If the sincere conservationist is disturbed by the poison saturation of the American West by sheep ranchers, he may take some small comfort from the fact that such free-lance poisoning has been made illegal in a few states. Lamentably, the sheepmen's power remains so great that hardly any of these anti-poisoning laws are enforced, but at least they are on the books.
But what of the public poisoning Establishment, the official earth polluters, the men of the Wildlife Services division under the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, those dedicated public servants who preach about the wonders of wildlife and the wisdom of nature? To cite just one year—1963—these professional poisoners and trappers killed 90,000 coyotes, 300 mountain lions, 21,000 bobcats and lynx, 2,800 "red wolves," 800 bears, 24,000 foxes, 7,000 badgers, 19,000 skunks, 10,000 raccoons, 1,200 beavers, 7,600 opossums, 6,700 porcupines and 600 others. (These figures, no longer readily available to the general public, do not include many other animals that dined at poison stations and staggered away to die untabulated.) Were all these deaths necessary? Were they ecologically justified? Or were they part of a runaway killing program that years ago lost its scientific justification and now rushes on like an unbraked train? Dr. Alfred Etter, a distinguished naturalist, has studied the federal poisoning program more closely than anyone, and his conclusions are not very encouraging.
One wintery night Etter lost his dog to poison, probably the supertoxic 1080. The angered biologist immediately set about a one-man investigation of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service poisoning policies in his own neighborhood, Pitkin County, Colo., which includes within its borders the popular resort of Aspen. His research turned up wholesale violations of almost every rule in the service's own book. "The infractions," Etter wrote later, "included placement of compound 1080 poison baits and cyanide guns on Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service lands without authorization, placement of guns on prime recreational land without notifying the owner, leaving of bails out over the summer season, failure to post warning signs, failure to keep accurate records and other equally serious offenses." Etter found that there was complete confusion within the Fish and Wildlife Service as to where its own poisons were located, and while his disclosures were being published in Defenders of Wildlife News, a hiker named Martin Carswell accidentally pulled a cyanide gun on Burnt Mountain near Aspen and escaped death by a fraction of an inch. Evidence indicated the gun had been set by a Government trapper. The gun had not been authorized by the U.S. Forest Service, which controlled the land in the area.
Etter was also angered by the desultory Fish and Wildlife investigation into his dog's death, an investigation which only accidentally turned up the fact that Etter's own township was studded with 1080 stations and poisonous gadgetry despite its proximity to Aspen. One result had been the drastic reduction of the area's coyote population (not to mention the area's pet dog population) and, as a result, the proliferation of malnourished and stunted deer, some 600 of them on 3½ miles of overgrazed winter range. Coyote getters, with the dye markings of the Fish and Wildlife Service, seemed to be as common as mushrooms in the township, and strychnine drop baits were being sown like seed. Etter wrote, "In a single county, one or more infractions of 10 different Wildlife Services ground rules were identified. These infractions related to both summer and winter operations and involved two different poisoners, a subdistrict supervisor, a state supervisor and, indirectly, a regional inspector."
But far more significant than the individual infractions was the pattern unearthed in Etter's own backyard by a man who was himself a field representative of the Defenders of Wildlife and a longtime thorn in the side of poisoners. "If there is one area of the United States where we might expect Wildlife Services to be on its good behavior, it should be in Pitkin County, Colo.," Etter wrote. "There are two reasons: first, because it is one of the most important recreational areas of the entire nation, and second, because I make my office there, and one of my projects is to study the federal predator-control program. Wildlife Services is well aware of this fact. If the agency cannot control what happens in this county, then the chances are excellent that it cannot control any part of its western killing campaign."
Anyone who makes the most cursory study of the toxification of the American West soon becomes accustomed to the sight of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's district field assistants (DFAs) sallying out on the attack every morning without the slightest regard for their own rules and regulations. But one also learns quickly that the rules and regulations of the service do not seem to have been intended seriously in the first place, that they exist largely for the purpose of camouflage and that DFAs and their supervisors honor them almost entirely in the breach.
Take, for example, the broadcasting of strychnine drop baits. Although strychnine kills less discriminantly than the fearsome 1080, the drop baits in which it is used are highly perishable in warm weather, making it a safer outdoor poison. But as though to counteract this safety factor, Government poisoners distribute strychnine drop baits everywhere. According to official records, over six million of the sugar-and-lard-coated pellets have been sown by Government trappers in the last 10 years. The baits are distributed by hand, by snowmobile, by pickup truck, by trail bike and by airplane. Along with the other millions of poison pills put out by private stockmen, they are annihilating animals and birds that were protected by natural conditions for thousands of decades. "When you spread strychnine across all that area in the winter, you might just as well forget wildlife," says a retired Government predator trapper, Charles Orlosky. "The only thing that'll survive is a few rodents in hibernation."
Characteristically, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has elaborate rules about the use of strychnine baits, and it displays them at the drop of a complaint so that the public may see how carefully such lethal agents are controlled. "Strychnine alkaloid tablets...must not be dropped from aircraft without the Regional Director's approval," the rules state. "Care must be taken to prevent exposure of perishable baits to domestic animals, pets, and beneficial wildlife. All perishable bait placements must be covered with cow chips, flat stones, or similar loose material, or placed in such a manner as to reduce hazards to nontarget species."
But Government trappers would go into paroxysms of laughter if they were asked when they last positioned a drop bait under a cow chip or a flat stone. "They ain't enough cow flops in the whole West to cover all the baits," says a retired DFA.
One of the reasons Charles Orlosky resigned from his job as Government trapper in western Colorado was the aerial seeding of strychnine. "One day they called me up and told me to make 5,000 drop baits," Orlosky recalls. "They said they were gonna drop 'em from an airplane on national forest land. So I told 'em to go to hell. I said it's against regulations and I'm not gonna do it. They said not to worry, there was nothing but coyotes where they were gonna make the drop. I had to laugh. I asked if they ever heard of birds? Why, the second that one of those paper sacks of baits hits the ground it opens up and throws the strychnine balls all over, and the birds pick 'em up and finish the job of scattering. They call this selective poisoning. I call it extermination."