eradicating wolves -- 6/13/22
Today's selection -- from Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History by Dan Flores. In the early 20th century, the U.S. embarked on a program of eradicating predators from Western lands:
"The Progressive Era -- the years from 1901 through 1916, during the administrations of Republicans Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft and Democrat Woodrow Wilson -- represented the real beginning of growth and reach in the US federal government. As with many other projects of this initial age of social engineering, many Americans believed that a large-scale effort like exterminating predators was simply too big a task for individual ranchers. Indeed, most westerners were coming to the conclusion that it was too big even for livestock association or state bounty programs. Coyotes, in particular, for some reason seemed impossible even to thin out. Getting rid of predators called for federal men, experts who understood animals and who were preparing themselves by training in the techniques of mass killing.
"The first congressional 'eradication appropriation' finally went to the bureau in 1914: it awarded $125,000 for use 'on the National Forests and the public domain in destroying wolves, coyotes, and other animals injurious to agriculture and animal husbandry.' Finally armed with the budget and mission it had been seeking for nearly a decade, the bureau hired three hundred hunters around the West to engage in a brand-new, federally mandated war against wild things. Within two years it also asked Congress -- and western senators and representatives made sure Congress agreed -- to allow the bureau to accept additional private funding from stockmen's associations, as well as money from state legislatures.
"At last the Biological Survey had found an argument for its existence that not only brought money rolling in from a variety of sources but seemed to make sense to everyone. That included middle-class Americans of the age, who had internalized Alfred Lord Tennyson's flawed but potent redaction of evolution. 'Nature, red in tooth and claw' convicted predators of all manner of crimes and cruelties. Even the Audubon Society endorsed the Biological Survey's antipredator campaign.
"There was one other new ally. Public relations experts within the bureau began to mount a campaign to spread the idea to sport hunters that its project of destroying predators, which state after state was now classifying as unprotected 'varmints' or 'nongame,' would have the added benefit of creating bumper populations of 'game' animals for hunters to shoot. The idea was that in this brave new world that American wildlife experts were engineering, sport hunters would replace predators in harvesting creatures like deer and elk. It was an absolute stroke of genius. Trappers who had long made money on the pelts of coyotes and wolves didn't welcome the federal competition, but the bureau's argument brought all manner of sportsmen's groups, firearms manufacturers, and state game and fish agencies to the cause.
|Soldiers displaying Wolf pelt at Soda Butte Creek patrol station, 1905|
"The Progressive Era was the age of the bureaucratic professional, and professionalism prevailed at the Biological Survey. The quickest, most 'efficient' way to mass-kill wolves and coyotes was not shooting individual animals but poisoning entire populations. So with the goal of blanketing river valleys and mountain ranges with poison bait stations that aimed to kill every predator of every species in a region, with its new funding the bureau now proceeded to build a plant in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to produce strychnine tablets in volume. Chillingly and unsentimentally dubbed the Eradication Methods Laboratory, this federal killing facility moved to Denver in 1921, where it would go on to perfect an amazing witch's brew of ever more efficient, ever deadlier predacides. Chemists and researchers in the Eradication Methods Laboratory, with government jobs and benefits, presumably realized the American Dream in the 1920s, buying houses, automobiles, radios, and washing machines, all the latest technologies of the decade. Their products, meanwhile, destroyed America's wild animals, the foundations of an ecology that 20,000 years of evolution had perfected, as if their victims were of no consequence whatsoever.
"For the hunters employed by the Biological Survey, the approach in the field was simple. The bureau's professional hunters' first step was 'prebaiting,' strewing cubes of fat and meat across the countryside to get wolves and coyotes habituated to them. That accomplished, the actual 'poison bait stations' -- in the age of the automobile, each bait station was commonly one of America's surplus horses, which could be led to the selected spot and shot and whose carcass was then laced with strychnine tablets and surrounded by poisoned fat and meat cubes -- went in next.
"Stanley Young, one of the bureau's initial hunters who rose to subsequent prominence in the agency, became something of a coyote specialist in this new game. Young had grown up in Oregon idealizing Lewis and Clark. Now, in places like the Sacramento Mountains of New Mexico and along the rims of the Grand Canyon in Arizona, he discovered that with strychnine it was possible to kill 350 of Lewis and Clark's 'prairie wolves' in less than ten days. Approaching his bait stations, he later wrote, he found that he could tally a quick total of his victims even from a distance because of the way they died. Every single dead coyote was frozen into that signature strychnine convulsion -- a wrenched, alien shape easily visible against the landscape, its tail sticking straight out and frizzed as if the animal had been struck by lightning.
"Young's visual imagery of the US government's coyote extermination campaign was soon writ large across the West. With wolf populations rapidly collapsing in the face of the bureau's war on the wild, señor coyote's turn was coming fast. But there remained one very large and visible public-lands arena in which wolves were still the main target and coyotes still mostly collateral damage in the wolf war. That was the national parks.
"Yellowstone, set aside as the world's first national park in 1872, and Glacier, created along the Continental Divide in Montana in 1912, became symbolic national scenes of America's wolf and coyote jihad in the 1920s. The United States created national parks in order to allow the public to experience wild nature in its pristine state, so you would assume that when Secretary of the Interior Henry Teller banned all hunting in Yellowstone, even predators would have found refuge. But naturally, park managers saw things differently. Despite having been on the 'pristine' Yellowstone Plateau for 1 million years before the park ever existed, wolves, lions, bears, and coyotes somehow were unwelcome enough to produce extermination campaigns even in America's grand nature preserves. Sport hunters, hoping the parks would breed game animals, and ranchers, hoping they wouldn't become asylums for predators, pushed for this, but they didn't have to push hard.
"Yellowstone aimed its first predator-extermination campaign directly at the park's 'numerous and bold' coyote population. At first the army rangers who patrolled the park randomly shot every coyote they saw. But as early as 1898, park personnel actually began to poison coyotes, mountain lions, and wolves inside park boundaries. When Congress signed the Biological Survey's predator death sentence appropriation in 1914, Yellowstone went so far as to invite Vernon Bailey to show park personnel the proper mass-extermination techniques. Following Bailey's approach, which focused heavily on dens and pups, between 1914 and 1916 Yellowstone rangers destroyed eighty-three coyotes and twelve wolves inside park boundaries. Stephen Mather, the charismatic New Englander who became the National Park Service's first director in 1916, is a conservationist hero to many, but Mather thought that if a Yellowstone ranger 'didn't kill off his 200 to 300 coyotes a year,' the park's coyotes would spread across the West and wreak havoc. Yellowstone's tally until the death of the last wolves in the park, in 1926, was 136 gray wolves, 80 of them puppies. Coyote deaths, of course, did not end in 1926. With bureau assistance, the number of coyotes that died in Yellowstone from 1918 until 1935 reached nearly 3,000: 2,968, to be precise."