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

One day a tip came in from a U.S. Fish and Wildlife trapper who had deep contempt for the pilot's practices. He told game wardens that the pilot was going to fly some poisoning missions in a few days, and he named the sheep spread where the operation would take place. The Wyoming Game and Fish Commission provided a plane, and when the poisoner took off, wardens followed in their own aircraft at a discreet distance. They followed—and followed. The poisoner's plane led them all over the state, climbing and diving and snaking through canyons and over mountain passes and under power lines, and at last, with a contemptuous waggle of wings, turned homeward and landed without a semblance of a threat to any wildlife.

The wardens gave up. The Wyoming Game and Fish Commission was poorly funded for such expensive operations as aerial surveillance, and anyway it was plain that someone was tipping the pilot off. One of the wardens felt that the leak was coming from the airport; others were convinced that the tip came from inside the Game and Fish Commission itself. Such leaks are common in Western states; they are another reason that antipoisoning laws are largely unenforced.

For a while the pilot's activities seemed to slow, but after a discreet period of watching and waiting he resumed his poisoning full-scale. "We'd find all these carcasses on the ranches," recalls one of the frustrated wardens. "Most of them were deer, but some were antelope, and they were all loaded with poison. I can't imagine a worse offense in the outdoors than killing game animals and then filling them with poison to kill more animals. We were furious about it." But neither fury nor frustration was enough to solve the case and bring the pilot and his imitators to justice. Nor would there have been much likelihood of a conviction—or a meaningful penalty—if the pilot had been caught. To be sure, he had refined and perfected an effective (and illegal) poisoning technique, but that only made him different in degree from so many of the sheepmen of the region. As one local wool-grower put it, "Sure, poisoning game is illegal. So's crossing the double yellow. If everybody's doing it, can it be much of a crime?" Indeed no. Nowadays the pilot's operations are more extensive than ever. His price has risen from $75 to $150 an hour, and even the most dedicated game wardens of Wyoming have given up on the case.

Anyone who remains dubious about the power of the sheepmen or the impossibility of serious prosecution of illegal poisoners in sheep country has only to study the so-called A ram be I Case, a landmark in the annals of frustrating Western jurisprudence. The case began when a trapper named Jim King was putting out bobcat sets two miles north of the Big Sandy Creek in western Wyoming. At the tip of a narrow point of rocks, where he usually installed a trap, King saw what appeared to be a jellified blob of meat. He took a closer look and recognized an antelope quarter, fresh and showing signs of having been doctored. King finished putting out his string and then telephoned a game warden named Darwin Creek, 40 miles away in Pinedale, Wyo. Creek brought in an enforcement-minded colleague. Max Long, and the two wardens drove to the scene. They found tire tracks and boot prints fanning out in several directions from the original bait, and by the time the long afternoon was over they had picked up seven quarters of antelope and deer. Five of these had been in remote areas, but one had been alongside a trickle of water that joined a fishing stream below, and one was close to another stream that was popular with campers. It was December, the air was cold and no one was around, but Creek and Long knew that unseasonal warm weekends might bring dozens of visitors to the camping area. They made plaster of Paris prints of the tracks, interviewed the closest inhabitants and rushed the seven quarters to the Game and Fish Commission Research Laboratory at Laramie. Chemists took one look at the meat and quickly put on gloves. After preliminary tests they advised Creek and Long to remove their clothes and burn them. The final analyses showed that the slabs of meat were carrying a heavy load of 1080, which is supposed to be used in predator control only by U.S. Government trappers but, in fact, sifts into the hands of private poisoners all over the West. According to Creek, "One of the doctors at the game and fish lab said there was enough poison in any one of the quarters to kill people for a mile down that s ream. It was the highest concentration of 1080 they'd ever seen."

Creek and Long now faced the classic dilemma of the Western conservation officer. The baits had been found in sheep country, on public land, and all signs pointed to one person, an influential Basque-American stockman named John Arambel, member of a prominent ranching family. To investigate, or not? Neither Creek nor Long paused to consider the consequences; they made an investigation, picked up a few tidbits of information around the area and sent for Arambel to meet them at the sheriff's office. Creek tells what happened: "After we gave him his rights, he denied everything. We told him we could place him at the scene. We told him witnesses had spotted his pickup, and the tire tracks matched. After a while he broke down and admitted that his hired help had shot the deer out of season, but he said he had gotten the antelope after the animal had been killed by a car. He also admitted that his men had laced the carcasses with 1080 and had distributed the poisoned quarters on public land. But when we asked him where he got the 1080, he refused to tell us. If you know how dangerous 1080 is, you know how bad we wanted to know where he got it. But he wouldn't tell us. He admitted that they put a lot of 1080 into the quarters to make sure they did a good job, but that was all. Finally we offered him immunity on the whole case if he'd just tell where he got the 1080, and he still refused. His lawyer took him into court and pled him guilty to killing a game animal out of season, using a game animal for trapping and wanton waste of game, and the judge fined him $164. He could have gotten something like 18 months and a $300 fine, but you could see how the judge felt. Before he passed sentence he told Arambe I that he understood his problem. He said something like, 'I know you ranchers are having a lot of trouble with those coyotes.' "

The Arambel trial took place in 1967, in sheep country, and the local reaction was predictable. The people of the area are still annoyed at Creek and Long—"the Gestapo," as one housewife calls them—and John Arambel has become a local folk hero. All he did was cross the yellow line.

There are larger significances to the Arambel case than a sheep-country judge's leniency or a sheep-country people's distorted code of ethics. As Darwin Creek explains, "There is no way to figure the amount of poison that's put out illegally in the state of Wyoming, but it's something awful. Our wildlife is disappearing fast, especially animals like bears and martens and foxes—animals that'll take a poisoned bait. If all the people of Wyoming knew what's going on, they'd be shocked and something would be done, but that's the trouble: all the people of Wyoming don't know. It's kept quiet. This case is an example of how they keep it quiet. The truth is that Max and I had some pretty flimsy evidence. If John Arambel had denied everything and pleaded not guilty and put up a strong defense in court, he'd have had a good chance to beat the case. Why did he plead guilty? Because if there'd been a court fight it would've made headlines all over Wyoming, and then reporters and outsiders would've become interested, and, sooner or later, they'd have wanted to know what we wanted to know right from the beginning: Where'd Arambel get the 1080? And that was one question that could not stand publicity. As soon as the press and the public found out what 1080 was and how it killed and how it was leaking around the state of Wyoming, there'd have been a terrible fuss, so they came in and pled Arambel guilty and got it over with quick and quiet. There was a little tiny item way down in the corner of the local paper, and that was the end of it."

The horror that men like Max Long and Darwin Creek feel at the mention of 1080 is largely unshared by the growing army of conservation sts in the U.S. as a whole, and for a simple reason: like the majority of the people of poison-drenched Wyoming, they know nothing about it. Or they only know that 1080 is the favorite poison of the U.S. Fish and Wild ife Service and therefore conclude that it must be safe, reasonable and practical. It is not. The poison was unsafe in the years when it was used only by the trained mammal-control agents of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; it is manifestly unsafe now that it is also being used by the zealous sheepmen of the West. Of all the lethal agents of history, from Socrates' hemlock down through the Borgias' legendary deadly elixirs and the nerve poisons of modern warfare, it is difficult to imagine a more insidiously homicidal poison than sodium fluoroacetate. The most infinitesimal amounts of 1080 are toxic. A single ounce used at maximum efficiency could kill 200 adult humans, or 20,000 coyotes or dogs, or 70,000 house cats. Except in large quantities of water, 1080 apparently does not degrade biologically or physically. It is colorless, odorless and almost tasteless. No antidote has yet been found.

A 1950 summary by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service noted that since its introduction there had been 12 known and four suspected deaths from 1080. The Department of Health, Education and Welfare reported several years later that there had been "13 proven fatal cases, five suspected deaths, and six nonfatal cases...." The truth is that no one is certain how many have died from 1080 poisoning, especially now that it is finding its way into private hands, but there is very little doubt that there have been deaths other than the diagnosed ones. Glen Crabtree, a research biochemist at the Fish and Wildlife laboratories in Denver, tells of a case where a child died from sucking dried-up paper cups that had been used to hold 1080 solutions months before. "Then there was a case in Texas where 1080 cups were put in a barn," Crabtree says, "and the farmer was told to lock the barn and didn't, and a little boy got in and died. In eastern Colorado a store owner kept 1080 solution in a pop bottle. A store employee drank it. And then, of course, there have been the suicides." Crabtree remembers a particularly unpleasant case in which he was called for expert advice. "A woman who worked as a secretary at a pest-control company became despondent, and she took some 1080 out of a locked cabinet and ingested it. Then she changed her mind and called for help. But there's no changing your mind with 1080. During the night the doctors called me, and I told them there was nothing they could do but try to allay the symptoms. Apparently, it was quite painful. She had convulsions, and she lasted several hours."

Where convulsions are present, Crabtree points out, any experienced physician would suspect poisoning, but there also are 1080 cases where the doctor is not present at the time of the convulsions, or the patient does not suffer convulsions at all. In these cases, Crabtree says, doctors "would probably diagnose the death as a heart attack."

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5