What is to be done about the drenching of the West with poison? How can an enlightened citizenry overturn a deeply rooted poisoning hierarchy that has only grown stronger in the face of scientific criticism, that has steadfastly ignored a growing ecological awareness and that is already turning the tortured rangelands of the West into a reeking abattoir of dead and dying wildlife and contaminated watersheds?
Those closest to the problem, men like the crusading naturalist Alfred Etter and the politician-conservationist Arnold Rieder, agree that a first step must be the elimination of certain persistent myths and legends, some of them central to the poisoning Establishment's rationale. There is, for example, the popular idea that predators, like the coyote, will outlive us all, that no amount of killing will make a dent in the hardy creatures' populations. Most sheepmen stubbornly insist that there are more coyotes now than there were 30 or 40 years ago, despite the poisoning. The U.S. Census Bureau does not count coyotes, nor do many state game and fish commissions. How do you count an animal that has had a millennium of millennia to learn the fine art of roaming the land without being seen? One expert is as expert as another, and the propaganda mills take advantage of the lack of genuine knowledge. Even a devout protectionist like Etter is not entirely convinced that the coyote is playing his last hour upon the stage. "It'll be a long time before coyotes are extinct," Etter says, "but it is possible. We used to say the wolf and the grizzly would never be wiped out in the United States, but we've almost managed to do it."
The elimination of a whole species seems so unpleasantly final—and so thoroughly remote—that most people simply refuse to admit the possibility. Then, subconsciously convinced that it cannot happen, they permit it to happen. While sheepmen and members of the poisoning Establishment talk in wildly exaggerated terms about the multimillions of coyotes on the land, less partisan observers have begun to notice that some areas have been cleared completely of the little wolves, and other areas seem to be headed in the same direction. The great bulk of people will remain unconcerned, of course, so long as a few coyotes are seen crossing highways at night or are heard occasionally from a distant hilltop in the moonlight. Modern man, despite the unfathomable wonders he has seen, still suffers from lack of imagination, still seems incapable of looking at a steadily dwindling supply of specimen animals and realizing that the end result of such a negative progression must be annihilation.
Similar thought processes—or lack of them—cause certain people to wonder what causes the concern about endangered species like the California condor. After all, they say, there must be 50 or 60 of the big birds; how can they be in danger? It will be time enough to get excited when there are five or six left. In the early 1900s Ernest Thompson Seton estimated that more than five billion prairie dogs lived in the U.S.; today the species has been nearly wiped out, and only a small number of prairie-dog towns remain. In 1810 Alexander Wilson saw a flight of passenger pigeons that he estimated to be 240 miles long and from horizon to horizon, containing some two billion birds. Today there are none.
March 22, 1971
Mere numbers are no protection to a species, especially in an era when habitats are sharply dwindling and the earth is being saturated with toxics. It is no consolation that the coyote has been spotted in Los Angeles County when he is no longer seen in thousands of square miles of Western rangelands that once were his normal residence. Random coyotes have been sighted in every continental state except Delaware, but they are seldom seen in their old habitats on the prairies of eastern New Mexico, and Arnold Rieder reports that there are lots of people in Montana who haven't seen a coyote in 10 years. As long ago as the 1940s a Government trapper named John W. Crook was telling his colleagues that poisoning had whipped the coyote in southern Colorado. During the winter of 1946-47 Crook saw one specimen where he used to see hundreds. But the poisoning continued unabated in Colorado. In West Texas a former Government trapper, Charlie Stone, misses the days when "you could go just about anywhere around here and see 15 or 20 coyotes. I'm in the field trapping all the time since my retirement from the Fish and Wildlife, and I've seen one loose coyote in the last year." Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas returned from a trip to Wyoming and told fellow conservationists that he was shocked by the disappearance of coyotes from that state.
In the race toward the final finish line, many another animal of the American West is providing the coyote with severe competition—propaganda to the contrary. The black bear, which ranges in similar habitat and has similar carnivorous eating habits, almost certainly will die out before the coyote. Charles Orlosky, who worked as a Government trapper in western Colorado, says, "I learned quick that any bear that sets foot on sheep range is a dead bear. Maybe one out of every 25 bears will kill a lamb. Most bears will eat on a dead carcass, but there's damned few of them that will actually kill sheep." Orlosky remembers a case in the San Juan Mountains where a trapper caught 16 or 17 bears and still hadn't caught the sheep killer.
The fox, another animal with eating habits similar to the coyote's, is also disappearing fast in large sections of the country. "They're smart," says Paul Gilbert, an area supervisor for Colorado's Department of Game, Fish and Parks, "but smartness isn't enough anymore. I've seen foxes and coyotes that'll move onto a ridge with a 1080 bait and won't be able to get off because of the deep snow around them. As long as they can, they'll circle away from that bait, but sooner or later starvation drives 'em to it. Animals like that don't have a chance against things like coyote getters and 1080." Even people from the Wildlife Services admit the danger to foxes. "Because the habits of the coyote and the red fox are similar," a bulletin says, "there is no practicable method of controlling coyotes in the midst of foxes on the high mountain sheep ranges in the summer or winter without killing some of these smaller canines." So the smaller canines are killed.
"The kit fox is almost gone in Wyoming," says Game Warden Darwin Creek, "and the 1080 that's killed him off has also killed off the black-footed ferret. Only two or three black-footed ferrets and kit foxes have been seen in the last 10 years by all the wardens and all the biologists and all the wildlife people in the state." According to Creek, the situation is almost the same with other Wyoming furbearers. "Pine marten used to be thick till they started putting this poison out," the warden says. "Now there's practically none left."
The populations of carrion-eating animals—and carrion-eating birds like eagles and hawks and vultures—are all trending downward, partly because of 1080 stations and partly because of the drop baits of tallow-covered strychnine. And if a species is included on the poison Establishment's "most wanted" list, the fact that the animal eschews carrion or tallow is no protection. The hunters and their modern gadgetry will prevail. In the last few years there has been a sharp decline in the numbers of bobcats, despite the fact that Lynx rufus is like trout or bass—he wants to catch his food on the hoof and seldom will touch anything that he has not killed himself. To destroy this "predator" that annually does no more damage to livestock than domestic dogs, Government trappers revert to the art that once was their pride: steel trapping. It is not difficult to trap bobcats; they are creatures of habit, remaining in the same areas and usually working a single hunting runway over and over. Until recently, when the supply of bobcats began to diminish, Government trappers caught them in droves. Why? A primary reason is that the Fish and Wildlife Service is in several businesses simultaneously, and one of them is the sale of pelts. The bobcat's fur is valuable; hence the concentration on trapping them and the long hours spent in Wildlife Services seminars studying the proper preparation of bobcat skins for market. In Colorado, Government trappers took thousands of bobcats in the years before 1965, but even though the price of bobcat fur continued rising, the kill began to drop, and today the animal is becoming rare.
The question is not when it will be discovered that these populations of native American species are diminishing. Some of the downtrends were known decades ago, and more are being noted each year. Most Westerners are aware that there are fewer and fewer animals, and still they watch inertly, like mice before cobras. Influenced by the soothing pronouncements of the poisoning Establishment, they accept the propaganda that endangered species are not truly endangered, and that coyotes, lions and bears, with their big teeth and sharp claws, can hold their own forever against men. The illogic is basic. Predators are not fighting against men but against technology.
Some of the scientists who are opposed to the toxification of the West go so far as to claim that the broadside attacks on wild animals have served only to magnify the problem of predator loss. Not surprisingly, Alfred Etter is an outspoken advocate of the theory that there would be far less destructive predation if wildlife were left to nature's own systems of checks and balances. His reasoning runs exactly opposite to that of the poisoners, who view the matter in simple arithmetical terms. Says an official of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: "Look, we know what the stock loss was before we began poisoning. If we eliminated poisons like 1080, the loss would be more than 20% of the herd, maybe 35% or 50%. It would put sheepmen out of business. The coyotes would simply take over."
To ecologically oriented scientists like Etter, this is the grandest fallacy of all, the "big lie" that undergirds the entire poisoning philosophy. The trappers preach that predator control controls predators: Etter insists that it makes the problem worse, and that the poisoners are keeping themselves in business by aggravating the very problems they are hired to solve.
Etter was on the way to this conclusion when he testified before public hearings on predatory animals in 1966. "Where we have starved the coyote," he said, "where we have abused the land, where we have poisoned indiscriminately, killing the coyote's food supply, there we have uniformly encountered increasing reports of predation." Back in Colorado, he pursued the deeper implications of his own statement and began checking records on sheep kills and coyote control. He recalls, "I found that the sheepmen who had used the most control in the past were invariably the ones who complained the loudest about ever-increasing losses. The ratio was direct and almost constant."
The most perfunctory investigation of sheep-country losses seems to substantiate Etter's conclusion. Consider, for example, the two northwesternmost Colorado counties, Rio Blanco and Moffat, where it is likely that more poison has been leached into the soil and more predators put to death than in any area of similar size in the world. What has been the result? A sheepman named Hugh Seely speaks at a public meeting: "The thing that disturbs me about this control program is that our losses the last couple of years are greater than they were previously. There used to be winters down on our range when I can't remember losing a single ewe to coyotes. Now this last winter the boys claim they lost about 120 ewes. That's quite a loss out of 3,000 head of sheep. In the summertime we used to lose maybe 75 or 100 lambs a year. Last year we were out over 300 lambs before we shipped in the fall."
Typically, Seely argues that the reason for the increased loss is that there is not enough control, not enough poison is being put on the land. The figures do not bear him out; both public and private poisoning programs are barreling ahead at full speed, and still the losses mount. "We have problems," admits a sheepman named Andy Peroulis. "Since the 1st of June we've lost over 40 lambs in one place. They were killing three and four a night. I don't know whether the coyotes are congregated in that one area or not, but they're thick all over."
But if the coyotes are "thick all over," and the sheep losses higher than ever, what has been the point of the wholesale poisoning of the area? "Well, we've kept the losses from being even higher," an official explains. Says District Field Assistant Gary Rowley, in charge of the local operation in northwest Colorado, "We just keep plugging, and the coyotes just keep on moving in and killing. All we can do is try to keep the losses down to where the stockmen and our cooperators can live with it."
The local situation, in a word, is chaotic. "The first thing that's needed is a fundamental understanding of the coyote," says Alfred Etter, "and very few trappers have this. They're too busy convincing themselves that their poisoning and hunting is in a good cause and their jobs are worthwhile. They insert themselves between the coyote and his natural ways, and their efforts often turn him to killing stock. Then they blame him for being a 'harmful' species and go out and intrude themselves some more. The coyote is normally a territorial animal with a highly developed territorial imperative. By keeping the coyote population harassed and in a constant state of flux, the trapper disrupts his territorial habits and makes him, in effect, into a different animal. This different animal may become a sheep killer, but if he had been left undisturbed in the first place, we would probably never have heard from him."
Etter's theory is based on the hunting habits of the coyote. In The Clever Coyote, Government Biologist Stanley Young wrote that "generally, coyotes follow a runway or circuit, often referred to as a hunting route. It may be a combination of trails of game, cattle, sheep, old wood roads, dry washes, swamps, marshes, or ditch banks.... The coyote runway may cover no more than 10 miles, and be used throughout its lifespan, providing sufficient food is always available. What causes the animal to forsake old established and localized runways is usually the food factor, or continued persecution." Young did not add the obvious: that a hungry coyote in unfamiliar country might well turn to an easy dinner of lamb.
Etter's own observations led him to go a step farther than Young and other naturalists and to evolve a preliminary theory of coyote territoriality. "It takes a while to establish a territory," Etter wrote in Defenders of Wildlife News. "It involves becoming intimately acquainted with an area, patrolling it, depending on it, investing in it. In the case of coyotes, foxes and bobcats, it means learning the location of quail, pheasant, grouse or turkey roosts, deer yards, prairie-dog towns, pack-rat apartments, kangaroo-rat runs and rabbit forms. It involves seasonal and diurnal knowledge, and familiarity with stalking and escape cover. It involves buried stores, watering places, scent posts and warm south slopes. It may even involve relationships with other animals, as when the coyote tags along with the badger to take advantage of spare rodents flushed from excavated burrows, or with the elk to harvest the mice that are disturbed by grazing. This kind of knowledge makes the difference between the successful 'well-adjusted' predator and the desperate itinerant...." Poisoning of coyotes, Etter argued, "merely creates a 'vacuum' into which drifting coyotes from other areas may be attracted. Traveling coyotes are probably hungry coyotes....
"Young animals deprived of their parents through control might be equally desperate. It only seems logical that the one thing to avoid in any livestock-protection program would be the creation of desperate, opportunistic individuals or populations. So far as I know, this has never been given a thought in the federal program."
Acel Rowley, former Government trapper in Utah and Colorado, described a case in point that seems to bear Etter out. "Right south of Vernal, Utah, in a place called Kennedy Basin," he relates, "there was a pair of coyotes that I killed their pups every year for nine years. Both the adults were whistle-wise and trap-wise and poison-wise, and the only thing I could do was keep killing their pups. All that time there were sheep on every side of those two adult coyotes, and they never touched a one. They kept right to their own hunting runway and lived on rodents and rabbits. They got so they knew that countryside by the inch, and they'd walk around anything new, like a 1080 station or a cyanide gun. I shot the old bitch coming out of her hole, and a year or so later I got the dog the same way. Well, what do you think happened? With those two out of there after nine or 10 years, I started having coyote trouble with sheep. Right after I killed those two, coyotes went in and killed 25 or 30 head of sheep about two miles north, just before shearing. One day I went out with two of my sons and started calling coyotes with my whistle, and all of a sudden there were three new coyotes in plain sight not 30 feet away. I shot one and the other two got away. Before I'd killed all the new coyotes in that territory, they'd eaten more sheep and driven us all crazy."
"Why did you kill the first pair?" Rowley was asked. "Apparently they weren't doing any harm."
"I had to," the old trapper said apologetically. "That was my job—killing coyotes."
What would happen if all "control" were abandoned and coyotes left to the ways of nature? "They would overpopulate and run the country," says a Government trapper. "There'd be so many coyotes you couldn't see over their heads. It'd be like the old alligator joke—you'd be up to your armpits in coyotes!" The remark was only slightly in jest; the philosophies of most Government poisoners rely heavily on similar overstatements. Asked to explain why coyotes did not "run the country" in all the centuries before the invention of cyanide guns and 1080 and other such control devices, the trapper said, "Things was different then."
But things was not that different. Predators preyed on young coyotes, then as now, and every year pups were carried away and consumed by eagles, great horned owls and even badgers. They still are. The few wolves that remain are not loth to attack full-grown coyotes, and neither are eagles, bears and mountain lions. There have been substantiated cases of gentler species such as antelopes and deer turning on coyotes and attacking them with their sharp hooves. Still other factors limit the coyote population. Bad weather and forest fire can kill a coyote as fast as any other animal, and in years of deep, loosely packed snow the coyote has difficulty getting around and sometimes dies of starvation. Naturalists estimate that in any given year a large percentage of the total coyote population would die off without the assistance of the Wildlife Services but the process would be a natural one—healthy animals would not be removed from their hunting runways in the prime of life, and normal yearlings would have time to develop enough hunting acumen to enable them to make a living off wild prey. Death would come only to the weak, the infirm and aged, instead of to the handsome young specimens that are now falling by the tens of thousands to the mass-poisoning program.
"Through history," Alfred Etter says, "the coyote was respected, and in some cases almost deified. At the least, he was ignored, and there is no indication that he caused serious trouble. We are the only society which has harassed him on a large scale, and we are the only society which ever had to spend millions of dollars a year to keep him in check. I suggest that there might well be a connection, and that we should take steps to find out. Nobody knows what would happen if we cut out control overnight, but I think we can make some reasonable speculations.
"First, I think there'd be an abnormal increase of coyotes in some spots, at least until the old territorial feeling was reestablished and the stronger coyotes started eliminating some of the weaker ones, some of the strangers. This wouldn't happen quickly, not with the mess that's been created by the poisoners. But before things got out of hand the coyote populations would settle down in a normal way, and after that the Government trapper could go in and get the specific coyotes doing specific damage."
Etter's theory of the coyote's territorial imperative can be applied to all predators, and it has been around for a few years. There is hardly a Fish and Wildlife Service official who is not aware of it. Mostly, they laugh. "It just doesn't work that way," a district supervisor said. "That Etter may be college smart, but he just doesn't know the ways of coyotes. They're killers, and that's all there is to it. The only thing that keeps 'em from killing off all the stock is our own program, and I'm proud to be a part of it. We don't need any Alfred Etters or any other little old ladies in tennis shoes telling us what to do."
Frustrated by their inability to bring scientific rhyme and reason into the predator-control programs, a few Westerners have declared war. Certain game wardens and park rangers and private citizens are starting to lash out in legal and extralegal ways. There have been a number of confrontations between Government poisoners and private citizens in the last few years, and more than once there has been minor violence. Says Bill Miles, a hunting guide: "Two winters ago I was hunting with my dog, and I saw this Government trapper running along on a snowmobile throwing out strychnine baits. I quickly called in my dogs and put them in my pickup and then drove crossways on the road and stopped him. We had a big argument. He said he was gonna keep on with the poisoning, and I said I was gonna fight him. He said he was gonna poison the hell out of that whole area, and I said if he did I'd pour fuel oil on his baits and burn 'em up. We had a terrific fight." Did Miles burn the baits later? "That's my business," he insists.
U.S. Park Ranger Barry Ashworth, who narrowly escaped death when he accidentally set off a coyote getter outside Dinosaur National Monument, is one of many federal rangers who have sworn to pull every cyanide gun they see. "And if I ever catch anybody putting one on park property," Ashworth says, "he'll be placed under arrest." Paul Gilbert says he has known several public officials who set off coyote guns intentionally, and some who dig them up and destroy them.
Individuals are joining in the informal battle against the poisoning Establishment. "Down in Oklahoma they were having a war about coyote getters," says Ray Hall, who manages the Humane Coyote Getter, Inc. operation in Pueblo, Colo. "One of my customers wrote me about it. Some rancher wanted to use 'em real bad, and the people didn't want 'em, because they had expensive dogs. They were sabotaging his tractors and burning his fences just like the old days." In Santa Clara, Calif. there are signposts warning that "Anyone from Predator Animal Control Department of Department of Interior caught trespassing will be arrested and prosecuted." In the Jackson Hole country of Wyoming the little war takes a slightly different form, with the Government trappers fighting back. Thousands of elk are fed by the Game and Fish Commission during the winter, and the eager hunters of the Fish and Wildlife Service have been warned repeatedly to stay out of Jackson Hole and away from the predators that live in the elk herd. "But every now and then they'll fly in and fire away," says Warden Darwin Creek, "and then we have to raise hell. They can't seem to get it through their heads: coyotes clean up the dead, kill off the dying and the disabled and keep the herd healthy. I guess the only way we're gonna get our message across is with antiaircraft guns." There are some few district field assistants who deplore their own agency's programs and fight as a fifth column. Says one trapper: "I know some guys who dump their 1080. Throw it down a mine shaft or burn it up."
If the little wars of such men seem to be accomplishing next to nothing, then what can be done? Concerned Westerners are pessimistic. "We're in a stranglehold out here," says Paul Maxwell, president of the National Council of Public Land Users. "If we talk a legislator into speaking out, the stockmen's lobbies climb all over him in the next election and get him out of there. If we try to push through some kind of action, we get clobbered by the millions of dollars they can throw against us. If we take a complaint to a governor or a commissioner of agriculture, we find him trembling in his socks about the sheepmen, and then he yesses us to death and does nothing. It's a peculiar situation. The public officials who try to help us almost invariably come from the East. Men like Congressmen John Saylor of Pennsylvania and John Dingell of Michigan. The politicians out West are owned by the stockmen. Help will have to come from the East, or nothing will ever change."
If there is a logical point of attack, it would seem to be at the poisoning programs on Government land. American land in the public domain is more than four times the size of the state of Texas, and every acre of it belongs as much to each citizen as it does to the stockman who runs his thousands of close-cropping sheep on them. If these lands are not to be transformed into American Saharas, they must be grazed far less and detoxified once and forever. But hardly anything is being done. The stockmen remain at the helm.
Only the tainted Western legislatures would put up with such a situation, and only devitalized Westerners would sit by idly and watch it happen. One has only to look at the state poison laws—or lack of them—to see the extent to which stockmen have the general public by the throat. There is hardly a state west of the Mississippi in which one cannot buy strychnine or cyanide, or even thallium simply by signing for it. Says Mike Simmons, secretary of the Colorado State Board of Pharmacy, "The last poison laws were passed in most Western states around the turn of the century, when the rural areas controlled the legislatures even more than they do now. And almost every state poison law has the same proviso in it. Here, I'll read you Colorado's: 'Nothing in this article shall interfere with the business of those merchants who keep or sell such poisons, acids, or chemicals as are regularly used in agriculture, mining and the arts....' In other words, you can always use it, so long as you're using it in your business. I don't believe one of these laws has been updated in 30 years." There have been a few new laws restricting sale of poisons in pharmacies, Simmons says. "So if you want to poison somebody, just go straight to the feedstore and they'll give you what you need."
Cyanide guns are similarly available through the West, and even in those states where their use is specifically illegal, one can usually make a purchase at the nearest hardware store, or by mail ordering from Pueblo. Kansas has banned the use of the deadly apparatus since a game warden there almost lost his life to one, but waivers can be issued by public officials. Coyote getters are illegal in Oregon, but enforcement of the state law is almost nonexistent. Washington has a law that "It shall be unlawful for any person to lay, set or use any poisonous or deleterious substances at any place or manner so as to endanger, injure or kill any game animals, furbearing animals, game birds or nongame birds," and Colorado has a game law flatly banning the private use of any poison in the open. Good laws, to be sure, but there have been no prosecutions under either. The poison baiting of carcasses remains legal in Arrizona, Utah, Nevada, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Idaho, Arkansas, California, Texas, Oregon, New Mexico, Montana and Wyoming, and it is overlooked in most of the states where it is illegal. So long as stockmen remain in control of the advisory boards that administer the outdoors affairs of most Western states, the poison laws will continue to be a tattered patchwork of ineffectiveness.
Meanwhile, the basic questions are all but ignored. Does an industry that depends on the wholesale contamination of millions of acres of our nation deserve to exist in the first place? Is it in the national interest to bring whole species of animal life to the brink of extinction? Is the sheep industry as presently organized worth it? Or is there a way to retain both sheep and sanity?
Within a few decades the last mountain lion will be gone. Bears and bobcats will probably hold out a little longer, because there are many more of them, and the wise and canny coyotes will outlast all the other large predators. But unless there are massive changes, unless the livestock lobbies of the West and the federal poisoners release their strangleholds and give up their myths and prejudices, the day must come when the last weak and sickened coyote will drag himself to his feet and lift his voice to the skies, and there will be no answer. We animals of the earth are a single family, and the death of one only hurries the others toward the final patch of darkness.