SI Vault
The Poisoning of the West
Jack Olsen
March 08, 1971
Across the mountains and ranges, chemical death sown by both private and Government interests is reaping a shocking harvest of wildlife and even threatens man
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
March 08, 1971

The Poisoning Of The West

Across the mountains and ranges, chemical death sown by both private and Government interests is reaping a shocking harvest of wildlife and even threatens man

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4 5

To add to the efficiency of miracle poisons like 1080, there is a new sophistication in poisoning techniques. At one time the West was protected by its very limitlessness; a pioneer might strap on snowshoes and trek 10 miles across a mountain, shoot a grizzly, lace its body with strychnine and call this activity a day's work. But nowadays the poisoner works from airplanes, trail bikes and tough pickup trucks that carry him and his thallium bait bucket and his coyote getters to every corner of the range in a few easy hours.

"The whole sheep range out there, why, that whole country's plastered with poison," says crusty Paul Maxwell, former trapper and bulldozer operator and now president of the National Council of Public Land Users. "As soon as it gets cold enough so the poison baits will keep, they've got traps and 1080 stations and getters and strychnine and arsenic and everything else all over this countryside, and hardly any of it marked. The people who could crack down on this—the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management and the different state fish and game commissions—why, they're advocating poisoning, too! The people we're entrusting with taking care of our public land are out contaminating it. I assume they must be padding their pockets from the stockmen."

Says an equally perturbed Wyoming trapper, "Up here they're killing wild animals faster 'n they can be born. Many sheepmen who use the national forest for grazing go in with sacks and sacks of strychnine pellets, some in peanut butter, some in honey, and throw 'em around like seed, and they kill everything in the area before they bring their sheep in." To supplement this frenzied poisoning by private ranchers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service annually distributes tons of 1080-baited meat, bangs coyote getters into the earth by the tens of thousands, throws strychnine pellets across the countryside by the hundreds of thousands and utilizes several dozen other killing techniques, including aerial hunting and the gassing of dens.

In response to these pressures, the number of wild animal species is dropping, but the Fish and Wildlife Service's annual budget for killing and poisoning rises inversely in magnificent adherence to Parkinson's Law. (The budget for the Wildlife Services program in 1971 was $8,092,300. In 1960 it was $4,370,935.) The money, of course, comes ultimately from he very taxpayers and consumers who stand to lose the most from this systematic annihilation of the nation's fauna. Says Glen Sutton, who spent over four decades working as a predator trapper for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, embracing some of its methods but disdaining others, "I'm afraid a lot of these animals are going to be extinct soon. The bear and mountain lion are next. There's too much pressure from sheepmen; they want 'em all killed. Nowadays you don't see one bear track where you used to see dozens. The poisons are getting them." Says another retired Government trapper, Charles Orlosky, who lives high in a remote area of the Rocky Mountains: "Around here the poisoners have wiped out weasel, marten, mink, fox, badger, and they've got the coyote hanging on the ropes. I used to be able to make a fair living trapping for pelts up here, but now I do it just for a hobby, for something to do. There aren't enough fur-bearing animals left in these mountains to support a trapper, and I don't care how hard he works at it. Mostly, I blame the 1080 poison. They say it's only dangerous to canine species, but that's just not true. I've found all kinds of birds feeding on 1080 stations—eagles, magpies, Canada jays, Clarke's nutcrackers, woodpeckers—and those that don't get killed pack away the poisoned meat in places where the martens and the weasels can find it and get poisoned themselves. Last winter was the first time in years that we didn't have a pair of eagles feeding up here. They just disappeared. And where there used to be magpies all over the place, we didn't see one all winter. These are major changes, crucial changes. My God, if they can wipe out whole species way back here in this part of the Rockies, they can wipe them out anywhere."

There is ample evidence that the combination of stockmen and federal poisoners has already succeeded in eliminating certain animal populations and endangering others. As Michigan's conservation-minded Congressman John Dingell said at a House hearing in 1969: "They are poisoning them off in a fashion that is disgraceful to behold. They are doing it without shame or mercy." There are broad acres of California where coyotes once were common and now are completely eliminated. A trapper in southwest Texas was asked when he saw his last wild badger, and his reply was to shrug his shoulders and say, "It's been so long I can't even remember." The kit fox, full grown at five or six pounds and a master controller of rodents, has vanished from thousands of square miles of the prairie. Like all canines, the tiny fox is particularly vulnerable to 1080. The black-footed ferret, never common, is about to flicker out and die as a species, victim of the poisons that are also wiping out the prairie dogs on which the ferret dines.

An outdoorsman in Idaho says sadly, "Every year for the last five or six years I've seen this pair of fishers in a little spring hole where I hunt. This year they were gone. Nearby, I found a poison bait." Hikers came across two dead golden eagles in the sheep country of northwest Colorado, a region where eagle populations have diminished sharply, and a Denver laboratory provided the diagnosis: strychnine poisoning. Two of the last surviving California condors fell to 1080-treated grain, and a Government report noted, "It is unthinkable that this sort of mistake can be permitted to recur." But it will recur again and again, with condors and other species, simply because there is so much poison scattered on the land that it cannot be avoided by wildlife.

The poison is being distributed and utilized with typical American enterprise. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and private manufacturers of poisons have even managed to export some of their deadly expertise. A well-publicized "victory" over Canadian wolves was accomplished by aerial distribution of 1080 supplied by an American manufacturer. Dozens of nations have begun to send in orders and repeat orders for American-made predacides, and recently the Japanese paid U.S. chemical technology the ultimate compliment: they began manufacturing a 1080-like product of their own. The Fish and Wildlife Service, in a generous hands-across-the-border gesture, helped Mexican authorities put out 83 poison stations from Tijuana to the mouth of the Colorado River along the international border, with predictable results. Within three months coyotes were "no more to be seen" (to quote an exuberant Fish and Wildlife report), and "in Rumerosa a considerable portion of the dog population was poisoned. Only two dogs survived in the village." When this same Government agency and the Pan American Sanitary Bureau distributed 1080 in Chihuahua, they managed to kill several grizzly bears, some of the last grizzlies that exist below the northern reaches of the American continent.

After the bears were poisoned, stockmen displayed a predictable attitude: What good is a grizzly? The question recalled a remark by Wisconsin's Senator Gaylord Nelson to a committee of Congress: "I have a lawyer friend who had a scientist friend who spent all of his time studying the spider, and one day the lawyer asked him, "What good are spiders?' and the scientist said, They are interesting, and may I ask, what good are you?' "

Large numbers of concerned Americans have been taking cram courses in ecology, but there are still millions who ask questions like what good is the spider and what good is the grizzly. The answer, of course, lies in nature's delicate adjustments, worked out over millions of years of massive trial and error, of survival experiments and adaptation and compromise. These processes are mysterious, inscrutable, so much so that the more one learns about them, the more one becomes reluctant to step on an ant or swat a fly for fear that some dire ecological catastrophe will ensue. As Charles Darwin warned, we are ignorant "of the mutual relations of all organic beings, a conviction as necessary as it is difficult to acquire." But as Darwin might not have anticipated, we are beginning to learn. And the more a person learns about the balance of nature, the less he is likely to ask questions like the ones that a sheepman recently bellowed across a room: "Which is worth more, livestock or predators?" and, "How much taxes do coyotes pay?" As ecological knowledge grows, we no longer consider which is "worth more," which is "good" and which is "bad," which is "destructive" and which is "useful," but how do they relate to each other and to us, and how do we all relate to the land that sustains us?

"Harmony with land is like harmony with a friend," Aldo Leopold wrote. "You cannot cherish his right hand and chop off his left. That is to say, you cannot love game and hate predators; you cannot conserve the waters and waste the ranges; you cannot build the forest and mine the farm. The land is one organism."

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5