If Leopold and other scientists are correct, if the land is indeed one organism and there is a total and critical interdependence among all living things, then the deliberate poisoning of vast areas of the U.S. will have been a long stride toward the end of life as it is known on the North American continent. Dr. Lee Talbot of the President's Council on Environmental Quality said that "during the past 150 years the rate of extermination of mammal species has increased 55-fold. If it continues to increase at the same rate (hopefully it's unlikely), virtually all the remaining species of mammals will be gone in about 30 years." No one need feel that the U.S., officially and unofficially, has failed to do its part.
Warnings of the dangers of wholesale poisoning have been issued loud and clear for many years. One of them came nearly a quarter of a century ago from the late J. Frank Dobie, dean of Southwestern naturalists, in his classic work The Voice of the Coyote.
"Sheep are the arch-predators upon the soil of arid and semi-arid ranges. Wherever they are concentrated on ranges without sufficient moisture to maintain a turf under their deep-biting teeth and cutting hoofs, they destroy the plant life.... Unless long-term public good wins over short-term private gain and ignorance, vast ranges, already greatly depleted, will at no distant date be as barren as the sheep-created deserts of Spain. Metaphorically, the sheep of the West eat up not only all animals that prey upon them—coyotes, wildcats and eagles especially—but badgers, skunks, foxes, ringtails and others. On sheep ranges, wholesale poisoning and trapping have destroyed nearly all of them."
The effect of Dobie's anguished broadside was precisely nil. Similar impassioned attacks on Western poisoning and grazing practices have been equally futile, and nowadays certain sheepmen (and sometimes certain cattlemen) go about spreading poisons, all the while humming Home on the Range and totting up imaginary economic benefits of the slaughter. Not long ago a weekly Colorado newspaper printed a story about a rancher and his wife and children who spent a delightful winter weekend cruising their property on snowmobiles, throwing out strychnine "drop baits" to kill coyotes. The item ran as a social note. The Western stockman who does not engage in such popular practices is branded an eccentric, sometimes an outright traitor, and those who protest against this drenching of the American landscape with poison are called "little old ladies in tennis shoes." In sheep country, there is no harsher epithet.
The irrational hatred of animals that kill other animals (a hatred that was good enough for Dad and is good enough for most ranchers) is deep-grained, going back to the hard times when the loss of a few lambs or a calf might cause a serious shortage in the winter larder. But while modern scientists have learned that predators are sorely needed ecologically, and while stock operations have long since passed out of the shoestring category of the old West, sheepmen have continued their anachronistic war on predators as though their very existences depended on poisoning the last one off. Dozens of naturalists have issued public warnings against the resulting toxification of the American range, but there is hardly a legislative body that has paid the slightest attention. This includes the Congress of the United States, where a session is not complete without the introduction of antipoisoning legislation, a few chuckles and a prompt pigeonholing of the matter. The sheepmen seem to possess a mysterious power. Arnold Rieder, a former Montana state senator and one of a handful of Western politicians who have spoken out against the sheep industry's practices, tells why:
"The woolgrowers are the best organized livestock group of all. To a great degree they control the stockgrowers' associations, and that means control of the state capitals of the West and the delegations that are sent to Washington. Invariably, sheepmen get their way. They're always the ones who make the most noise about coyote loss, the ones who demand the most poison."
Sometimes the hatred of sheepmen for coyotes, bears and mountain lions seems to go so far beyond the dimensions of reality as to be almost pathological in origin. Frank Dobie wrote about a sheepman on the Frio River in Texas who liked to saw off the lower jaws of trapped coyotes and "turn the mutilated animals loose for his dogs to tear to pieces." Stories of skinning coyotes alive are common, as are stories of setting them afire. "I had one sheepman tell me, 'Bring me a live coyote, will you?' " says trapper Acel Rowley of Vernal, Utah. "I said, 'What're you gonna do with it?' He said, 'I'm gonna take him and tie his jaws shut and soak him with kerosine and touch a match to the end of his tail and turn him loose.' "
Only an imbecile would conclude from such Western horror stories that sheepmen have a monopoly on cruelty to animals or that all sheepmen share the same lack of compassion or rapport with nature. Most woolgrowers abhor the violence that some of their fellows commit. There are many sheep ranchers who oppose the wholesale poisoning and killing that goes on around them, and specifically forbid it on their own properties. But too many other private poisoners carry on their work by land and by air, and with gusto.
In Wyoming the personal pilot for a rich stockman learned that he could glide down on coyotes in the wintertime and drop them with heavy patterns from his shotgun. From this it was a short step to gunning eagles from the air. After the pilot had perfected his techniques and increased his efficiency by taking along a rancher to serve as aerial gunner from the copilot's seat, he began to warm to the idea of eliminating predators in the mass. He learned that coyotes and other animals were getting wise to the poison stations scattered about the state; often trappers would see tracks where predators had made wide detours around the deadly baits. An established predator-control technique by ranchers in Wyoming had become the baiting of game carcasses, and if no road kills or natural kills were available, antelope or deer were shot and laced with poison. All of this was illegal, of course.
Growing more certain of his improving techniques, the pilot began flying to remote areas of the range and gunning down antelope and deer instead of predators. Then he would make a short landing, doctor the carcass with poison and fly away. The aerial poisoning became so widespread—and the pilot so fearless of prosecution—that it was soon the talk of the state. Before long the pilot was being called upon by ranchers around the state for advice and guidance on his advanced poisoning techniques.