Looking back on a century of poisoning predators

 

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

We celebrate most anniversaries, but there are some we should just acknowledge by pausing to do some serious thinking. This year, for example, marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Bureau of Biological Survey. Congress created the agency a century ago to trap, poison and kill predators and "varmints" across the West. The result was an ecological holocaust of strychnine-ridden carcasses and indiscriminate destruction up the food chain. We tried to kill coyotes; we brought death to eagles instead.

A coyote caught in a trap.

The agency's goal was to eliminate predators to foster game populations of deer and elk, and to reduce losses by stockmen who raised sheep and cattle. Back in 1915, the words "ecology" and "environment" were unknown. Annual reports of the Bureau of Biological Survey and books like Michael J. Robinson's Predatory Bureaucracy, published in 2005, document the agency's massive onslaught of poisons and steel traps.

Even a skilled naturalist and big-game hunter like my hero, Theodore Roosevelt, referred to wolves as "beasts of waste and desolation." No one seemed to grasp that healthy predator-prey relationships helped maintain healthy ecosystems. The West's few remaining wolves became so famous they were given nicknames.

Government trappers for the Biological Survey, called "wolfers," became legendary on Colorado's Western Slope. "Beneath his admirable exterior he had the cruelest nature I have ever known," wrote David Lavender, about trapper Slim Hawley. "His business was killing."

Lavender, who ran his father's ranch in Colorado's Disappointment Valley, didn't approve of the bureau placing steel traps in carcasses to lure predators.

"I believe the grass which average coyotes save by putting a check on foraging rodents and insects far outweighs the value of the stock they harm," Lavender concluded. Few stockmen shared his insight. We poured poison onto public land, and the Biological Survey managed a special poison laboratory in Denver to experiment with strychnine, arsenic and cyanide.

In the 1918 Report of the Chief of the Bureau of Biological Survey, E.W. Nelson described the work of 250-to-350 hunters under the direction of district supervisors as making sure that "predatory animals are destroyed by trapping, shooting, den hunting during the breeding season, and poisoning." He wrote that a "large area in southern Colorado was systematically poisoned with excellent effect."

Nelson proudly wrote that three years into the Biological Survey's work throughout the West, "predatory animals taken by hunters under the direction of this bureau" included "849 wolves, 20,241 coyotes, 85 mountain lions, 3,432 bobcats, 30 lynxes, and 41 bears." Wholesale slaughter had just begun, and states contributed thousands of dollars to augment the Bureau's federal funding.

By 1931, the annual report claimed the public lands had become "breeding reservoirs for predators and rodents," which "re-infested stocked and cultivated areas." That year, $35,752 was allocated for research on control methods and $404,062 was spent on poison, primarily strychnine laced in cubes of animal fat and placed in carcasses. A horse carcass, for example, might be seeded with 50 or more poison pellets. Such random poisoning killed predators but also everything else -- including raptors and eagles.

Five years later, the forester Aldo Leopold ventured into a remote area of northern Mexico in the Sierra Madre, and it was there, he later wrote, "that I first clearly realized that land is an organism, that all my life I had seen only sick land, whereas here was a biota still in perfect aboriginal health." Everything he saw seemed to be in ecological balance with both abundant deer and no coyotes. He wondered if wolves had kept them out.

But throughout the West, our war on predators continued. The M44 gun-trap blew up when a predator bit the bait, the gun firing a cyanide shell directly into the animal's mouth. Government trappers also used Compound 1080, an odorless, tasteless poison that's toxic to mammals. It was finally outlawed in 1972, a year before Congress passed the Endangered Species Act.

How ironic that the same agency that sponsored decades of predator control -- the Bureau of Biological Survey -- evolved into the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Congress gave the newly named agency a mandate to protect endangered species, including some of the very species the government had spent years killing off. Colorado Parks and Wildlife, for example, even brought back lynx, animals that had previously been poisoned and trapped.

A century later, we know a lot more about ecological balance and land health, and thankfully, poison pellets are things of the past.

Andrew Gulliford is a contributor to Writers on the Range, an opinion service of High Country News. He is professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College.

High Country News Classifieds
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES GENERALIST
    Honor the Earth is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate based on identity. Indigenous people, people of color, Two-Spirit or LGBTQA+ people,...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Colorado Trout Unlimited seeks an individual with successful development experience, strong interpersonal skills, and a deep commitment to coldwater conservation to serve as the organization's...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Now hiring a full-time, remote Program Director for the Society for Wilderness Stewardship! Come help us promote excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship,...
  • WYOMING COMMUNITY PARTNERSHIPS COORDINATOR
    The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership is seeking Coordinator to implement public education and advocacy campaigns in the Cowboy State to unite and amplify hunter, angler,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...