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.

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August 2018

There Will Always Be Fires

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The End of Eden

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How to Start a Nuclear War

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Combustion Engines

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Combustion Engines·

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On any given day last summer, the smoke-choked skies over Missoula, Montana, swarmed with an average of twenty-eight helicopters and eighteen fixed-wing craft, a blitz waged against Lolo Peak, Rice Ridge, and ninety-six other wildfires in the Lolo National Forest. On the ground, forty or fifty twenty-person handcrews were deployed, alongside hundreds of fire engines and bulldozers. In the battle against Rice Ridge alone, the Air Force, handcrews, loggers, dozers, parachutists, flacks, forecasters, and cooks amounted to some nine hundred people.

Rice Ridge was what is known as a mega-fire, a recently coined term for blazes that cover more than 100,000 acres. The West has always known forest fires, of course, but for much of the past century, they rarely got any bigger than 10,000 acres. No more. In 1988, a 250,000-acre anomaly, Canyon Creek, burned for months, roaring across a forty-mile stretch of Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness in a single night. A few decades on, that anomaly is becoming the norm. Rice Ridge, for its part, swept through 160,000 acres.

At this scale, the firefighting operation is run by an incident management team, a group of about thirty specialists drawn from a mix of state and federal agencies and trained in fields ranging from aviation to weather forecasting and accounting to public information. The management teams are ranked according to experience and ability, from type 3 (the least skilled) to type 1 (the most). The fiercest fires are assigned to type 1s. Teams take the name of their incident commander, the field general, and some of those names become recognizable, even illustrious, in the wildfire-fighting community. One such name is that of Greg Poncin, who is to fire commanders what Wyatt Earp was to federal marshals.

Smoke from the Lolo Peak fire (detail) © Laura Verhaeghe
There Will Always Be Fires·

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The pinhal interior, a wooded region of hills and narrow hollows in rural central Portugal, used to be farmland. Well into the latter half of the past century, the fields were worked by peasants from the old stone villages. Portugal was poor and isolated, and the pinhal interior particularly so; when they could, the peasants left. There is electricity and running water now, but most of the people have gone. The fields have been taken over by trees. Each year the forest encroaches farther, and each year the villages grow more lonely. There are remnants of the earlier life, though, and amid the trees the holdouts of the older generations still work a few small fields. The pinhal interior cannot yet be called wilderness, then, and that, in large part, is why it burns.

Thousands of fires burn in the region each summer, almost all of them started not by lightning or some other natural spark but by the remaining Portuguese. (The great majority of the blazes are started unintentionally, though not all.) The pinhal interior—the name means “interior pine forest,” though today there is at least as much eucalyptus as pine—stretches along a sort of climate border between the semiarid Iberian interior and the wet influence of the Atlantic; vegetation grows exceptionally well there, and in the summers fire conditions are ideal. Still, most of the burns are quickly contained, and although they have grown larger in recent years, residents have learned to pay them little mind. The creeping fire that began in the dry duff and twigs of an oak grove on June 17 of last year, in the district of Pe­drógão Grande, therefore occasioned no panic.

A local woman, Dora da Silva Co­sta, drove past the blaze in the midafternoon, by which time it had entered a stand of pines. Firefighters were on hand. “There were no people in the streets,” Costa told me. “It was just another fire.” She continued on her way. It was a Saturday, and she had brought her two young sons to visit their older cousin in Vila Facaia, the village of small farms in which she’d been raised.

Firefighters near Pedrógão Grande (detail) © Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images
The End of Eden·

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On a blistering morning in July 2017, Ghazi Luaibi rose before dawn and set out in a worn black sedan from his home in Zubair, a town of concrete low-rises in southern Iraq. He drove for a while along sandy roads strewn with plastic bags. On the horizon, he could see gas flares from the oil refineries, pillars of amber flame rising into the sky. As he approached Basra, the largest city in the province, desert scrub gave way to empty apartment blocks and rows of withered palms. Though the sun had barely risen, the temperature was already nearing 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The previous year, Basra had registered one of the highest temperatures ever reliably recorded on earth: about 129 degrees, hot enough to cause birds to drop from the sky.

Ghazi, a sixty-two-year-old with stooped shoulders, an ash-gray beard, and lively brown eyes, would have preferred to stay home and wait out the heat. But he hadn’t had much of a choice. He was the president of the local council of Mandaeans, members of a gnostic religion that appeared in Mesopotamia in the early centuries ad. Today marked the beginning of their new year, and Ghazi, who was born into the Mandaean priestly class, was responsible for making sure everything went smoothly: he needed to find a tent to shield worshippers from the sun and, most importantly, a location near flowing water where they could carry out the ceremony.

Mandaean holidays are celebrated with a mass baptism, a ritual that is deeply rooted in their scripture and theology. Mandaeans follow the teachings of Yahia Yuhana, known to Christians as John the Baptist. Water is central to their religion. They believe that all life originates in the World of Light, a spiritual realm that is the starting point for a great river known as Yardana, or Jordan. Outside the World of Light lie the lifeless, stagnant waters of the World of Darkness. According to one version of the Mandaean creation myth, a demiurge named Ptahil set out to shape a new world from the World of Darkness, which became the material world we inhabit today. Once the world was complete, Ptahil sculpted Adam, the first man, from the same dark waters as the earth, but his soul came from the World of Light. In Mandaean scripture, rivers are manifestations of the World of Light, coursing from the heavenly Jordan to the earth to purify it. To be baptized is to be immersed in this divine realm.

Basra General Hospital (detail) July 2017 © Alex Potter
How to Start a Nuclear War·

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Serving as a US Air Force launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early Seventies, First Lieutenant Bruce Blair figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few hundred million people. His unit, stationed in the vast missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, oversaw one of four squadrons of Minuteman II ­ICBMs, each missile topped by a W56 thermonuclear warhead with an explosive force of 1.2 megatons—eighty times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In theory, the missiles could be fired only by order of the president of the United States, and required mutual cooperation by the two men on duty in each of the launch control centers, of which there were five for each squadron.

In fact, as Blair recounted to me recently, the system could be bypassed with remarkable ease. Safeguards made it difficult, though not impossible, for a two-man crew (of either captains or lieutenants, some straight out of college) in a single launch control center to fire a missile. But, said Blair, “it took only a small conspiracy”—of two people in two separate control centers—to launch the entire squadron of fifty missiles, “sixty megatons targeted at the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea.” (The scheme would first necessitate the “disabling” of the conspirators’ silo crewmates, unless, of course, they, too, were complicit in the operation.) Working in conjunction, the plotters could “jury-rig the system” to send a “vote” by turning keys in their separate launch centers. The three other launch centers might see what was happening, but they would not be able to override the two votes, and the missiles would begin their firing sequence. Even more alarmingly, Blair discovered that if one of the plotters was posted at the particular launch control center in overall command of the squadron, they could together format and transmit a “valid and authentic launch order” for general nuclear war that would immediately launch the entire US strategic nuclear missile force, including a thousand Minuteman and fifty-four Titan missiles, without the possibility of recall. As he put it, “that would get everyone’s attention, for sure.” A more pacifically inclined conspiracy, on the other hand, could effectively disarm the strategic force by formatting and transmitting messages invalidating the presidential launch codes.

When he quit the Air Force in 1974, Blair was haunted by the power that had been within his grasp, andhe resolved to do something about it. But when he started lobbying his former superiors, he was met with indifference and even active hostility. “I got in a fair scrap with the Air Force over it,” he recalled. As Blair well knew, there was supposed to be a system already in place to prevent that type of unilateral launch. The civilian leadership in the Pentagon took comfort in this, not knowing that the Strategic Air Command, which then controlled the Air Force’s nuclear weapons, had quietly neutralized it.

This reluctance to implement an obviously desirable precaution might seem extraordinary, but it is explicable in light of the dominant theme in the military’s nuclear weapons culture: the strategy known as “launch under attack.” Theoretically, the president has the option of waiting through an attack before deciding how to respond. But in practice, the system of command and control has been organized so as to leave a president facing reports of incoming missiles with little option but to launch. In the words of Lee Butler, who commanded all US nuclear forces at the end of the Cold War, the system the military designed was “structured to drive the president invariably toward a decision to launch under attack” if he or she believes there is “incontrovertible proof that warheads actually are on the way.” Ensuring that all missiles and bombers would be en route before any enemy missiles actually landed meant that most of the targets in the strategic nuclear war plan would be destroyed—thereby justifying the purchase and deployment of the massive force required to execute such a strike.

Among students of nuclear command and control, this practice of precluding all options but the desired one is known as “jamming” the president. Blair’s irksome protests threatened to slow this process. When his pleas drew rejection from inside the system, he turned to Congress. Eventually the Air Force agreed to begin using “unlock codes”—codes transmitted at the time of the launch order by higher authority without which the crews could not fire—on the weapons in 1977. (Even then, the Navy held off safeguarding its submarine-launched nuclear missiles in this way for another twenty years.)

Following this small victory, Blair continued to probe the baroque architecture of nuclear command and control, and its extreme vulnerability to lethal mishap. In the early Eighties, while working with a top-secret clearance for the Office of Technology Assessment, he prepared a detailed report on such shortcomings. The Pentagon promptly classified it as SIOP-ESI—a level higher than top secret. (SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the US plan for conducting a nuclear war. ESI stands for Extremely Sensitive Information.) Hidden away in the Pentagon, the report was withheld from both relevant senior civilian officials and the very congressional committees that had commissioned it in the first place.

From positions in Washington’s national security think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, Blair used his expertise and scholarly approach to gain access to knowledgeable insiders at the highest ranks, even in Moscow. On visits to the Russian capital during the halcyon years between the Cold War’s end and the renewal of tensions in the twenty-first century, he learned that the Soviet Union had actually developed a “dead hand” in ultimate control of their strategic nuclear arsenal. If sensors detected signs of an enemy nuclear attack, the USSR’s entire missile force would immediately launch with a minimum of human intervention—in effect, the doomsday weapon that ends the world in Dr. Strangelove.

Needless to say, this was a tightly held arrangement, known only to a select few in Moscow. Similarly chilling secrets, Blair continued to learn, lurked in the bowels of the US system, often unknown to the civilian leadership that supposedly directed it. In 1998, for example, on a visit to the headquarters of Strategic Command (­STRATCOM), the force controlling all US strategic nuclear weapons, at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska, he discovered that the ­­­STRATCOM targeting staff had unilaterally chosen to interpret a presidential order on nuclear targeting in such a way as to reinsert China into the ­SIOP, from which it had been removed in 1982, thereby provisionally consigning a billion Chinese to nuclear immolation. Shortly thereafter, he informed a senior White House official, whose reaction Blair recalled as “surprised” and “befuddled.”

In 2006, Blair founded Global Zero, an organization dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons, with an immediate goal of ending the policy of launch under attack. By that time, the Cold War that had generated the ­SIOP and all those nuclear weapons had long since come to an end. As a result, part of the nuclear war machine had been dismantled—warhead numbers were reduced, bombers taken off alert, weapons withdrawn from Europe. But at its heart, the system continued unchanged, officially ever alert and smooth running, poised to dispatch hundreds of precisely targeted weapons, but only on receipt of an order from the commander in chief.

Bombhead, by Bruce Conner (detail) © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, and ARS, New York City. Courtesy Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“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.”

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