If the sincere conservationist is disturbed by the poison saturation of the American West by sheep ranchers, he may take some small comfort from the fact that such free-lance poisoning has been made illegal in a few states. Lamentably, the sheepmen's power remains so great that hardly any of these anti-poisoning laws are enforced, but at least they are on the books.
But what of the public poisoning Establishment, the official earth polluters, the men of the Wildlife Services division under the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, those dedicated public servants who preach about the wonders of wildlife and the wisdom of nature? To cite just one year—1963—these professional poisoners and trappers killed 90,000 coyotes, 300 mountain lions, 21,000 bobcats and lynx, 2,800 "red wolves," 800 bears, 24,000 foxes, 7,000 badgers, 19,000 skunks, 10,000 raccoons, 1,200 beavers, 7,600 opossums, 6,700 porcupines and 600 others. (These figures, no longer readily available to the general public, do not include many other animals that dined at poison stations and staggered away to die untabulated.) Were all these deaths necessary? Were they ecologically justified? Or were they part of a runaway killing program that years ago lost its scientific justification and now rushes on like an unbraked train? Dr. Alfred Etter, a distinguished naturalist, has studied the federal poisoning program more closely than anyone, and his conclusions are not very encouraging.
One wintery night Etter lost his dog to poison, probably the supertoxic 1080. The angered biologist immediately set about a one-man investigation of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service poisoning policies in his own neighborhood, Pitkin County, Colo., which includes within its borders the popular resort of Aspen. His research turned up wholesale violations of almost every rule in the service's own book. "The infractions," Etter wrote later, "included placement of compound 1080 poison baits and cyanide guns on Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service lands without authorization, placement of guns on prime recreational land without notifying the owner, leaving of bails out over the summer season, failure to post warning signs, failure to keep accurate records and other equally serious offenses." Etter found that there was complete confusion within the Fish and Wildlife Service as to where its own poisons were located, and while his disclosures were being published in Defenders of Wildlife News, a hiker named Martin Carswell accidentally pulled a cyanide gun on Burnt Mountain near Aspen and escaped death by a fraction of an inch. Evidence indicated the gun had been set by a Government trapper. The gun had not been authorized by the U.S. Forest Service, which controlled the land in the area.
Etter was also angered by the desultory Fish and Wildlife investigation into his dog's death, an investigation which only accidentally turned up the fact that Etter's own township was studded with 1080 stations and poisonous gadgetry despite its proximity to Aspen. One result had been the drastic reduction of the area's coyote population (not to mention the area's pet dog population) and, as a result, the proliferation of malnourished and stunted deer, some 600 of them on 3½ miles of overgrazed winter range. Coyote getters, with the dye markings of the Fish and Wildlife Service, seemed to be as common as mushrooms in the township, and strychnine drop baits were being sown like seed. Etter wrote, "In a single county, one or more infractions of 10 different Wildlife Services ground rules were identified. These infractions related to both summer and winter operations and involved two different poisoners, a subdistrict supervisor, a state supervisor and, indirectly, a regional inspector."
March 15, 1971
But far more significant than the individual infractions was the pattern unearthed in Etter's own backyard by a man who was himself a field representative of the Defenders of Wildlife and a longtime thorn in the side of poisoners. "If there is one area of the United States where we might expect Wildlife Services to be on its good behavior, it should be in Pitkin County, Colo.," Etter wrote. "There are two reasons: first, because it is one of the most important recreational areas of the entire nation, and second, because I make my office there, and one of my projects is to study the federal predator-control program. Wildlife Services is well aware of this fact. If the agency cannot control what happens in this county, then the chances are excellent that it cannot control any part of its western killing campaign."
Anyone who makes the most cursory study of the toxification of the American West soon becomes accustomed to the sight of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's district field assistants (DFAs) sallying out on the attack every morning without the slightest regard for their own rules and regulations. But one also learns quickly that the rules and regulations of the service do not seem to have been intended seriously in the first place, that they exist largely for the purpose of camouflage and that DFAs and their supervisors honor them almost entirely in the breach.
Take, for example, the broadcasting of strychnine drop baits. Although strychnine kills less discriminantly than the fearsome 1080, the drop baits in which it is used are highly perishable in warm weather, making it a safer outdoor poison. But as though to counteract this safety factor, Government poisoners distribute strychnine drop baits everywhere. According to official records, over six million of the sugar-and-lard-coated pellets have been sown by Government trappers in the last 10 years. The baits are distributed by hand, by snowmobile, by pickup truck, by trail bike and by airplane. Along with the other millions of poison pills put out by private stockmen, they are annihilating animals and birds that were protected by natural conditions for thousands of decades. "When you spread strychnine across all that area in the winter, you might just as well forget wildlife," says a retired Government predator trapper, Charles Orlosky. "The only thing that'll survive is a few rodents in hibernation."
Characteristically, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has elaborate rules about the use of strychnine baits, and it displays them at the drop of a complaint so that the public may see how carefully such lethal agents are controlled. "Strychnine alkaloid tablets...must not be dropped from aircraft without the Regional Director's approval," the rules state. "Care must be taken to prevent exposure of perishable baits to domestic animals, pets, and beneficial wildlife. All perishable bait placements must be covered with cow chips, flat stones, or similar loose material, or placed in such a manner as to reduce hazards to nontarget species."
But Government trappers would go into paroxysms of laughter if they were asked when they last positioned a drop bait under a cow chip or a flat stone. "They ain't enough cow flops in the whole West to cover all the baits," says a retired DFA.
One of the reasons Charles Orlosky resigned from his job as Government trapper in western Colorado was the aerial seeding of strychnine. "One day they called me up and told me to make 5,000 drop baits," Orlosky recalls. "They said they were gonna drop 'em from an airplane on national forest land. So I told 'em to go to hell. I said it's against regulations and I'm not gonna do it. They said not to worry, there was nothing but coyotes where they were gonna make the drop. I had to laugh. I asked if they ever heard of birds? Why, the second that one of those paper sacks of baits hits the ground it opens up and throws the strychnine balls all over, and the birds pick 'em up and finish the job of scattering. They call this selective poisoning. I call it extermination."
Lately, the Fish and Wildlife Service has been carrying out its extensive drop baiting on a sub-rosa basis to avoid public criticism. There hasn't been a significant embarrassment since a predator-control agent named Vern Tuttle was loading 1,500 drop baits into an airplane and one fell on the ground. Before Tuttle could intervene, his own dog gulped the bait down and died. The story was later printed in a Colorado newspaper, to the chagrin of the Fish and Wildlife Service.
The accidental misplacement of baits could be tragedy enough, but even more serious is the attitude reflected all too clearly by the poisoning methods, namely that neither Government nor private poisoners have the slightest intention of following the rules.
A Montana state senator named Arnold Rieder decided to test this theory. He introduced legislation that superficially seemed absurd, for it simply required the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to obey its own regulations as a matter of state law. Immediately a bulletin went out from the Montana Wool Growers Association to all members: "Senator Rieder of Jefferson County has introduced Senate Bill 196, which places an unnecessary restriction on the use of poison for the control of predatory animals. We were unable to kill the bill in committee, and it has been reported out with a due pass label. Passage of this bill would greatly restrict the use of poison for coyote control and would prohibit it in some cases. The senate will vote on the bill soon, and we need the support of your senator to kill the bill. Would you please wire him immediately.... " Said an amazed Rieder when his bill lost: "It would only have required them to follow their own rules!" With the Wool Growers Association working against him, he was defeated in the next election.
Says Alfred Etter: "The average Government poisoner may start out obeying the rules but soon he is spending all his time with sheepmen, and hearing their gory tales, and he changes from a predator-control agent into a plain old-fashioned hunter. The hunting instinct takes over completely, and from then on all he wants to do is exterminate."
One irony is that DFAs and their supervisors talk of being overworked, but press their attentions with supreme dedication on even the most reluctant ranchers, ones who insist predators have a place and who encourage their survival. Some poisoners do not hesitate to establish 1080 stations where they have neither sought nor received authorization, nor are they reluctant to lay out deadly baits in areas where sheep populations are nonexistent or negligible and predation all but unknown.
Every control meeting between poisoners and sheepmen begins and ends with the same admonition: "Be sure to keep the forest ranger and the public-land manager informed of your predator loss." Each time a district field assistant calls on a stockman, he reminds him of the need for statistics. The result of this monotonous reiteration is not surprising. The figures come in by the mile. Sheepmen, eager to publicize their troubles to the world, compile horrifying lists of losses, anticipated losses and possible losses. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service feeds the statistics into its computers and works up its programs accordingly. The result is a galloping Parkinsonism that would drive a privately financed organization out of business within months. Every year the reported stock losses rise, the Wildlife Services budget climbs proportionately and the population of larger wild animals sinks to a new low. With each drop in the populations, there is an increase in the efficiency of the poisoners and of the devices they employ.
The researcher who attempts a study of predator-control statistics is asking for a massive headache. If ever figures seemed to be manipulated to produce predetermined results, it is the figures of the Wildlife Services. For years the statisticians of the poisoning Establishment furnished summary reports on the total numbers of "predators" killed annually, but a few years ago they abandoned this practice as poor public relations and began emphasizing their reports on "resource losses"—as compiled from figures provided by those old reliables, the stockmen and trappers. Says Small Game Supervisor Robert Tully of the Colorado Department of Game, Fish and Parks: "I never did like the federal reporting system in the first place. They used to report that they took so many bears, so many coyotes, so many foxes, and then they'd report 'others.' Well, we wanted to know what 'others' were. Were they pine martens? Fishers? Where were they killed, and under what circumstances? Now they've switched to nothing but livestock losses. There are political implications in this. They don't want the public to know how many bears and lions they are taking. I think this should be a standard part of their reporting, and part of the public record. People contact us and want to know how many coyotes and bears and lions Fish and Wildlife killed, and Fish and Wildlife won't tell us. We have to put pressure on them and demand the figures. But how good are the figures when we get them? Some of the Government trappers do additional trapping after hours. They are paid by private landowners to take additional animals. These aren't reported in any manner, either on their reports to their agency or to us. And I'm talking about animals like bears and lions that under the law must be reported to us. So you have to conclude that Fish and Wildlife statistics don't mean a whole lot."
Under the system of reporting resource losses, new heights of statistical comedy have been scaled. In Arizona, stockmen listed $62,000 damage by predators in 1966 and $63,000 in 1967. In response to fervent appeals for more and better statistics, they doubled these figures in 1968, turning in loss reports of $126,000. In 1969 they more than doubled this new figure—to $271,000. The state supervisor of Wildlife Services reacted predictably to this news of horrifying loss. Extreme problems call for extreme measures, and the supervisor took one: he authorized the springtime use of 1080-baited carcasses for the first time in Arizona's history. Numerous studies of 1080 have warned against the use of this poison on summer ranges for predator control, because it fells many animals that would be hibernating in the winter. But apparently something had to be done about the stockmen's rising losses, and the supervisor sprang into action.
The situation brought to mind a statement by Charles Orlosky a few years earlier. "When I was trapping for the Government," Orlosky had said, "a lot of sportsman pressure built up over the trapping of bears. The sportsmen said we were taking too many, and so the service decided to show them how many bears were taking sheep. They sent out instructions to take out the stomach of every bear we trapped, tie it up, soak it in formaldehyde and send it into headquarters. My own boss, when he told me about this, said that I should be sure and put some wool in the stomach before I sealed it up. In that way there wouldn't be any doubt about what bears ate. They told trappers to do the same thing with coyotes. I couldn't go for that, so I never sent in any stomachs at all. But it wasn't surprising that all the reports came out showing that a high percentage of bears and coyotes were killers. The fellows that were honest wouldn't send the stomachs in, and those stomachs that were sent in mostly had wool in them. They're still quoting those old figures today."
Armed with such deliberate distortions, spokesmen for the federal poisoning program seek larger budgets from a misled Congress, and the end result is fiscal irresponsibility on an imposing scale. In Colorado, the annual Wildlife Services kill dropped 20%, from 10,200 wild animals in 1967 to 8,200 wild animals in 1970, while the budget was rising by $30,000. In 18 national forests in California, the value of sheep lost in 1962 was $3,500 and the cost of federal predator-control programs a walloping $90,000.
But the Wildlife Services does not deal exclusively in the extermination of predators; it also puts out tons of 1080-treated grain and other poisons to kill off the rodents that seem to be gaining the upper paw in the West. It is difficult to imagine a more fertile area for bureaucratitis than the rodent-predator cycle. As Constance Helmericks wrote in Defenders of Wildlife News: "The coyote-rodent cycle is perhaps the real mainstay of the extermination business. When properly exploited, this cycle can be exceedingly productive for a self-perpetuating bureaucracy. If you poison a great many coyotes this year, you sow your own harvest of lovely rodent and rabbit colonies for the next year, or soon thereafter."
U.S. Representative John Dingell of Michigan told a witness at a congressional inquiry: "You folks in the Interior Department have had some instances where you cleaned out the coyotes very thoroughly in the area and followed up the next year by being overrun with rodents and then had to conduct a fairly extensive rodent program to bring the population back into balance." By no means could the instances cited by Dingell be considered exceptional. The West abounds in rangelands where rodents have moved into the ecological vacuum left by the annihilation of predators, and the Government poisoners are thus kept busy exterminating the rodents and thereby accidentally poisoning any furbearers that might wander back into the area. Nor is there anything new about this peculiar procedure. Seven years ago a committee of distinguished wildlife scientists appointed by Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall to examine the predator-control program observed, "It is curious that [Wildlife Services] will distribute great quantities of 1080-treated grain...in exactly the same areas where they take elaborate precautions in their predator-control program to protect carnivores other than the target species.... In many regions of the Western United States where there are no sheep and where coyote damage is negligible, the coyote nevertheless has been essentially extirpated from treated areas as a secondary result of rodent-control programs. In addition to coyotes and badgers, uncounted numbers of bears, foxes, raccoons, skunks, opossums, eagles, hawks, owls and vultures are exposed to possible secondary poisoning in these programs."
Carried away by the vigorous poisoning operations, DFAs and their programmers seem to lose their perspective about the delicate checks and balances of nature and they settle down to the single-minded task of killing predators, any predators, all predators, without the slightest regard for the total biological picture.
"Not long ago," Dr. Etter recently wrote, "I found a line of coyote guns along a fence line drifted with sand blown from an adjacent field of watermelons. In these drifts the kangaroo rats had found the habitat they desired. The coyotes thrived on the rats, and the poisoners thrived on the coyotes while justifying their scheme by claiming to protect the watermelons from the coyotes. Meanwhile the watermelons lay rotting in the field, being largely unharvested because of their small size. The official report of this campaign would no doubt read: 'Coyotes are attacking melons and causing serious losses.' "Etter also wrote: "One of the most distressing evidences of Wildlife Services' lack of sensitivity to the environment is its continued operation in areas where land has been heavily overgrazed and eroded. Countless observations have been made throughout the Western states of this unfortunate practice. These lands should not have livestock on them, much less poison. For example, foxes are killed in large numbers on ruined sandy lands in West Texas and New Mexico where rodents abound and where livestock search vainly for feed. While the federal control program spends money to perpetuate a ruinous agriculture, ranching losses are used as a tax deduction from vast income from oil and gas derived from the same property." Sometimes, it seems, only the taxpayer loses; only the environment suffers.
To perpetuate such programs and justify their high budgets and sprawling hierarchy of personnel, Wildlife Services spends some of its annual $7 million budget on public relations, on newsletters and on publications aimed at exposing the predator menace. But the best public-relations agent in the poisoning business—as in almost any business—is the man in the field, the DFA who meets the public and solves problems and gets the midnight telephone calls from customers. These Government poisoners have a product to sell, and a large proportion of their working and nonworking hours are spent selling it, to the dismay of conservationists.
"There is no justification for promotion of predator control by federal employees, least of all those who depend upon this activity for their support," Alfred Etter testified before a U.S. Congressional hearing in 1966. "The demands already exceed the needs."
The five scientists of the U.S. Department of the Interior's study committee came to the same conclusion. "Too often [Wildlife Services] support and encourage control decisions without critical appraisal," their report noted. "At times they are known to solicit requests for control and to propagandize against predators as a basis for such solicitation."
Former Government Trapper Paul Maxwell put it forcefully: "Every damn one of those trappers is a Fuller Brush man selling poison. The whole predator-control operation is nothing but a sales pitch by the Federal Government to keep that bunch off the breadlines, to keep them out in the sunshine hunting and shooting and poisoning and enjoying themselves at the public expense."
Some would agree with Maxwell, but it is an oversimplification to indict the federal trappers personally. In many ways, their reactions are very human—and very American. They have thrown themselves into their work, and they have come to look on it as the most important task in the world. For the most part they are uncomplicated, outdoors-loving men. They are not conversant with ecological principles. They suffer from the same insecurities as the rest of us. They have mortgage payments to meet, children to put through school, old age to anticipate. Like many other Americans, they are struggling to get even, to get ahead, and then to stay ahead for good, and such an existence leaves little time for the study of subtle biological processes. There are too many coyotes to be killed, too many sheepmen to be placated and too many stockmen clear on the other side of the state who need to be sold on the program.
Thus the problem of the overmotivated poisoning proselytizer is not so much that he is intentionally engaged in a giant confidence game but that he has fallen for his own propaganda and is striving with the zeal of a missionary to bring others under his spell. Nonetheless, his missionary zeal and his enthusiastic drive are having deleterious effects on the environment. His insecurities are endangering future generations, both wild animal and human.
How long will the poisoners be permitted to rush blindly ahead? Until all the wild animals are gone? Or 75% of them? One recalls the comment of a Colorado Wildlife Conservation officer, Louis Vidakovich, who is watching the tragic performance from his front-row center seat: "There will be a day of reckoning. All that they are doing will collapse on them. I just hope there is some game left for us to manage."
If mass poisoning was stopped, would predators take over? An appraisal of how sheep and coyotes can both live on this land.