In his new book, Predatory Bureaucracy, conservationist Michael J. Robinson leads readers through the 120-year-history of the U.S. Biological Survey. When it began in the late 1800s, it was run by biologists mostly interested in studying stuffed birds. However, political pressure from cattle- and sheep-growers transformed the benign agency into a powerhouse dedicated to predator eradication. It eventually spawned the agency known as Wildlife Services.
Far from being a
dry chronology, Robinson’s book brings history to life
through personal accounts. It includes journal entries and
unpublished biographies, as well as article excerpts, ranging from
an 1897 story in Forest and Stream to current articles, including
several from High Country News. He draws on
sources from National Geographic to Scribner’s Magazine to
introduce the doggedly determined men who set traps for predators,
birds and rodents on behalf of a few ranchers.
trappers’ methods were crude and cruel, but Robinson
doesn’t vilify them. In fact, he seems to admire the outdoor
skills of the best ones, noting how they learned to tell individual
wolves apart, studied their interactions, and even began to think
like the animals. Because many trappers kept detailed records,
Robinson is able to trace the lives and deaths of individual
wolves, which makes the history he relates even more compelling.
But Robinson also shows how the government’s
boundless capacity for killing changed the entire ecology of the
West. Thousands of wolves, bears, mountain lions and coyotes ended
up in the agency’s snares; trappers also destroyed scores of
prairie dogs, magpies, eagles, and anything else deemed a nuisance.
The book concludes in the present, detailing changes
caused by the Endangered Species Act, and summing up the plight of
In the end, the author makes a powerful
argument against repeating history by allowing politics and
prejudice to destroy this vital part of Western ecosystems.