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Know the West

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.