Supplemental Reading — February 15, 2016, 11:47 am

A Biocentrist History of the West

“Enough poison of various kinds was spread on the Western range in a single year during the 1960s to kill every man, woman, and child west of the Mississippi”

When in the late nineteenth century millions of cattle and sheep invaded the ecosystems of the American West, it produced, as historian Donald Worster writes, “the explosive, shattering effect of all-out war.” Native plants were trampled beneath hooves and replaced with forage preferred by stockmen, grasslands were denuded and desertified, soil eroded and blown on the wind, rivers and streams were diverted, dewatered, and polluted by a cocktail of pesticides, fertilizers, and cattle feces. The communities of fish, reptiles, insects, and birds that depended on healthy riparian environments spiraled into chaos with the coming of the alien ungulates. Wolves, bears, and other so-called predators were trapped, gunned down, and poisoned to protect livestock. For the past century, says Worster, mainstream historians have ignored this war on wildlife. “[M]uch effort has gone into calculating the collapse of the native human populations under the European invasion,” he writes in his collection of essays, Under Western Skies, “but almost none into the precipitous decline of the many nations of wild animals.” A biocentrist tragic history of the West has yet to be written.

We are blessed, however, with the existence of a U.S. government agency that happens to have documented at least some of the destruction—because it was responsible for it. In the March issue of Harper’s Magazine, I investigate Wildlife Services, a branch of the Department of Agriculture that is notorious among activists but largely unknown to the public that has financed its operations for more than a century. In the West, where much of its lethal work has been conducted, the agency mostly serves the interests of cattle and sheep ranchers. Former Wildlife Services trapper Carter Niemeyer, in his 2012 memoir Wolfer, goes so far as to assert that many of its employees have acted as “the hired guns of the livestock industry.”  

Since 1915, when Congress first funded federal trappers specifically for the purpose of eliminating wildlife that posed a threat to livestock, Wildlife Services has been responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of animals. It has killed coyotes, wolves, foxes, black bears, grizzly bears, cougars, bobcats, and wolverines. It has killed animals deemed “pests” by stockmen: beavers, prairie dogs, minks, martens, muskrats, badgers, pocket gophers, ground squirrels, jackrabbits, opossums, porcupines, skunks, raccoons, and weasels. It has killed eagles, crows, ravens and magpies. Between 2000 and 2014 alone, two million native mammals fell before Wildlife Services, including twelve taxa of mammals listed as endangered, threatened, or as candidates for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

The agency has always taken its direction from Western stockmen. When bison, elk, and deer were hunted to near extinction at the turn of the 20th century, the wolves and the cougars and the bears looked to cattle and sheep for food, as their natural supply dwindled. The cattlemen and sheepmen in turn placed bounties on the predators, but the bounties failed to solve the problem. By 1900, the stockmen’s associations were lobbying federal authorities to complete the job they could not. With the founding of the Forest Service in 1905 under its first chief, Gifford Pinchot, federal authorities bowed to the demands of what Pinchot described as “the best-organized interest in the West,” and established a program for the extermination of wolves and coyotes in the national forests.

The Forest Service sought help from an obscure research arm of the Department of Agriculture called the Bureau of Biological Survey, whose biologists it tasked with identifying and tracking predators so that forest rangers could swoop in for the kill. In 1915, the Bureau of Biological Survey took over lethal predator control as a full-time operation. Thereafter it thrived under the steady hand of Congress. In 1931, with the passage of the Animal Damage Control Act, Congress expanded the agency’s purview and funding, directing it to “conduct campaigns for the destruction” of any “animals injurious to agriculture.” By 1947, the agency had singlehandedly persecuted wolves to remarkable success: wolf populations were drastically reduced in the continental United States.

In 1971, a reporter named Jack Olsen investigated Wildlife Services, then known as Animal Damage Control, in a series of articles for Sports Illustrated, which he published later that same year in his book, Slaughter the Animals, Poison the Earth. Olsen remarked on the close relationship between livestock producers and government trappers, the shared cultural attitude toward wild things. “[T]he hatred of sheepmen for coyotes, bears and mountain lions,” wrote Olsen, “seems to go so far beyond the dimensions of reality as to be almost pathological in origin.” Former trapper Dick Randall, who left the agency in the 1970s to become an activist with the Humane Society, described how a rancher working with Animal Damage Control dispatched coyotes. “[H]e takes a burlap bag, cuts out a hole for the head and two holes for the front legs, pulls the bags on the animals, pours kerosene on, sets them on fire and turns them loose. And he laughs when he tells that, as if it were the greatest thing!” Activist Lynn Jacobs, author of Waste of the West, compiled dozens of such accounts. Jacobs writes of ranchers who “torment trapped animals by beating, stoning, burning, shooting, or slashing them. Or they may saw off their lower jaws, wire their jaws shut, blind them, cut off their legs or tails, or otherwise mutilate them and then release the unfortunate animals.” Olsen told the story of 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.” He wrote 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 Western stockman who does not engage in such popular practices is branded an eccentric.”

Olsen described how federal predator control agents, moving beyond the simplistic trapping and shooting that had characterized the methods of the stockmen’s bounty system, innovated in the 1940s the dissemination of deadly poisons on public land. Among the preferred weapons was thallium sulfate laid in baits and in carcasses, which persisted in the food chain, producing secondary and tertiary poisonings, and caused untold numbers of deaths of wildlife feeding on carrion. The newly developed toxic compounds, as Olsen wrote, “turn[ed] the tortured rangelands into a reeking abattoir of dead and dying wildlife and contaminated watersheds.”

In 1946 Animal Damage Control debuted the use of sodium fluoroacetate, otherwise known as Compound 1080. Tasteless, odorless, and colorless, described as a “super poison” by the FBI, it has no known antidote. A single ounce can kill 200 adult humans, or 20,000 coyotes, or 70,000 house cats. For decades, the agency distributed Compound 1080 like candy across the West, mostly targeting coyotes. The effect of 1080 on canids is horrific. It produces “a frenzy of howls and shrieks of pain, vomiting, and retching,” attacking the central nervous, respiratory and cardiovascular systems before ending life in cardiac or respiratory arrest. (Following the invasion of Iraq in 2003, an Iraqi military official claimed that Saddam Hussein used 1080 extensively to eradicate political opponents.) Between 1960 and 1970, Animal Damage Control agents laid on public and private lands 156,378 meat baits of 1080 and about 1.5 million pounds in the form of grains. Enough poison of various kinds was spread on the Western range in a single year during the 1960s to kill every man, woman, and child west of the Mississippi, according to Olsen.

By the 1970s, rangeland ecologists were raising an outcry, calling for reforms. The 1972 report of the Advisory Committee on Predator Control, commissioned by the Department of the Interior, found that the agency, now christened the Division of Wildlife Services, “contain[ed] a high degree of built-in resistance to change.” The investigators, led by University of Michigan ecologist Stanley A. Cain, remarked that “several hundred control agents today are the same persons for whom…the job requirements and measurements of an agent’s success have been the killing of large numbers of predators and of personal, uncritical response to the complaints of stockmen….Agents are frequently long-time acquaintances, friends, and neighbors of the individuals demanding service.” The Cain Report, as it was known, advised “substantial, even drastic changes in control personnel and control methods.”

Such was the concern about Wildlife Services’ policies that the most notoriously corrupt president in modern history, Richard Nixon, who privately derided conservationists as “hopeless softheads,” issued in 1972 an executive order that included a ban of the use of thallium sulfate and Compound 1080. His administration authored a bill, the Animal Damage Control Act of 1972, which, if passed—it didn’t—would have repealed Wildlife Services’ enabling legislation of 1931. Nixon had read the Cain Report, and publicly praised it. He lamented that “persistent poisons” had been spread across the American landscape “without adequate knowledge of the effects on the ecology.” He talked about “an environmental awakening” and “a new sensitivity of the American spirit and a new maturity of American public life.” He told the country that “the old notion that the ‘only good predator is a dead one’ is no longer acceptable.”

Nixon got it wrong. At Wildlife Services there has been no environmental awakening, no new sensitivity, no new maturity. The only good predator is still a dead one. The public continues to pay the price. In reporting my article for the magazine (“The Rogue Agency,” March 2016) I discovered dozens of examples of senseless destruction resulting from Wildlife Services’ actions and policies. It will suffice here to recount one of these tales that didn’t make it into print.

In May 2008, Brooke and Cliff Everest, a couple from Bozeman, Mont., embarked on a rafting trip on the White River of Utah. One day during the trip, on a hike they had taken after beaching their boat on public land, their dog, an American Brittany named Bea, inspected a carcass of an animal in a canyon. Later that day Bea descended into the throes of poisoning. Cliff and Brooke Everest wrote an account for the nonprofit activist group Predator Defense:

“We were totally mystified as Bea went from a dog calmly lying around camp through a progression of ever more bewildering symptoms. After seeing her heaving and trying to vomit, she suddenly jumped into Brooke’s lap with a scream of pure terror. She then charged around camp, jumping in and out of the raft, crying and yelping in a frenzy of fright and pain. Our efforts to calm her had no effect. She ran a high speed circuit around camp, accidentally slamming into our friend sitting in a chair, then launched off the raft into the river and started swimming for the opposite shore…. Our frantic calls were ignored as the current carried her downstream. She finally turned back towards our side of the river, but when she reached shore, she raced away from us. We found her collapsed under a bush in violent convulsions with a frightening stare, pounding heart, gagging and gulping for air. After 15 more minutes of this agony, Bea died and her body immediately became very rigid. We carried her stiff, lifeless body back to camp and buried it under a cottonwood tree.”

Every indication suggested she had been killed by Compound 1080, which continues to be used by stockmen and Wildlife Services agents in ways that violate federal law—and render our public lands into places of torture and death.

Read Christopher Ketcham’s article on Wildlife Services in the March issue of Harper’s Magazine.

Share
Single Page

More from Christopher Ketcham:

From the August 2019 issue

A Play with No End

What the Gilets Jaunes really want

From the July 2019 issue

Ramblin’ Man

Context October 28, 2016, 11:35 am

The Great Republican Land Heist

Seven militants are acquitted in takeover of Oregon Wildlife Refuge; Christopher Ketcham traces the history of the Bureau of Land Management

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

September 2019

The Wood Chipper

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Common Ground

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Love and Acid

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Black Axe

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
The Wood Chipper·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I was tucked in a blind behind a soda machine, with nothing in my hand but notepad and phone, when a herd of running backs broke cover and headed across the convention center floor. My God, they’re beautiful! A half dozen of them, compact as tanks, stuffed into sports shirts and cotton pants, each, around his monstrous neck, wearing a lanyard that listed number and position, name and schedule, tasks to be accomplished at the 2019 N.F.L. Scout­ing Combine. They attracted the stunned gaze of football fans and beat writers, yet, seemingly unaware of their surroundings, continued across the carpet.

Article
Common Ground·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Thirty miles from the coast, on a desert plateau in the Judaean Mountains without natural resources or protection, Jerusalem is not a promising site for one of the world’s great cities, which partly explains why it has been burned to the ground twice and besieged or attacked more than seventy times. Much of the Old City that draws millions of tourists and Holy Land pilgrims dates back two thousand years, but the area ­likely served as the seat of the Judaean monarchy a full millennium before that. According to the Bible, King David conquered the Canaanite city and established it as his capital, but over centuries of destruction and rebuilding all traces of that period were lost. In 1867, a British military officer named Charles Warren set out to find the remnants of David’s kingdom. He expected to search below the famed Temple Mount, known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif, but the Ottoman authorities denied his request to excavate there. Warren decided to dig instead on a slope outside the Old City walls, observing that the Psalms describe Jerusalem as lying in a valley surrounded by hills, not on top of one.

On a Monday morning earlier this year, I walked from the Old City’s Muslim Quarter to the archaeological site that Warren unearthed, the ancient core of Jerusalem now known as the City of David. In the alleys of the Old City, stone insulated the air and awnings blocked the sun, so the streets were cold and dark and the mood was somber. Only the pilgrims were up this early. American church groups filed along the Via Dolorosa, holding thin wooden crosses and singing a hymn based on a line from the Gospel of Luke: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Narrow shops sold gardenia, musk, and amber incense alongside sweatshirts promoting the Israel Defense Forces.

I passed through the Western Wall Plaza to the Dung Gate, popularly believed to mark the ancient route along which red heifers were led to the Temple for sacrifice. Outside the Old City walls, in the open air, I found light and heat and noise. Tour buses lined up like train cars along the ridge. Monday is the day when bar and bat mitzvahs are held in Israel, and drumbeats from distant celebrations mixed with the pounding of jackhammers from construction sites nearby. When I arrived at the City of David, workmen were refinishing the wooden deck at the site’s entrance and laying down a marble mosaic by the ticket window.

Article
The Black Axe·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Eleven years ago, on a bitter January night, dozens of young men, dressed in a uniform of black berets, white T-­shirts, and black pants, gathered on a hill overlooking the Nigerian city of Jos, shouting, dancing, and shooting guns into the black sky. A drummer pounded a rhythmic beat. Amid the roiling crowd, five men crawled toward a candlelit dais, where a white-­robed priest stood holding an axe. Leading them was John, a sophomore at the local college, powerfully built and baby-faced. Over the past six hours, he had been beaten and burned, trampled and taunted. He was exhausted. John looked out at the landscape beyond the priest. It was the harmattan season, when Saharan sand blots out the sky, and the city lights in the distance blurred in John’s eyes as if he were underwater.

John had been raised by a single mother in Kaduna, a hardscrabble city in Nigeria’s arid north. She’d worked all hours as a construction supplier, but the family still struggled to get by. Her three boys were left alone for long stretches, and they killed time hunting at a nearby lake while listening to American rap. At seventeen, John had enrolled at the University of Jos to study business. Four hours southeast of his native Kaduna, Jos was another world, temperate and green. John’s mother sent him an allowance, and he made cash on the side rearing guard dogs for sale in Port Harcourt, the perilous capital of Nigeria’s oil industry. But it wasn’t much. John’s older brother, also studying in Jos, hung around with a group of Axemen—members of the Black Axe fraternity—who partied hard and bought drugs and cars. Local media reported a flood of crimes that Axemen had allegedly committed, but his brother’s friends promised John that, were he to join the group, he wouldn’t be forced into anything illegal. He could just come to the parties, help out at the odd charity drive, and enjoy himself. It was up to him.

John knew that the Black Axe was into some “risky” stuff. But he thought it was worth it. Axemen were treated with respect and had connections to important people. Without a network, John’s chances of getting a good job post-­degree were almost nil. In his second year, he decided to join, or “bam.” On the day of the initiation, John was given a shopping list: candles, bug spray, a kola nut (a caffeinated nut native to West Africa), razor blades, and 10,000 Nigerian naira (around thirty dollars)—his bamming fee. He carried it all to the top of the hill. Once night fell, Axemen made John and the other four initiates lie on their stomachs in the dirt, pressed toge­ther shoulder to shoulder, and hurled insults at them. They reeked like goats, some Axemen screamed. Others lashed them with sticks. Each Axeman walked over their backs four times. Somebody lit the bug spray on fire, and ran the flames across them, “burning that goat stink from us,” John recalled.

Article
Who Is She?·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I couldn’t leave. I couldn’t get up—­just couldn’t get up, couldn’t get up or leave. All day lying in that median, unable. Was this misery or joy?

It’s happened to you, too, hasn’t it? A habit or phase, a marriage, a disease, children or drugs, money or debt—­something you believed inescapable, something that had been going on for so long that you’d forgotten any and every step taken to lead your life here. What did you do? How did this happen? When you try to solve the crossword, someone keeps adding clues.

It’s happened to us all. The impossible knowledge is the one we all want—­the big why, the big how. Who among us won’t buy that lotto ticket? This is where stories come from and, believe me, there are only two kinds: ­one, naked lies, and two, pot holders, gas masks, condoms—­something you must carefully place between yourself and a truth too dangerous to touch.

Article
Murder Italian Style·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Catholic School, by Edoardo Albinati. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 1,280 pages. $40.

In a quiet northern suburb of Rome, a woman hears noises in the street and sends her son to investigate. Someone is locked in the trunk of a Fiat 127. The police arrive and find one girl seriously injured, together with the corpse of a second. Both have been raped, tortured, and left for dead. The survivor speaks of three young aggressors and a villa by the sea. Within hours two of the men have been arrested. The other will never be found.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

After not making a public appearance for weeks and being rumored dead, the president of Turkmenistan appeared on state television and drove a rally car around The Gates of Hell, a crater of gas that has been burning since it was discovered in 1971.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today