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What is to be done about the drenching of the West with poison? How can an enlightened citizenry overturn a deeply rooted poisoning hierarchy that has only grown stronger in the face of scientific criticism, that has steadfastly ignored a growing ecological awareness and that is already turning the tortured rangelands of the West into a reeking abattoir of dead and dying wildlife and contaminated watersheds?
Those closest to the problem, men like the crusading naturalist Alfred Etter and the politician-conservationist Arnold Rieder, agree that a first step must be the elimination of certain persistent myths and legends, some of them central to the poisoning Establishment's rationale. There is, for example, the popular idea that predators, like the coyote, will outlive us all, that no amount of killing will make a dent in the hardy creatures' populations. Most sheepmen stubbornly insist that there are more coyotes now than there were 30 or 40 years ago, despite the poisoning. The U.S. Census Bureau does not count coyotes, nor do many state game and fish commissions. How do you count an animal that has had a millennium of millennia to learn the fine art of roaming the land without being seen? One expert is as expert as another, and the propaganda mills take advantage of the lack of genuine knowledge. Even a devout protectionist like Etter is not entirely convinced that the coyote is playing his last hour upon the stage. "It'll be a long time before coyotes are extinct," Etter says, "but it is possible. We used to say the wolf and the grizzly would never be wiped out in the United States, but we've almost managed to do it."
The elimination of a whole species seems so unpleasantly final—and so thoroughly remote—that most people simply refuse to admit the possibility. Then, subconsciously convinced that it cannot happen, they permit it to happen. While sheepmen and members of the poisoning Establishment talk in wildly exaggerated terms about the multimillions of coyotes on the land, less partisan observers have begun to notice that some areas have been cleared completely of the little wolves, and other areas seem to be headed in the same direction. The great bulk of people will remain unconcerned, of course, so long as a few coyotes are seen crossing highways at night or are heard occasionally from a distant hilltop in the moonlight. Modern man, despite the unfathomable wonders he has seen, still suffers from lack of imagination, still seems incapable of looking at a steadily dwindling supply of specimen animals and realizing that the end result of such a negative progression must be annihilation.
Similar thought processes—or lack of them—cause certain people to wonder what causes the concern about endangered species like the California condor. After all, they say, there must be 50 or 60 of the big birds; how can they be in danger? It will be time enough to get excited when there are five or six left. In the early 1900s Ernest Thompson Seton estimated that more than five billion prairie dogs lived in the U.S.; today the species has been nearly wiped out, and only a small number of prairie-dog towns remain. In 1810 Alexander Wilson saw a flight of passenger pigeons that he estimated to be 240 miles long and from horizon to horizon, containing some two billion birds. Today there are none.
Mere numbers are no protection to a species, especially in an era when habitats are sharply dwindling and the earth is being saturated with toxics. It is no consolation that the coyote has been spotted in Los Angeles County when he is no longer seen in thousands of square miles of Western rangelands that once were his normal residence. Random coyotes have been sighted in every continental state except Delaware, but they are seldom seen in their old habitats on the prairies of eastern New Mexico, and Arnold Rieder reports that there are lots of people in Montana who haven't seen a coyote in 10 years. As long ago as the 1940s a Government trapper named John W. Crook was telling his colleagues that poisoning had whipped the coyote in southern Colorado. During the winter of 1946-47 Crook saw one specimen where he used to see hundreds. But the poisoning continued unabated in Colorado. In West Texas a former Government trapper, Charlie Stone, misses the days when "you could go just about anywhere around here and see 15 or 20 coyotes. I'm in the field trapping all the time since my retirement from the Fish and Wildlife, and I've seen one loose coyote in the last year." Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas returned from a trip to Wyoming and told fellow conservationists that he was shocked by the disappearance of coyotes from that state.
In the race toward the final finish line, many another animal of the American West is providing the coyote with severe competition—propaganda to the contrary. The black bear, which ranges in similar habitat and has similar carnivorous eating habits, almost certainly will die out before the coyote. Charles Orlosky, who worked as a Government trapper in western Colorado, says, "I learned quick that any bear that sets foot on sheep range is a dead bear. Maybe one out of every 25 bears will kill a lamb. Most bears will eat on a dead carcass, but there's damned few of them that will actually kill sheep." Orlosky remembers a case in the San Juan Mountains where a trapper caught 16 or 17 bears and still hadn't caught the sheep killer.
The fox, another animal with eating habits similar to the coyote's, is also disappearing fast in large sections of the country. "They're smart," says Paul Gilbert, an area supervisor for Colorado's Department of Game, Fish and Parks, "but smartness isn't enough anymore. I've seen foxes and coyotes that'll move onto a ridge with a 1080 bait and won't be able to get off because of the deep snow around them. As long as they can, they'll circle away from that bait, but sooner or later starvation drives 'em to it. Animals like that don't have a chance against things like coyote getters and 1080." Even people from the Wildlife Services admit the danger to foxes. "Because the habits of the coyote and the red fox are similar," a bulletin says, "there is no practicable method of controlling coyotes in the midst of foxes on the high mountain sheep ranges in the summer or winter without killing some of these smaller canines." So the smaller canines are killed.
"The kit fox is almost gone in Wyoming," says Game Warden Darwin Creek, "and the 1080 that's killed him off has also killed off the black-footed ferret. Only two or three black-footed ferrets and kit foxes have been seen in the last 10 years by all the wardens and all the biologists and all the wildlife people in the state." According to Creek, the situation is almost the same with other Wyoming furbearers. "Pine marten used to be thick till they started putting this poison out," the warden says. "Now there's practically none left."
The populations of carrion-eating animals—and carrion-eating birds like eagles and hawks and vultures—are all trending downward, partly because of 1080 stations and partly because of the drop baits of tallow-covered strychnine. And if a species is included on the poison Establishment's "most wanted" list, the fact that the animal eschews carrion or tallow is no protection. The hunters and their modern gadgetry will prevail. In the last few years there has been a sharp decline in the numbers of bobcats, despite the fact that Lynx rufus is like trout or bass—he wants to catch his food on the hoof and seldom will touch anything that he has not killed himself. To destroy this "predator" that annually does no more damage to livestock than domestic dogs, Government trappers revert to the art that once was their pride: steel trapping. It is not difficult to trap bobcats; they are creatures of habit, remaining in the same areas and usually working a single hunting runway over and over. Until recently, when the supply of bobcats began to diminish, Government trappers caught them in droves. Why? A primary reason is that the Fish and Wildlife Service is in several businesses simultaneously, and one of them is the sale of pelts. The bobcat's fur is valuable; hence the concentration on trapping them and the long hours spent in Wildlife Services seminars studying the proper preparation of bobcat skins for market. In Colorado, Government trappers took thousands of bobcats in the years before 1965, but even though the price of bobcat fur continued rising, the kill began to drop, and today the animal is becoming rare.
The question is not when it will be discovered that these populations of native American species are diminishing. Some of the downtrends were known decades ago, and more are being noted each year. Most Westerners are aware that there are fewer and fewer animals, and still they watch inertly, like mice before cobras. Influenced by the soothing pronouncements of the poisoning Establishment, they accept the propaganda that endangered species are not truly endangered, and that coyotes, lions and bears, with their big teeth and sharp claws, can hold their own forever against men. The illogic is basic. Predators are not fighting against men but against technology.