"If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail," said psychologist Abraham Maslow.
As a wildlife ecologist here in the American West, I can't help but draw analogies between the Bush administration's foreign policy in Iraq and one of its proposed wildlife policies in the American West. Both rely on heavy-handed lethal approaches — using guns and killing when other approaches could work better.
As the war in Iraq drags on, at least three lessons are clear. First, there is a strong ethnic-religious component to the war that our military power seems unable to address. We're trying to use a hugely expensive military machine to grapple with religious fundamentalism, which is like using a gold-plated jackhammer to hoe a garden.
Second, the reasons used to justify the war — those weapons of mass destruction we could never find and the connection to Osama bin Ladin — turned out not to exist.
And third, our relentless bombing and killing of terrorists seems to make more religious extremists decide to be terrorists. In other words, the more terrorists we kill, the more we seem to make.
A recent proposal by the U.S. Forest Service to give the Agriculture Department's Wildlife Services agency the option to kill coyotes in wilderness areas — by poisoning and gunning them down from a helicopter or airplane — offers eerie similarities to the quagmire in Iraq.
A coyote is a four-legged critter that weighs around 40 pounds, like a medium-sized dog. It adapts to almost any environment, lives both alone and in families, and it performs necessary ecological functions in nature's grand food chain. Coyotes mainly eat rodents and other small animals, but sometimes they dine on free-roaming domestic sheep and calves that are grazing on public lands.
For decades, the U.S. government has responded by spending millions of dollars every year to kill coyotes by poisoning, trapping and aerial gunning. Here in Colorado where I live, the federal government spends about $1.8 million per year on Wildlife Services, a small portion of which goes to aerial gunning of coyotes on public lands. In the past, wilderness areas — places thought of with reverence by conservationists and the majority of American citizens — have been off-limits to aerial gunning.
And so the first similarity to Iraq is this: Even though there are many ways to control coyotes' preying on livestock, the Bush administration is choosing the most heavy-handed lethal option with complete disregard for human cultural institutions. The Forest Service is proposing to send airplanes and helicopters with guns into wilderness areas to shoot what is essentially a 40-pound wild dog.
The second similarity is equally intriguing. In the United States in 2004, coyotes and other domestic dogs killed about .1 percent of calves and about 3 percent of sheep. On public lands, those losses are significantly smaller, and in wilderness areas, those losses are absolutely miniscule. Again, the reason given to justify this aerial war — uncontrolled killing of livestock in wilderness by coyotes — turns out not to exist or is severely exaggerated.
The third similarity is downright eerie. Recent scientific studies have shown that coyotes are very resilient when it comes to federal killing programs. In fact, when some members of coyote families are killed, it causes other members to disperse and breed more rapidly. Their biological response mechanism seems to tell them they are under attack, and their reaction is to spread widely and bear even more pups. Indeed, since the U.S. government began extensively shooting, trapping and poisoning coyotes 150 years ago, the range and numbers of coyotes have expanded dramatically.
In other words, the more coyotes we kill, the more we seem to make.
There are many options to control coyotes' preying on livestock, such as guard dogs, fencing, techno-gizmos that scare off coyotes, actual range-riding cowboys on horseback and as a last resort: killing. They are all a part of a much larger option, which is learning to live with the non-human world around us, rather than constantly inventing war-like ways to kill and subdue it.
But that is not the trend here in the American West, nor in Iraq. The Bush administration is building hammers fast, and all it can see is nails.
Gary Wockner is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a writer and ecologist in Fort Collins, Colorado.