilation of the nation's fauna. Says Glen Sutton, who spent over four decades working as a predator trapper for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, embracing some of its methods but disdaining others, "I'm afraid a lot of these animals are going to be extinct soon. The bear and mountain lion are next. There's too much pressure from sheepmen; they want 'em all killed. Nowadays you don't see one bear track where you used to see dozens. The poisons are getting them." Says another retired Government trapper, Charles Orlosky, who lives high in a remote area of the Rocky Mountains: "Around here the poisoners have wiped out weasel, marten, mink, fox, badger, and they've got the coyote hanging on the ropes. I used to be able to make a fair living trapping for pelts up here, but now I do it just for a hobby, for something to do. There aren't enough fur-bearing animals left in these mountains to support a trapper, and I don't care how hard he works at it. Mostly, I blame the 1080 poison. They say it's only dangerous to canine species, but that's just not true. I've found all kinds of birds feeding on 1080 stations—eagles, magpies, Canada jays, Clarke's nutcrackers, woodpeckers—and those that don't get killed pack away the poisoned meat in places where the martens and the weasels can find it and get poisoned themselves. Last winter was the first time in years that we didn't have a pair of eagles feeding up here. They just disappeared. And where there used to be magpies all over the place, we didn't see one all winter. These are major changes, crucial changes. My God, if they can wipe out whole species way back here in this part of the Rockies, they can wipe them out anywhere."
There is ample evidence that the combination of stockmen and federal poisoners has already succeeded in eliminating certain animal populations and endangering others. As Michigan's conservation-minded Congressman John Dingell said at a House hearing in 1969: "They are poisoning them off in a fashion that is disgraceful to behold. They are doing it without shame or mercy." There are broad acres of California where coyotes once were common and now are completely eliminated. A trapper in southwest Texas was asked when he saw his last wild badger, and his reply was to shrug his shoulders and say, "It's been so long I can't even remember." The kit fox, full grown at five or six pounds and a master controller of rodents, has vanished from thousands of square miles of the prairie. Like all canines, the tiny fox is particularly vulnerable to 1080. The black-footed ferret, never common, is about to flicker out and die as a species, victim of the poisons that are also wiping out the prairie dogs on which the ferret dines.
An outdoorsman in Idaho says sadly, "Every year for the last five or six years I've seen this pair of fishers in a little spring hole where I hunt. This year they were gone. Nearby, I found a poison bait." Hikers came across two dead golden eagles in the sheep country of northwest Colorado, a region where eagle populations have diminished sharply, and a Denver laboratory provided the diagnosis: strychnine poisoning. Two of the last surviving California condors fell to 1080-treated grain, and a Government report noted, "It is unthinkable that this sort of mistake can be permitted to recur." But it will recur again and again, with condors and other species, simply because there is so much poison scattered on the land that it cannot be avoided by wildlife.
The poison is being distributed and utilized with typical American enterprise. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and private manufacturers of poisons have even managed to export some of their deadly expertise. A well-publicized "victory" over Canadian wolves was accomplished by aerial distribution of 1080 supplied by an American manufacturer. Dozens of nations have begun to send in orders and repeat orders for American-made predacides, and recently the Japanese paid U.S. chemical technology the ultimate compliment: they began manufacturing a 1080-like product of their own. The Fish and Wildlife Service, in a generous hands-across-the-border gesture, helped Mexican authorities put out 83 poison stations from Tijuana to the mouth of the Colorado River along the international border, with predictable results. Within three months coyotes were "no more to be seen" (to quote an exuberant Fish and Wildlife report), and "in Rumerosa a considerable portion of the dog population was poisoned. Only two dogs survived in the village." When this same Government agency and the Pan American Sanitary Bureau distributed 1080 in Chihuahua, they managed to kill several grizzly bears, some of the last grizzlies that exist below the northern reaches of the American continent.
After the bears were poisoned, stockmen displayed a predictable attitude: What good is a grizzly? The question recalled a remark by Wisconsin's Senator Gaylord Nelson to a committee of Congress: "I have a lawyer friend who had a scientist friend who spent all of his time studying the spider, and one day the lawyer asked him, "What good are spiders?' and the scientist said, They are interesting, and may I ask, what good are you?' "
Large numbers of concerned Americans have been taking cram courses in ecology, but there are still millions who ask questions like what good is the spider and what good is the grizzly. The answer, of course, lies in nature's delicate adjustments, worked out over millions of years of massive trial and error, of survival experiments and adaptation and compromise. These processes are mysterious, inscrutable, so much so that the more one learns about them, the more one becomes reluctant to step on an ant or swat a fly for fear that some dire ecological catastrophe will ensue. As Charles Darwin warned, we are ignorant "of the mutual relations of all organic beings, a conviction as necessary as it is difficult to acquire." But as Darwin might not have anticipated, we are beginning to learn. And the more a person learns about the balance of nature, the less he is likely to ask questions like the ones that a sheepman recently bellowed across a room: "Which is worth more, livestock or predators?" and, "How much taxes do coyotes pay?" As ecological knowledge grows, we no longer consider which is "worth more," which is "good" and which is "bad," which is "destructive" and which is "useful," but how do they relate to each other and to us, and how do we all relate to the land that sustains us?
"Harmony with land is like harmony with a friend," Aldo Leopold wrote. "You cannot cherish his right hand and chop off his left. That is to say, you cannot love game and hate predators; you cannot conserve the waters and waste the ranges; you cannot build the forest and mine the farm. The land is one organism."
If Leopold and other scientists are correct, if the land is indeed one organism and there is a total and critical interdependence among all living things, then the deliberate poisoning of vast areas of the U.S. will have been a long stride toward the end of life as it is known on the North American continent. Dr. Lee Talbot of the President's Council on Environmental Quality said that "during the past 150 years the rate of extermination of mammal species has increased 55-fold. If it continues to increase at the same rate (hopefully it's unlikely), virtually all the remaining species of mammals will be gone in about 30 years." No one need feel that the U.S., officially and unofficially, has failed to do its part.
Warnings of the dangers of wholesale poisoning have been issued loud and clear for many years. One of them came nearly a quarter of a century ago from the late J. Frank Dobie, dean of Southwestern naturalists, in his classic work The Voice of the Coyote.
"Sheep are the arch-predators upon the soil of arid and semi-arid ranges. Wherever they are concentrated on ranges without sufficient moisture to maintain a turf under their deep-biting teeth and cutting hoofs, they destroy the plant life.... Unless long-term public good wins over short-term private gain and ignorance, vast ranges, already greatly depleted, will at no distant date be as barren as the sheep-created deserts of Spain. Metaphorically, the sheep of the West eat up not only all animals that prey upon them—coyotes, wildcats and eagles especially—but badgers, skunks, foxes, ringtails and others. On sheep ranges, wholesale poisoning and trapping have destroyed nearly all of them."
The effect of Dobie's anguished broadside was precisely nil. Similar impassioned attacks on Western poisoning and grazing practices have been equally futile, and nowadays certain sheepmen (and sometimes certain cattlemen) go about spreading poisons, all the while humming Home on the Range and totting up imaginary economic benefits of the slaughter. Not long ago a weekly Colorado newspaper printed a story about a rancher and his wife and children who spent a delightful winter weekend cruising their property on snowmobiles, throwing out strychnine "drop baits" to kill coyotes. The item ran as a social note. The Western stockman who does not engage in such popular practices is branded an eccentric, sometimes an outright traitor, and those who protest against this drenching of the American landscape with poison are called "little old ladies in tennis shoes." In sheep country, there is no harsher epithet.
The irrational hatred of animals that kill other animals (a hatred that was good enough for Dad and is good enough for most ranchers) is deep-grained, going back to the hard times when the loss of a few lambs or a calf might cause a serious shortage in the winter larder. But while modern scientists have learned that predators are sorely needed ecologically, and while stock operations have long since passed out of the shoestring category of the old West, sheepmen have continued their anachronistic war on predators as though their very existences depended on poisoning the last one off. Dozens of naturalists have issued public warnings against the resulting toxification of the American range, but there is hardly a legislative body that has paid the slightest attention. This includes the Congress of the United States, where a session is not complete without the introduction of antipoisoning legislation, a few chuckles and a prompt pigeonholing of the matter. The sheepmen seem to possess a mysterious power. Arnold Rieder, a former Montana state senator and one of a handful of Western politicians who have spoken out against the sheep industry's practices, tells why:
"The woolgrowers are the best organized livestock group of all. To a great degree they control the stockgrowers' associations, and that means control of the state capitals of the West and the delegations that are sent to Washington. Invariably, sheepmen get their way. They're always the ones who make the most noise about coyote loss, the ones who demand the most poison."
Sometimes the hatred of sheepmen for coyotes, bears and mountain lions seems to go so far beyond the dimensions of reality as to be almost pathological in origin. Frank Dobie wrote about a sheepman on the Frio River in Texas who liked to saw off the lower jaws of trapped coyotes and "turn the mutilated animals loose for his dogs to tear to pieces." Stories of skinning coyotes alive are common, as are stories of setting them afire. "I had one sheepman tell me, 'Bring me a live coyote, will you?' " says trapper Acel Rowley of Vernal, Utah. "I said, 'What're you gonna do with it?' He said, 'I'm gonna take him and tie his jaws shut and soak him with kerosine and touch a match to the end of his tail and turn him loose.' "
Only an imbecile would conclude from such Western horror stories that sheepmen have a monopoly on cruelty to animals or that all sheepmen share the same lack of compassion or rapport with nature. Most woolgrowers abhor the violence that some of their fellows commit. There are many sheep ranchers who oppose the wholesale poisoning and killing that goes on around them, and specifically forbid it on their own properties. But too many other private poisoners carry on their work by land and by air, and with gusto.
In Wyoming the personal pilot for a rich stockman learned that he could glide down on coyotes in the wintertime and drop them with heavy patterns from his shotgun. From this it was a short step to gunning eagles from the air. After the pilot had perfected his techniques and increased his efficiency by taking along a rancher to serve as aerial gunner from the copilot's seat, he began to warm to the idea of eliminating predators in the mass. He learned that coyotes and other animals were getting wise to the poison stations scattered about the state; often trappers would see tracks where predators had made wide detours around the deadly baits. An established predator-control technique by ranchers in Wyoming had become the baiting of game carcasses, and if no road kills or natural kills were available, antelope or deer were shot and laced with poison. All of this was illegal, of course.
Growing more certain of his improving techniques, the pilot began flying to remote areas of the range and gunning down antelope and deer instead of predators. Then he would make a short landing, doctor the carcass with poison and fly away. The aerial poisoning became so widespread—and the pilot so fearless of prosecution—that it was soon the talk of the state. Before long the pilot was being called upon by ranchers around the state for advice and guidance on his advanced poisoning techniques.
One day a tip came in from a U.S. Fish and Wildlife trapper who had deep contempt for the pilot's practices. He told game wardens that the pilot was going to fly some poisoning missions in a few days, and he named the sheep spread where the operation would take place. The Wyoming Game and Fish Commission provided a plane, and when the poisoner took off, wardens followed in their own aircraft at a discreet distance. They followed—and followed. The poisoner's plane led them all over the state, climbing and diving and snaking through canyons and over mountain passes and under power lines, and at last, with a contemptuous waggle of wings, turned homeward and landed without a semblance of a threat to any wildlife.
The wardens gave up. The Wyoming Game and Fish Commission was poorly funded for such expensive operations as aerial surveillance, and anyway it was plain that someone was tipping the pilot off. One of the wardens felt that the leak was coming from the airport; others were convinced that the tip came from inside the Game and Fish Commission itself. Such leaks are common in Western states; they are another reason that antipoisoning laws are largely unenforced.
For a while the pilot's activities seemed to slow, but after a discreet period of watching and waiting he resumed his poisoning full-scale. "We'd find all these carcasses on the ranches," recalls one of the frustrated wardens. "Most of them were deer, but some were antelope, and they were all loaded with poison. I can't imagine a worse offense in the outdoors than killing game animals and then filling them with poison to kill more animals. We were furious about it." But neither fury nor frustration was enough to solve the case and bring the pilot and his imitators to justice. Nor would there have been much likelihood of a conviction—or a meaningful penalty—if the pilot had been caught. To be sure, he had refined and perfected an effective (and illegal) poisoning technique, but that only made him different in degree from so many of the sheepmen of the region. As one local wool-grower put it, "Sure, poisoning game is illegal. So's crossing the double yellow. If everybody's doing it, can it be much of a crime?" Indeed no. Nowadays the pilot's operations are more extensive than ever. His price has risen from $75 to $150 an hour, and even the most dedicated game wardens of Wyoming have given up on the case.
Anyone who remains dubious about the power of the sheepmen or the impossibility of serious prosecution of illegal poisoners in sheep country has only to study the so-called A ram be I Case, a landmark in the annals of frustrating Western jurisprudence. The case began when a trapper named Jim King was putting out bobcat sets two miles north of the Big Sandy Creek in western Wyoming. At the tip of a narrow point of rocks, where he usually installed a trap, King saw what appeared to be a jellified blob of meat. He took a closer look and recognized an antelope quarter, fresh and showing signs of having been doctored. King finished putting out his string and then telephoned a game warden named Darwin Creek, 40 miles away in Pinedale, Wyo. Creek brought in an enforcement-minded colleague. Max Long, and the two wardens drove to the scene. They found tire tracks and boot prints fanning out in several directions from the original bait, and by the time the long afternoon was over they had picked up seven quarters of antelope and deer. Five of these had been in remote areas, but one had been alongside a trickle of water that joined a fishing stream below, and one was close to another stream that was popular with campers. It was December, the air was cold and no one was around, but Creek and Long knew that unseasonal warm weekends might bring dozens of visitors to the camping area. They made plaster of Paris prints of the tracks, interviewed the closest inhabitants and rushed the seven quarters to the Game and Fish Commission Research Laboratory at Laramie. Chemists took one look at the meat and quickly put on gloves. After preliminary tests they advised Creek and Long to remove their clothes and burn them. The final analyses showed that the slabs of meat were carrying a heavy load of 1080, which is supposed to be used in predator control only by U.S. Government trappers but, in fact, sifts into the hands of private poisoners all over the West. According to Creek, "One of the doctors at the game and fish lab said there was enough poison in any one of the quarters to kill people for a mile down that s ream. It was the highest concentration of 1080 they'd ever seen."
Creek and Long now faced the classic dilemma of the Western conservation officer. The baits had been found in sheep country, on public land, and all signs pointed to one person, an influential Basque-American stockman named John Arambel, member of a prominent ranching family. To investigate, or not? Neither Creek nor Long paused to consider the consequences; they made an investigation, picked up a few tidbits of information around the area and sent for Arambel to meet them at the sheriff's office. Creek tells what happened: "After we gave him his rights, he denied everything. We told him we could place him at the scene. We told him witnesses had spotted his pickup, and the tire tracks matched. After a while he broke down and admitted that his hired help had shot the deer out of season, but he said he had gotten the antelope after the animal had been killed by a car. He also admitted that his men had laced the carcasses with 1080 and had distributed the poisoned quarters on public land. But when we asked him where he got the 1080, he refused to tell us. If you know how dangerous 1080 is, you know how bad we wanted to know where he got it. But he wouldn't tell us. He admitted that they put a lot of 1080 into the quarters to make sure they did a good job, but that was all. Finally we offered him immunity on the whole case if he'd just tell where he got the 1080, and he still refused. His lawyer took him into court and pled him guilty to killing a game animal out of season, using a game animal for trapping and wanton waste of game, and the judge fined him $164. He could have gotten something like 18 months and a $300 fine, but you could see how the judge felt. Before he passed sentence he told Arambe I that he understood his problem. He said something like, 'I know you ranchers are having a lot of trouble with those coyotes.' "
The Arambel trial took place in 1967, in sheep country, and the local reaction was predictable. The people of the area are still annoyed at Creek and Long—"the Gestapo," as one housewife calls them—and John Arambel has become a local folk hero. All he did was cross the yellow line.
There are larger significances to the Arambel case than a sheep-country judge's leniency or a sheep-country people's distorted code of ethics. As Darwin Creek explains, "There is no way to figure the amount of poison that's put out illegally in the state of Wyoming, but it's something awful. Our wildlife is disappearing fast, especially animals like bears and martens and foxes—animals that'll take a poisoned bait. If all the people of Wyoming knew what's going on, they'd be shocked and something would be done, but that's the trouble: all the people of Wyoming don't know. It's kept quiet. This case is an example of how they keep it quiet. The truth is that Max and I had some pretty flimsy evidence. If John Arambel had denied everything and pleaded not guilty and put up a strong defense in court, he'd have had a good chance to beat the case. Why did he plead guilty? Because if there'd been a court fight it would've made headlines all over Wyoming, and then reporters and outsiders would've become interested, and, sooner or later, they'd have wanted to know what we wanted to know right from the beginning: Where'd Arambel get the 1080? And that was one question that could not stand publicity. As soon as the press and the public found out what 1080 was and how it killed and how it was leaking around the state of Wyoming, there'd have been a terrible fuss, so they came in and pled Arambel guilty and got it over with quick and quiet. There was a little tiny item way down in the corner of the local paper, and that was the end of it."
The horror that men like Max Long and Darwin Creek feel at the mention of 1080 is largely unshared by the growing army of conservation sts in the U.S. as a whole, and for a simple reason: like the majority of the people of poison-drenched Wyoming, they know nothing about it. Or they only know that 1080 is the favorite poison of the U.S. Fish and Wild ife Service and therefore conclude that it must be safe, reasonable and practical. It is not. The poison was unsafe in the years when it was used only by the trained mammal-control agents of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; it is manifestly unsafe now that it is also being used by the zealous sheepmen of the West. Of all the lethal agents of history, from Socrates' hemlock down through the Borgias' legendary deadly elixirs and the nerve poisons of modern warfare, it is difficult to imagine a more insidiously homicidal poison than sodium fluoroacetate. The most infinitesimal amounts of 1080 are toxic. A single ounce used at maximum efficiency could kill 200 adult humans, or 20,000 coyotes or dogs, or 70,000 house cats. Except in large quantities of water, 1080 apparently does not degrade biologically or physically. It is colorless, odorless and almost tasteless. No antidote has yet been found.
A 1950 summary by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service noted that since its introduction there had been 12 known and four suspected deaths from 1080. The Department of Health, Education and Welfare reported several years later that there had been "13 proven fatal cases, five suspected deaths, and six nonfatal cases...." The truth is that no one is certain how many have died from 1080 poisoning, especially now that it is finding its way into private hands, but there is very little doubt that there have been deaths other than the diagnosed ones. Glen Crabtree, a research biochemist at the Fish and Wildlife laboratories in Denver, tells of a case where a child died from sucking dried-up paper cups that had been used to hold 1080 solutions months before. "Then there was a case in Texas where 1080 cups were put in a barn," Crabtree says, "and the farmer was told to lock the barn and didn't, and a little boy got in and died. In eastern Colorado a store owner kept 1080 solution in a pop bottle. A store employee drank it. And then, of course, there have been the suicides." Crabtree remembers a particularly unpleasant case in which he was called for expert advice. "A woman who worked as a secretary at a pest-control company became despondent, and she took some 1080 out of a locked cabinet and ingested it. Then she changed her mind and called for help. But there's no changing your mind with 1080. During the night the doctors called me, and I told them there was nothing they could do but try to allay the symptoms. Apparently, it was quite painful. She had convulsions, and she lasted several hours."
Where convulsions are present, Crabtree points out, any experienced physician would suspect poisoning, but there also are 1080 cases where the doctor is not present at the time of the convulsions, or the patient does not suffer convulsions at all. In these cases, Crabtree says, doctors "would probably diagnose the death as a heart attack."
The danger to surrounding wildlife from a fatal dosage of 1080 does not end with the victim's violent death. "Following absorption," wrote Fish and Wildlife Biologist Eric Peacock, "sodium fluoroacetate appears to act without being chemically changed." The Western Montana Scientists' Committee for Public Information reported: "Since 1080 remains stable and does not degrade easily, it is extremely hazardous to animals higher in the food chain. House cats, dogs, pigs, foxes, skunks, carrion-eating birds and coyotes have died after eating 1080-poisoned rodents."
But none of these profoundly negative indications has prevented the use of sodium fluoroacetate by both public and private agencies, or its widespread sale by the two U.S. firms that manufacture it—Tull Chemical and Roberts Chemicals—and the Japanese chemical company that imitates them. The only federal restriction on the deadly poison is a requirement that the labels be registered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The Wildlife Services makes rules on the use of 1080 for its staff, but they are merely guidelines, not laws. State and local laws about the lethal chemical are almost nonexistent, and the only effective control on its use seems to come from the two manufacturers. According to their spokesmen, both companies limit the sale of the poison to pest-control operators.
"The distribution of 1080 has always been a problem," says Dr. Ralph Heal, executive secretary of the National Pest Control Association. "And it has always haunted the Fish and Wildlife Service—the possibility of this poison getting into private hands. I've been told that there have been some bad leaks. I know that they tightened their operation terrifically about three years ago when they had a real scare after a batch of 1080 got out. The main thing we've got to watch out for is some character setting himself up, getting somebody to write insurance for him and then qualifying himself with the manufacturers. This is always a possibility." It is more than a possibility. It has happened.
A few years ago frightened Fish and Wildlife officials began hearing rumors that 1080 was popping up in illegally baited carcasses throughout the West, and hurried consultations were held with Tull Allen, head of Tull Chemical. "Fish and Wildlife told me that the 1080 I'd sent to three predator-control boards in Wyoming was not being used by Government trappers at all," Allen says. "What they were doing was dispensing it to sheepmen to use themselves. I cut off all shipments to those people. They'd lied to me, pure and simple." Several years have gone by since Allen put the last shipment of 1080 into the hands of the Wyoming sheepmen, but the official federal poisoning Establishment is still nervous over the leakage.
There is little doubt that the flow of deadly 1080 continues into private hands, controlled only by the good intentions and limited capabilities of the two manufacturers. It is pointless to argue whether the total amounts are large or small, for 1080 is a substance that is toxic in the most microscopic quantities. It is also pointless to argue that the poison is being spread way out there in the middle of nowhere, and therefore it cannot do much harm. As poisoners become more and more bold, 1080-trcated carcasses have begun turning up alongside public watersheds in dangerous numbers. "It's common practice for poisoners to put them out on ice-covered reservoirs in the winter," Trapper Charles Orlosky reports. "Reservoirs are attractive places to wildlife, and the trappers have found out they get a high percentage of kills that way. Then, when spring comes, the remains of the bait settle right into the water and they don't have to go to the trouble of burning them."
Defenders of Wildlife News, the trade journal of activist conservationists, is the only U.S. publication that has mounted a continuous program against the deliberate toxification of the U.S. "What is to be the eventual result year after year of this relentless poisoning of our biota and lands?" the journal has asked. "How much 1080 is washed, during heavy rains, into our streams—and absorbed by the root systems of our grasses...? With millions of pounds of 1080-treated baits on Western lands, one ponders the issue of how much of this poison is absorbed by grazing livestock from contaminated grasses, and subsequently transferred to human stomachs in a leg of lamb or roast of beef."
A discussion with a top expert on 1080 is of small consolation. Glen Crab tree impresses one as a dispassionate scientist first and foremost, and no mere apologist for his own Government agency. He minces no words about what is known and what is unknown about the deadly substance. Does it indeed remain intact as it passes from the body of one animal to another? "Yes, it does," he says. Is it biodegradable? "Our information here is sketchy." Does it break down in solution? "It's degradable in solution over a period of time." Are there genetic effects of ingesting the substance? "We know nothing about that." Can it be absorbed by grasses, and thence by cattle and sheep and eventually humans? "It usually takes a fairly concentrated amount of a substance for such translocations to take place. We've had no indication from experience that this occurs, but we have no data on it." Is 1080 a subtle menace to our water supplies? "In the present state of our knowledge it appears not to be a danger to public water systems." If a minute amount of 1080 were to get into a water system and be consumed by humans, what would be their symptoms? "It would depend on the amount, but with a very small amount they might get a lot of depression, possibly some convulsions. With larger amounts, of course, they might show definite symptoms of poisoning, symptoms that any able physician would recognize, or they might simply appear to be suffering from heart trouble." Is it possible that 1080 could accidentally leak into public water supplies and cause depressions, convulsions and deaths attributable to heart attack, and that no one would know the cause? "I don't think that has ever happened, and it is extremely unlikely because of the dilution factor. But if you ask me if it's possible, in all honesty I have to say, yes, it is theoretically possible."
One comes away from a discussion with this plain-spoken biochemist—and other experts in the field—with the uneasy feeling that there are serious gaps in the toxicological profile of sodium fluoroacetate. Whole tables and booklets have been prepared on such practical matters as the exact amount of 1080 required to kill kangaroo rats, ferruginous rough-legged hawks, Rhode Island red hens and Columbian ground squirrels, but no one seems to have done much research into an equally practical matter: What is the total amount of 1080 and other poisons that the sodden soils and polluted waterways of the West can absorb without becoming lethal agents themselves? One asks, and one is told: "Nobody knows."
Someday we may be dying to find out.
Jack Berryman, chief of the Government's Wildlife Services:
We're not thrilled at being the defenders for poison. We use only the most selective, effective and humane toxicants with the least impact on the environment and nontarget species. It is hard to find a graceful way of killing an animal. No matter how you do it, it is dead.
Animals will be doing damage, and the public wants the heritage of animals. The goal for the future will be more sophisticated methods that can be applied more discreetly. Sophistication costs more money and requires more supervision. Landowners are an independent lot. If what they want done isn't done, they'll do it themselves. They can throw the bait around where nontarget animals also will be killed.
Facts show that Wildlife Services is not decimating the wildlife population. We have not brought to the verge of extinction any target animals, let alone any of the others. None of the poisons we use move through the food chain or pose any threat to humans. We use such small amounts they're just not in the food chain. Some of the poisons have been in use for 50 years, others for 25 years. There has been no environmental accumulation of any significance.
This program was once based on amount of kill. It was a case of "how many did you get." With that kind of background, it was a difficult adjustment, but we have turned the whole thing around. There have been large gains, and the program has been redirected. It's a whole new approach. Some legislation has been attempting to halt the Government program, and if this legislation is passed, all our gains and efforts will be lost.
Critics will actually help bring about needed action. We appreciate the roles played by both extremist groups. They push both ways and help develop better programs inside the two ends they represent.
Many different collections of people and task forces have looked into the facts. The truth is there would be more criticism if the Government ducked this business rather than tackled it. The Wildlife Services' program is like a plane flight. No news unless it crashes. The program is no news, unless there's a violation of guidelines.
It is the responsibility of the Government to make some unpopular decisions. It takes more courage to stay with the program than to abandon it. And one last point. I would not like to leave the impression that the job is being done 100%. There's a lot to do and not everyone is trying to do it.
Edwin Marsh, executive secretary, National Wool Growers Assn.:
If the predator-poisoning program is not made more adequate, the sheep industry will be forced out of business. Predators—especially coyotes, the prime sheep killers—are increasing. The program will have to be intensified and continued until such time that we can develop—through research—other control methods. Careful research in Utah has produced calculations that $3,538,846 are lost annually by the range sheep industry to predators. This loss is equal or surpassed in many states. We are doing extensive research at present, hoping to find more humane control methods. One possibility is a repellent on sheep that would discourage predators. Poisoning may be a painful death for predators. But the death suffered by sheep at the mercy of predators is not exactly pretty. Allegations that the poisoning program is harming the environment are vastly exaggerated. I do not think that the balance of nature is being destroyed by the poisoning program. Survival of the wool industry is at stake. The present poisoning program is inadequate to control degradations in sheep areas. We are not interested in control work where there are no sheep. The fact that degradation of sheep by the coyote population is increasing dangerously is indication enough that the present poisoning program is inadequate. We know the program has many enemies, but we will certainly fight to maintain—and increase—it. We have to, if we expect the range sheep industry to survive.
A look at the devastation produced by the official poisoning Establishment—the men of the Wildlife Services division of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—and the rationale behind it.