The War on Varmints
Submitted by Ted Williams on Sat, 03/25/2006 - 11:55.
"That other wild creatures and domestic animals may live." The War on Varmints by Ted Williams The word "vermin" -- progenitor of "varmint" -- was hatched by game keepers on the grouse moors of England. "What isn't game must be vermin," went the dictum. Such attitudes, still prevalent today among Europe's landed gentry, migrated to the New World where they eventually were challenged. In 1928, for example, the National Association of Audubon Societies (later renamed the National Audubon Society) complained about a British game keeper who shot nightingales because, as he said, "they kept the young Pheasants awake!" Another British game keeper, transported to New York State, was reported by the association to habitually crush the eggs of vesper sparrows in order to "save food for young Pheasants." The ultimate varmint, of course, was the gray wolf. And, again, New World perceptions and superstitions had their origins in Europe. The first organized wolf control, in fact, was sponsored by the Roman Catholic Church during the Inquisition -- except that in this case the wolves weren't grays. Exploiting the image of the wolf, which had become a serious stock killer following the elimination of its natural prey, the church succeeded in keeping the populace attentive and obedient by identifying and executing all wolves allegedly capable of taking on human appearance by day -- i.e, werewolves. England succeeded in killing off its last nontransmutable wolf sometime between 1485 and 1509 during the reign of Henry VII. Wolves were a problem for early American settlers, but not a major one. For one thing huge herds of stock were not left unattended on open range. For another, wolves had abundant natural prey in the form of bison, antelope, deer and elk. Bears, cougars and coyotes were even less of a threat. When the Indians, who also kept stock (mostly horses), observed the settlers setting out poison bait for predatory mammals they puzzled long and hard about what such behavior could signify. Eventually they concluded that, among whites, it was a symptom of insanity. Certainly insane hatred of wolves is part of our national heritage. In the 1630s Massachusetts Bay and Virginia began offering money for wolf scalps. Colonists buried fish hooks in balls of meat, dug wolf pits, erected dead falls, set snares. In the early 19th century professional wolfers shadowed buffalo hunters like vultures, lacing skinned carcasses with strychnine. Why the thermo-nuclear-style retaliation? Part of it was Old World baggage and part was loathing of wild canid behavior which, to humans, appears "cowardly" and "sneaky." When confronted by people, grizzly bears and even black bears and cougars will occasionally attack; wolves will *always* run away. When trapped or cornered most predators, indeed most animals, will scratch and bite; wolves and coyotes tremble, cower, roll on their backs and pee on themselves. Consider the wolf in Brantwood, Wisconsin who got his paw caught in a trap during the winter of 1922. Two weeks later when the trapper found him, he was still dragging the trap. In a letter to Richard Thiel, author of *The Timber Wolf in Wisconsin,* the trapper's son, Walt Rosenlaf, writes: "[Dad] said the wolf just gave up so he looked him over [and] saw he had chewed all his teeth [off] on the steel trap. He didn't have no rope so he took some willow wood [and] made lines out of one on each side of the wolves [sic] head to steer him. He then took the trap off his foot. He was going to drive the wolf home. The snow was deep and he was on skies [sic], but the wolf never moved from the spot so he had to club him to death." The perceived shortcomings of wild canids were well enunciated by Mark Twain in *Roughing It*: "The coyote is a living, breathing allegory of Want. He is *always* hungry. He is always poor, out of luck, and friendless. The meanest creatures despise him, and even the fleas would desert him for a velocipede [bicycle]. He is so spiritless and cowardly that even while his exposed teeth are pretending a threat, the rest of his face is apologizing for it." Perhaps the most graphic description of wild-canid behavior toward humans and human behavior toward wild canids was offered by John James Audubon who, on checking a pit-trap with a Kentucky farmer, observed three wolves at the bottom, "their ears laid close over the head, their eyes indicating fear more than anger." The farmer nonchalantly lowered himself into the pit and, lifting the hind legs of each animal, slit the hamstring tendons with his knife. With that, he slipped nooses over each of their heads. "We hauled [the first wolf] up motionless with fright, as if dead," wrote Audubon, "its disabled legs swinging to and fro, its jaws wide open, and the gurgle in its throat alone indicating that it was alive." In 1905 our war on wild canids escalated from mechanical and chemical to biological when the Montana legislature passed a law directing the State Veterinarian to capture wolves and coyotes alive, infect them with mange, and turn them loose. ******** Despite, or perhaps because of, the prodigious predator-control efforts of states and private citizens the federal government didn't get seriously into the business until 1908 when the U.S. Forest Service reported killing 359 wolves in Arizona and New Mexico. In 1915 Congress responded to intense lobbying by ranchers and sport hunters with a $125,000 appropriation to the Bureau of Biological Survey. The original mission -- killing wolves -- quickly expanded to include all predators. In the first year the survey claimed, probably without much exaggeration, to have accounted for 424 wolves, nine mountain lions, 11,890 coyotes, and 1,564 bobcats. Wolves learned to avoid strychnine and leghold traps, but adult females and pups were always vulnerable in their dens. So wolfers perfected a technique called "denning." One, quoted in A.R. Harding's 1937 book *Wolf and Coyote Trapping* and identified only as "a famous western wolf hunter," offered this advice: "I will say to the boys who intend to hunt pups, get two or three strong fish hooks and a strong cord and carry them in your pocket. You can usually find a small stick or pole of some kind. When you find a den, tie your hooks on end of stick, wrapping cord very tight. If you use two hooks, put one on each side of stick. Shove your stick in the den among the pups and turn or twist it and you will soon have a pup hooked…When the pups get too large and strong to pull out alive, I put a candle on the stick, shove it into the den and lay on my stomach. With a .22 rifle I shoot the pups in the head and then they are easily pulled out with the fish hooks." Organizing the sportsmen-rancher coalition and leading the anti-predator lobbyists was a passionate and eloquent young forester from New Mexico by the name of Aldo Leopold. "It is well known," he wrote in December 1915, "that predatory animals are continuing to eat the cream off the stock grower's profits…Whatever may have been the value of the work accomplished by bounty systems, poisoning, and trapping, individual or governmental, the fact remains that varmints continue to thrive and their reduction can be accomplished only by means of a practical, vigorous, and comprehensive plan of action…Would not everybody, except the varmints, be benefited by such a move?" Leopold and his allies weren't content with "control" of offending individuals or even with the trimming of populations. They wanted nothing less than elimination of species. In January 1919 Leopold praised New Mexico for responding to his call and "leading the West in the campaign for eradication of predatory animals." "The sportsmen and the stockmen," he declared, "…demand the eradication of lions, wolves, coyotes, and bobcats." The following year, addressing the American Game Protective Association in New York City, he proudly announced that New Mexico had in the last three years knocked down its wolf population from 300 to 30. Game was now better off, he said, because "the stock industry which covers the entire West is demanding the destruction of predatory animals, and the U.S. Biological Survey is doing the job rapidly and well." But Leopold warned of the "outstanding need" for the elimination of predators and advised that it was going to be "more difficult and costly to finish the eradication work than it was to start it." Greatly helping Leopold's cause was the outbreak of rabies in the West and war in Europe. Predators, argued the rancher-sportsman alliance, had to be wiped out in order to preserve public health and save beef for the troops. To tolerate wolves, coyotes, cougars, grizzlies and the like was to tolerate pestilence and the Hun. The varmint campaign was expensive both in dollars and incidental casualties. In 1923 the Biological Survey festooned 13 million acres of Arizona with strychnine-laced fat balls which, in addition to wolves, killed ravens, foxes, wolverines, weasels, eagles, dogs and children. In California an outraged trapper informed the California Department of Fish and Game that he had found 19 dead raccoons in Pope's Valley. In another California valley the control of five coyotes entailed an incidental kill of at least 270 striped skunks, then the state's most valuable fur bearer. Still, dread of the gray wolf kept the varmint hunters in business. The reality of the beast was as useful to them in whipping down the unruly populace as the notion of werewolves had been to the Roman Catholic Church. For ranchers who tended their stock other predators were nothing more than a minor cost of doing business. Wolves were something else. When the Army, the railroad and the settlers who came in their wake stripped the plains of bison and antelope, wolves had to choose between starvation or killing livestock. And more than a few ranchers had to choose between going out of business or killing wolves. By the 1920's the varmint-control bureaucracy found itself confronted with the greatest threat it has faced before or since. America was running out of wolves. "The gray wolf will be exterminated throughout the West within reasonable time," the survey's J. Stokley Ligon had written in 1918. "The big wolves have been so reduced in numbers in New Mexico and Arizona that they no longer confront us as a serious menace." By 1925 the survey was able to report that no wolves were rearing young in New Mexico. By the following year it had accounted for the last 14 wolves in Texas, and its man in Arizona stated that "there are no more wolves left inside the borders of our state." The last wolf was taken from Utah in 1929. The survey, however, got a brief reprieve. With the processes of natural selection and behavioral conditioning turned up to fast forward, the few wolves that survived possessed astonishing intelligence and seemingly supernatural powers of eluding their human persecutors. Individual wolves -- often named for the ways in which they'd been maimed by traps -- became national anti-heroes. There was "Old Three Toes," who led the last wolf pack in Colorado, fleeing the San Juan Mountains in 1927 and setting up stock-killing operations in northern New Mexico until blundering into a trap in 1929. The "Custer Wolf," who terrorized the ranches around Custer, South Dakota was said to have butchered $25,000 worth of cattle in seven years. "His killings," reported the Biological Survey, "were particularly exasperating, owing to the number of stock slaughtered at times when he appeared to go on a killing debauch, and to the savage mutilation of others -- many cows having been killed for the sole purpose of devouring their unborn calves." Legend had it that the Custer Wolf traveled with two coyote sentinels on either flank. Finally the survey dispatched "one of its best" wolfers -- H.P. Williams -- who found that the coyote legend was true. Williams shot both coyotes and in October 1920, after an exhausting six-month chase over 2,600 miles, ended the Custer Wolf's career by trapping him with "scent material obtained from another notorious wolf [also called "Three Toes"] that had been taken by the predatory animal inspector at Split Rock, Wyoming." In 1921 the survey assigned Bill Caywood to the seemingly hopeless task of knocking off Rags the Digger, named for his shaggy coat and game of digging up traps without springing them -- a seeming gesture of contempt that outraged ranchers along the Utah-Colorado border country. Caywood, who had been ridding the West of wolves for 30 years, was said by *The Rocky Mountain News* to be "the greatest Colorado wolfer of all time" as well as "a friend to all animals and regretful executioner of those outlaws who must die that other wild creatures and domestic animals may live." The first time he found one of his traps dug up Caywood exclaimed: "He's dared me to come at him if ever a wolf's dared a man." The long, grueling pursuit, chronicled by Rick McIntyre in his book *War Against the Wolf,* finally ended when Caywood used an amateurishly set trap for bait. Rags couldn't resist excavating it, and in the process stepped into two well-concealed sets. When Caywood finally caught up with Rags in a narrow arroyo his rifle jammed. As he kept aiming and trying to fire, Rags turned and slowly limped toward him, dragging the two traps. Recalling the warning of the ranchers not to let the wolf catch him in the open, Caywood slapped the frozen trigger. The big wolf was ten feet away when suddenly it occurred to Caywood that Rags wasn't attacking but asking for help. Again Caywood aimed and squeezed. This time a bullet ripped through the wolf's heart. Rags slumped, then opened his eyes, looked at Caywood and struggled to his feet. When Rags finally died his nose lay less than an inch from the Caywood's foot. "You poor old devil," uttered the grizzled wolfer. "You poor, lonely old murdering devil." ******** The panic spread by the super wolves made the survey's work appear essential, but even they were vanishing from the West. Now it was the varmint control bureaucracy that faced two hard choices: go out of business or convince the public that there was more work for it to do in the form of ridding the nation of "vermin" as defined in England -- i.e., everything that isn't game. The agency took to lobbying and advertising. For example, in the 1920 *Yearbook of the Department of Agriculture* it published a fire-and-brimstone sermon, replete with wild, utterly unsubstantiated statistics, entitled "Hunting Down Stock Killers" in which its own W.B. Bell wrote: "Uncle Sam, tired of the drain on his resources of from $20,000,000 to $30,000,000 every year through the slaughter of domestic stock by predatory animals, now keeps constantly in the field a force of hunters who are instructed to wipe out these nonproducers…Statistics may leave the stockman unmoved and uninterested, but a vivid, lasting impression is made when he finds…one of his colts struck down by a mountain lion, the scattered carcasses of several of his sheep killed by coyotes for sheer lust of killing, or a valuable cow maimed or with skull crushed by a blow from the powerful paw of a grizzly." Of the rabies outbreak -- a natural and cyclical phenomenon -- Bell wrote: "Driven by their rabid blindness, coyotes entered the yards of dwellings, attacking dogs, cats, human occupants, or any object they might encounter; they entered feed lots and snapped and infected cattle, sheep, and other domestic animals; and also attacked pedestrians, horsemen, and automobiles on public highways." In 1928 survey chief Paul G. Redington warned Congress and the public that his agency "faced the opposition…of those who want to see the mountain lion, the wolf, the coyote, and the bobcat perpetuated as part of the wildlife of the country." Prairie dogs provided an enormous opportunity. For instance, one dog town on the high plains of Texas was 250 miles long and by 100 miles wide. Because these heavy-bodied ground squirrels do best on denuded landscapes where they can spot predators at long distances they were one of the few species that proliferated with cows. There was -- and is -- no scientific evidence that prairie dogs reduce the amount of forage available to cattle on well-managed range; and there is considerable evidence that they increase it by aerating and turning over soil. But the Biological Survey proclaimed that prairie dogs were a menace to ranching and set about poisoning them on a grand scale. From 1919 to 1922 it claimed to have killed five million in Arizona alone. Stockmen, it said, "are adding to their flocks and herds as forage for additional animals is provided by the eradication of such range-destroying rodents as prairie dogs, ground squirrels, and related pests." In 1928 the survey switched from zinc phosphate and strychnine to the far more lethal and nonselective thallium sulfate. The following year the varmint controllers got division status when the survey's Division of Ornithology and Mammalogy was renamed the Division of Predatory Animal and Rodent Control. It's impossible to determine to what extent the survey influenced public attitudes or reflected them. In any case, the 1920s saw a blitzkrieg against every species that ate, might eat or looked hungrily at a species humans wanted to eat first. There was, for example, anhinga control, road-runner control, hawk control, eagle control, crow control, bluejay control, kingfisher control, loon control, ruffed-grouse control, even painted-turtle control. From 1927, when it was founded, until July 1931 the W.K. Kellogg Bird Sanctuary, near Battle Creek, Michigan reported destroying 2,298 snapping turtles and 2,688 "other turtles." Between 1925 and 1930 Maryland paid bounties on 89,858 hawks. It repealed the bounty in 1931, not because it was getting soft on hawks but because it couldn't collect enough revenue from hunting licenses to pay the half dollar for each carcass. At the same session the Maryland legislature *removed* protection for bald eagles. Ohio repealed its hawk bounty in 1933, but then distributed free hawk ammo so that the kill rose from 2,022 in 1932 to 4,003 in 1934. In 1924 the National Park Service looked upon white pelicans and saw that they were bad. Not only did they eat cutthroat trout, they served as vectors for the tapeworms with which both species had co-existed for millennia. Each spring rangers patrolled pelican breeding colonies on Yellowstone Lake's Molly Islands, carefully crushing eggs. In 1931, the year pelican control ended in the park, a particularly dedicated scientist named Lowell Woodbury set up an experiment to determine if cutthroat-pelican tapeworms could survive in mammalian digestive tracts. Accordingly, he swallowed 14 live ones, sucking them down like spaghetti. All study subjects save Woodbury perished. Raptor control was aggressively pushed by sportsmen and conservationists alike. William Hornaday, a founder of the American Bison Society, conceiver and first superintendent of the National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C. and author of the influential 1913 book *Our Vanishing Wild Life,* advocated elimination of horned, barred, and screech owls, goshawks, Cooper's and sharp-shinned hawks, golden eagles and peregrine falcons. As a champion of waterfowl he nursed a special hatred for this last varmint, alias "duck hawk," of which he wrote: "Each bird of this species deserves treatment with a choke bore gun. First shoot the male and female, then collect the nest, the young or the eggs, whichever may be present. They all look best in collections." In the 1920s Hornaday enthusiastically reported that a boy named Willie Hall of Watson, Saskatchewan, had won a provincial competition by collecting 1,445 eggs and 5,216 legs of crows and magpies. Totals for all competitors were 696,201 eggs and 239,901 legs. "In the face of these figures," Hornaday commented, "there can be no doubt about the necessity of eliminating a lot of those superfluous birds." ******** Gradually Americans learned that nothing is "superfluous." What is remarkable is not that they engaged in European-style "vermin" control but how quickly they repudiated it. Part of the answer may be that in the United States it is more difficult for one special interest to determine how wildlife will be managed because game and nongame are owned by the public instead of landed gentry. As early as 1920 Yellowstone National Park was arguing against Leopold's vision of extermination, despite the fact that it did in 107 coyotes and 28 wolves that year: "It is hardly practicable, even if it were desirable, to entirely exterminate these animals." In 1931 the Park Service banned poisons except for rodents, and the same year director Horace Albright issued this landmark policy statement: "Predatory animals are to be considered an integral part of the wild life protected in national parks, and no widespread campaigns of destruction are to be countenanced. The only control practice is that of shooting coyotes and other predators when they are actually found making inroads upon herds of game or other animals needing special protection." By 1936 the Park Service was calling for the reintroduction of "any native species which had been exterminated" from a national park. Members of the American Society of Mammalogists took to calling federal varmint controllers "gopher chokers." At the society's 1924 meeting speakers attacked the Biological Survey's policy of exterminating species and charged that it had abandoned science in order to two-step for stockmen. "There is little doubt," remarked Milton Skinner, a former Yellowstone ranger and chief naturalist, "that [wolves] played their part in developing speed and cunning among many forms of animals and in preventing epidemics." Such comments drew this testy response from the survey's E.A. Goldman: "Large predatory mammals, destructive to livestock and game, no longer have a place in our advancing civilization." But the mammalogists kept protesting. Especially passionate was A. Brazier Howell of Johns Hopkins Medical School who circulated a petition among august scientific institutions calling nonselective federal varmint control a danger to the "very existence of all carnivorous mammals." Signatories included the California Academy of Sciences (five names), Field Museum of National History in Chicago (nine names), American Museum of Natural History in New York (16 names), Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, San Diego Natural History Society (five names) and Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia (three names). The indefatigable Howell even sounded off in *Outdoor Life* magazine: "Ten to twenty years ago there was frequent reference in Biological Survey literature to the immense amount of benefit, through destruction of rodents, that the coyote, badger, et al. conferred upon the farmer. Recently there is no slightest reference to such benefit to be encountered in Survey publications, but only the misdeeds of these 'pests.'" "No longer is the game hog the chief threat to our fauna," announced Howell at the Mammalogists' 1930 meeting, "but rather the pseudo-conservationist who agitates for the protection of one or two game species and the eradication of everything else." At the same meeting Dr. Charles C. Adams of the New York State Museum gleefully quoted survey pronouncements on the evils of predators, drawing gales of laughter from the audience. With that, the society appointed a varmint-control study committee which, in due course, recommended the society resolve: that it "deplores the propaganda of the survey which is designed to unduly blacken the character of certain species of predatory mammals, giving only part of the facts and withholding the rest." The most eloquent proponent of predator eradication eventually became its most eloquent critic. From the board of the National Association of Audubon Societies and from the chair in game management created for him at the University of Wisconsin Aldo Leopold -- the forester turned ecologist -- scolded his former allies. "When we attempt to say an animal is 'useful,' 'ugly,' or 'cruel,' we are failing to see it as part of the land," he declared. "We do not make the same error of calling a carburetor 'greedy.'" In 1944 he was to call for wolf restoration in Yellowstone. And in 1947, as part of a foreword to *A Sand County Almanac* deleted from the published version, he wrote: "In 'Escudilla,' I relate my own participation in the extinguishment of the grizzly bear from the White Mountain region. At the time I sensed only a vague uneasiness about the ethics of this action. It required the unfolding of official 'predator control' through two decades finally to convince me that I had helped to extirpate the grizzly from the Southwest, and thus played the role of accessory in an ecological murder." The 1930 admonishments of the American Society of Mammalogists almost convinced Congress to cancel the Division of Predatory Animal and Rodent Control's annual $1 million appropriation. But in a last-minute compromise PARC agreed to get a new chief and reduce its program. Then the livestock lobby went to work, and the next year Congress passed the Animal Damage Control Act which provided the first clear authority for federal varmint control and institutionalized it as a government service. The lay sector was slower to respond to the war against varmints. But under the leadership of the National Association of Audubon Societies it eventually made itself heard, particularly on the persecution of raptors. During the 1920s the association never quite managed to grasp the concept that no native species can be ecologically "destructive," but in its bi-monthly magazine, *Bird-Lore,* one can see it struggling with conventional wisdom. "Let us recognize frankly [a predator's] existence," it exhorted members in July 1926, "let us admire whatever of beauty and interest there is in it, but let us not hinder its control when that is necessary…" From January 29 to February 5, 1927 the association sponsored a raptor display at the New England Sportsmen's Show in Boston which urged protection for "useful Hawks and Owls" but also included "the relatively few species which in their feeding habits destroy such a quantity of smaller species of both song- and game-birds as to warrant the human responsibility of controlling their numbers." By 1930 the model "Audubon law," as it was called, had been enacted in about 40 states. It extended protection to all birds of prey *except* the Cooper's Hawk, Goshawk, Sharp-shinned Hawk, and the Great Horned Owl. But the association was plainly uncomfortable with the persecution of any species. It published accounts of how great-horned owls had been converted to "loving pets" and interviewed such alleged vermin as kingfishers, one of which eruditely excuses himself as follows: "I know I am blamed for the poor fishing in this stream, and I will admit that I occasionally get a little trout, but if you want to see who really gets the fish, come out here on Saturday or Sunday." In 1930 the association got a bald-eagle-protection bill through both houses of Congress, but in the Senate livestock interests wangled an exception for birds caught in the act of destroying "domestic fowl, wild or tame lambs or fawns or foxes on fox-farms." Two years later the association stepped up its crusade against the slaughter of hawks by sport hunters, reporting that at Pennsylvania's Blue Mountain 218 birds had been picked up in about an hour following a Sunday shoot and that no effort was made to avoid hitting "beneficial" species. "When 100 to 150 men, armed with pumpguns, automatics, and doubled-barreled shotguns are sitting on top of a mountain looking for a target, no bird's safe." Two years later Blue Mountain became the world's first raptor sanctuary. ******** But the nation clutched the lessons of the varmint controllers to its bosom until the students began dying off. For example, bald eagles were bountied in Alaska until 1962. In the lower 48 states they didn't receive meaningful federal protection until 1940, goldens not until 1962. As recently as 1971 helicopter pilot James O. Vogan testified before a Senate subcommittee that he had been illegally retained by local sheep ranchers to provide an airborne gun platform for varmint hunters in Colorado and Wyoming. According to his records, they'd dispatched 770 bald and golden eagles from his aircraft alone. "With some shooters," said Vogan, "I'd have to tell them when to shoot. Others, one kid, just knew. I'd line 'em up and they would fire…We'd get 50 or 60 on a good day." It has been a slow, agonizing process, but most of the public, the game management establishment and, to a large extent, even the livestock industry have learned that the non-selective elimination of varmints at the very best accomplishes nothing. Now that Yellowstone National Park protects both white pelicans and cutthroat trout the former annually consume 300,000 pounds of the later. Both are well endowed with tapeworms, and there are far more of all three species than in the 1920s. In 1946 gopher chokers killed 294,000 coyotes in 17 western states. In 1974, after 28 years of indiscriminate trapping, shooting, denning and poisoning, they killed 295,000 coyotes in the same 17 states. And during this period coyotes expanded their range, populating the east. As the Biological Survey demonstrated, it is possible to denude the landscape of wolves. But the wolf, never a major predator of sheep, is the only coyote control that ever worked. And the coyote, in turn, is the only fox control that ever worked. Following an all-out air and ground campaign against coyotes in the prairie-pothole region in the 1930s foxes irrupted. The coyotes had not been a major predator of waterfowl. But foxes are a duck's worst nightmare. They patrol much smaller territories, so there are more of them to raid nests and, unlike coyotes, they don't stop when they're full because they cache eggs. Not everyone gets it, of course. Today the leadership of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game devoutly believes that predator control is the key to game abundance. In 1992 then Governor Wally Hickel defended the department's "management" of wolves -- i.e., gunning them down from aircraft -- with this pronouncement to the press: "You just can't let nature run wild." In January 1993 he hosted a "Wolf Summit" in Fairbanks at which Fish and Game officials vainly tried to educate cotton-clad wolf huggers from away. "We feel we are going to create a wildlife spectacle on a par with the major migrations in East Africa," effused wildlife director David "Machinegun" Kelleyhouse (so called because he had tried to requisition a fully automatic weapon for his management work). "Mom and Pop from Syracuse can come up here and see something that they can't see anywhere else on Earth." More recently the department has been pushing the politically correct but no less ecologically hurtful practice of wolf sterilization. The war on prairie dogs nearly caused the extinction of the black-footed ferret -- which depends on them for food and habitat. In 1979 the ferret was presumed extinct after the last survivor of a South Dakota colony had died in captivity. But two years later a ranch mutt named Shep killed one near Meeteetse, Wyoming. When state managers attempted to save the ferrets from distemper and sylvatic plague by evacuating the wild stock, the species seemed doomed. *Audubon* magazine even published a spleenful opinion piece entitled "The Final Ferret Fiasco." But today the Fish and Wildlife Service has a captive breeding population of some 400 animals. And it has released almost a thousand in Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, Utah, Arizona and Colorado. The future, however, is not bright for the black-footed ferret. Not only are prairie dogs beset by sylvatic plague (an alien pathogen from Europe), but the private and federal poison war continues. Perhaps the prevailing attitude toward prairie dogs in the West is best expressed by the International Varmint Association (IVA) which lobbies against the poisoning of prairie dogs so that there will be more of them to blow away with high-powered rifles. IVA seeks "IVG," that is, the "Instant Visual Gratification" of being "able to actually see the bullet strike its mark and watch the target disintegrate in the scope." Essential to IVG is the cloud of blood that hangs in the air after the bullet blows apart a prairie dog. Some members wear T-shirts that say "Red Mist Society." On South Dakota's Rosebud Sioux Reservation legendary prairie-dog hunter Rich Grable -- better known as "Mr. Dog" -- sticks the business end of his Remington .222 out his truck window, resting it on a Styrofoam pad partly melted by barrel heat. *Crack.* He cuts a target in half, sending its hindquarters spinning into the air. "Dead," he announces, punching his dashboard-mounted kill counter. Two babies stand beside a burrow, one with its paws on its sibling's shoulders. Both explode in red mist. (Once Mr. Dog killed five babies with one shot.) *Crack.* "Can ya hear it go plop?" he cackles. *Crack.* "Dissolved him! Ha. Ha." A few targets drag themselves back into their burrows, minus major body parts. "I done somethin' to him," shouts Mr. Dog. "I done somethin' to him, too." One day he killed 75 straight before missing. And on Nov. 12, 1991 he shot 494, killing 452 and thereby bringing his kill count for the year to 7,225. In white-neck society, however, the persecution of "varmints" has not been socially acceptable at least since the 1970s. So the varmint-control bureaucracy is forever changing its name. "Predatory Animal and Rodent Control" became "Wildlife Services," which became "Animal Damage Control" (ADC). But in 1989 brainstorming sessions between ADC and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spawned a report with this suggestion: "Start using the term Animal Damage Management (ADM) instead of Animal Damage Control (ADC), unless it is in reference to an Act or agency." After a consultant advised that "Animal Damage Control" contained three negative words, the agency changed its name back to "Wildlife Services." But no matter what the gopher chokers call themselves they still don't get any respect. And that's unfortunate because the alternative to professional gopher choking is vigilantism; and while the pros don't always do it right, vigilantes usually do it wrong. The environmental community tends not to recognize this. When their publications run articles on the activities of Wildlife Services they invariably dig up 40-year-old photos of animals trapped, burned and poisoned by federal gopher choker Dick Randall who, born again as a humane activist, went to work for Defenders of Wildlife. Wildlife Services still knocks off plenty of coyotes and other animals, so that the public gets to pay three times for the privilege of hosting private livestock on its rangeland -- once with its tax money, once with its predators and once with habitat damage by domestic ungulates. But at least today's predator control is relatively selective. Much of the work is essential (gull control at airports, for example) and more than half is nonlethal. For example, the agency's National Wildlife Research Center at Fort Collins, Colorado (formerly called the "Eradication Methods Laboratory") has induced ravens to avoid one of their favorite repasts -- the eggs of the endangered California least tern -- by injecting quail eggs with methiocarb, a substance that makes birds throw up. When the dosed quail eggs are placed in least tern nests, the ravens decide they hate tern eggs, too. Wildlife Services says it would like to get seriously into control of the cowbird, a woodland-bird scourge that has been moving east with forest fragmentation. But the bird-control staffers can't get any constituents. The environmental community won't talk to them because they are *the enemy.* Despite such blinders from the varmint wars, the environmental community has made remarkable progress in dragging the nation toward what Leopold called an "ecological conscience." In 1974, when gray wolves were declared endangered in the Rocky Mountains, recovery seemed politically impossible. And the climate seemed no better in the late 1980s when Fish and Wildlife Service director Frank Dunkle played trapped canid to members of the Wyoming Wool Growers Association, assuring them that the only wolves he'd bring to Yellowstone were on his tie tack. But in the winter of 1995 an alpha-female Fish and Wildlife Service director, Mollie Beattie, and her alpha-male boss, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt -- both spewing quotes from the reformed Leopold -- carried wolves captured in Canada into the park. The recovery plan, written in 1987, called for ten breeding pairs in each of three areas -- northwest Montana, the greater Yellowstone ecosystem and central Idaho. By 1998 that goal essentially had been attained. Environmentalists still get discouraged about public attitudes toward "varmints," occasionally with excellent reason. But for the melancholic there is simple therapy: Visit a known hawk lookout -- maybe Blue Mountain (now called Hawk Mountain) -- on a clear September morning with thermals building and a wind out of the northwest. Stare at the forest of spotting scopes. Listen to the banter of bird-club leaders as they converse by two-way radio with leaders on lookouts to the north and south. "*Crackle,* *crackle*…three ospreys and a bald eagle heading your way…" Now envision a resurrected Hornaday in derby cap, wool shirt and suspenders. He pushes through the crowd, curtly explaining that he is here "that other wild creatures and domestic animals may live." He raises his 12-gauge autoloader, clicks off the safety, crumples a passing peregrine, then fires the remaining four rounds into a kettle of broadwings. Now imagine his reception and his fate. - 30 - From the coffee table book, “A Century of Conservation,” 240 pp, edited by Les Line.