Swans Commentary » swans.com April 24, 2006  



Collateral Damage
Michael J. Robinson's Predatory Bureaucracy


by Martin Murie


Book Review



Robinson, Michael J.: Predatory Bureaucracy. The Extermination of Wolves and the Transformation of the West, University Press of Colorado, November 2005, ISBN 0-87081-819-8, 473 pages, $24.95 (paperback)


(Swans - April 24, 2006)  Another sentimental wolf story? No. It's a wolf story intellectuals and activists of all persuasions ought to study. Michael J. Robinson's Predatory Bureaucracy. Extermination of Wolves and the Transformation of the West is a closely documented examination of human and animal encounters on this continent. From its double entendre title and the cover featuring a black wolf's relentless stare to the last index entry, we are given a meticulous account of one federal bureau's predator killing mission, a mission that embedded itself in the culture and mythology of wide open spaces west of the 100th meridian.

From its very first days the Office of Economic Ornithology and Mammalogy, later known as the Biological Survey, now the Fish and Wildlife Service, was caught in its own trap. One jaw serving the predator (bad animals) extermination mission and building close political relations with cattlemen and sheepmen; the other jaw, with a smaller share of the budget, devoted to study, using good science, the biology of birds and mammals. These scientists, a diverse and picturesque bunch, ranged from the Arctic to Mexican border lands. Eventually, they rebelled against the good animal/bad animal paradigm. By the time they had, oh so very slowly, learned from their own studies that extermination was a clumsy, dangerous policy, they found themselves up against a formidable alliance, the intimate collaboration between federal and state officials and economic power brokers.

The book studies a braided flow of history where wolves and coyotes, cougars and prairie dogs, grizzlies and eagles and a host of other creatures including us humans, build, together and forever intertwined, western history.

Predatory Bureaucracy moves through layers: political, economic, geographic, biological, mythological. This doesn't happen often enough, in the fields of nature and environmental writings. It is all too easy to get kind of stiff, stand on the human level, look at everything else as adjuncts to the one history: OURS. But there are, today, hopeful signs. This book is one.

From an initial congressional $8,000 funding in the year 1885, the Office of Economic Ornithology and Mammalogy was given a task: to cooperate with the American Ornithologists Union in its research on bird territories and migrations. Its first director was an enthusiastic birder, C. Hart Merriam, whose father was a former congressman. At age sixteen Hart travelled into the west with a Ferdinand F. Hayden expedition, returning with 313 bird specimens and 67 nests with eggs. Merriam hired a close friend, Albert K. Fisher, a physician, and Vernon Bailey, who was "the product of a Minnesota farm" and so "rustic" he didn't even know his birth date. Bailey rose in the ranks to head the Division of Biological Investigations. Fisher rose too, eventually heading the Division of Economic Investigations, the predator extermination section.

Robinson follows the careers of each of his very large cast. Meet S. A. McIntyre, widely known as Rattlesnake Jack, circus snake charmer and morphine addict turned wolf hunter. His son became a predator trapper too, naming himself Rattlesnake Jack Junior. One day McIntyre senior walked into a saloon in Gillette, Wyoming, a rough and ready frontier town.

Two cowpunchers were making the patrons dance to the accompaniment of six-shooters. McIntyre entered the establishment and was ordered to start dancing. "All right boys," he said, "and we will have a little music," pulling out from under his shirt his two pet rattlers and thus sharply ending the cowboys' festivities.

And there was Rags, a canny wolf.

He scratched and pulled a few leaves toward himself, then a few more, revealing loose dirt and the steel edge of a trap. He started digging at an angle an inch from the trap edge until it sagged. He approached it from the other side, scraping away first leaves and then the substrate of earth until the whole trap was exposed in its delicately wrought brutality. He sniffed at it, catching the merest taint of the man he had followed to the camp at the bend in the creek. Then, with a final flip of his paw from underneath the trap, the wolf popped it out of its hollow and onto the adjacent ground.

That night Rags headed west again, back into Utah, where the scent of Bill Caywood adhered to no gust of wind.

And the land.

From the top one can see to the east the cliffy edge of the White River Plateau (now largely protected as the Flat Tops Wilderness) and to the west more plateaus and canyons dropping into the Green and Colorado rivers.

Wolves are quick learners. One experience in a trap is enough. One endurance of another wolf's convulsive death from strychnine-laced meat or fat. One bullet wound. One cyanide sickness. Those one-time experiences guide the future.

Lefty, who had lost his left foot in a trap, avoided trails; he habitually walked or loped parallel to accustomed runways, offside from the rest of the pack. Human individuals are quick learners too, but it took human institutions embedded in a massive free enterprise march from sea to shining sea to bring wolves to the brink of extinction in the lower 48 and in Mexico. The Bureau of Biological Survey became the key federal actor in the killing of wolves and other predators, continuing on a larger scale, a larger landscape, our drive for total overlordship of nature.

I repeat, the cast is large: powerful, experienced individuals: Three Toes, Two Toes, Whitey, Lefty, Rags and others. Powerful, experienced humans too, such as Hegewa A. Roberts, who finally figured out a way to catch Lefty. Humans and animals, we are given their ranges, changes of ranges, personalities, tell-tale marks and what, if known, finally happened to them.

Logan B. Crawford, born in Missouri, boyhood in Colorado, selected to head up the Colorado District of the wolf extermination campaign, a man who did much to merge federal efforts with Colorado sheepmen and cattlemen and their money, and the state of Colorado and its money.

Stanley Paul Young, loyal friend of ranchers, dedicated killer of wolves; a complex man, one who might have looked back later from his high bureaucratic post in D.C. with at least a degree of nostalgia for the west that he had done more than anyone to cleanse of wolves.

Rosalie Edge, a suffragist and lover of bird life, gets at long last more than a mention. At her first attendance at a board meeting of the Audubon Society, the presiding officials' answers to her questions did not satisfy her. She badgered them. Finally the exasperated president of the Society told her that she had spoiled the evening, that she had left no time for the scheduled film, and that lunch was getting cold. And many more personalities as we move through the Gilded Age into a new century and the War to End Wars, people noticing that the Old West of fur trapping, ranching, homesteading and mining is giving way to the New West of automobiles, highways, bigger towns and cities, the New West turning much more urban. But the big land holders and lessees of grazing land retain powerful political and cultural clout, even today, as the Old, Old West of "extractive" industry confronts the New, New West of amenities, eco-recreation and tourism.

It's a long journey, this book. The last few chapters bring us into another new century, more killings, more poverty as the arrogant empire plows more devastation into the fabric of all life. It's a gripping and exasperating suspense story, the author very much involved. He seems to know every wolf, every bureaucrat. It is a time of the trapping of the last few Mexican/Southwestern subspecies of Lobo, their releases into lands chosen more for political caution than for wolf habitat requirements. The wolves encounter solid rancher opposition. Bureaucratic infighting and procrastinating goes on and on as surviving wolves are re-trapped, held, then released again only to face the same hostility. It's a grim sampling of how politics works today.

I like the way Robinson describes the settings for each event, whether it be a Washington, D.C. subcommittee room, a meadow in Colorado, a meeting of rivers. We see those places, our imaginations take charge and that's enough. We don't need the hyped coloration that spoils so many environmental writings.

There is a path-breaking aspect of this writing, its insistence on our society as a complex set of ecosystems. From that stance Robinson is able to show Nature and its creatures playing decisive roles that are all too often loaded with aces: the terrible livestock-killing winters of the late nineteenth century combined with overgrazing of western rangelands; a drought cycle bringing monstrous dust storms over newly ploughed prairie lands; relentless collateral effects of predator and rodent control as newly concocted poisons and techniques invade lands west of the 100th; more wars and economic downturns. In response to these complexities, ideas shifted, and the nation's ruling coalitions invented new pacifiers, regained their poise.

The book makes no claim to be a complete history of the Bureau and its reincarnation today as key administrator of the Endangered Species Act. Its purpose is to show in sometimes excruciating detail how the predator extermination program (later renamed "control" program, for purely political purposes) radiated through the ecosystems, creating countless deaths of predators other than wolves, and of scavengers such as magpies that interfered with poisoning by getting to baits ahead of wolves and coyotes, and of rodents, greatly aided by the New Deal's creation of abundant manpower in the form of the Civilian Conservation Corps. Tens of thousands of life forms were destroyed, including nearly all of South Dakota's large prairie dog colonies along with their complex of organic relationships that included black-footed ferrets. These collateral tolls are still with us, they still radiate. The author ventures a question. "But one cannot help but wonder whether the outcome would have been different had the mammalogists been less moderate, quicker to realize the depth of their differences with the survey."

That question could be asked of any activist project today. Are we too moderate in our opposition to the war? Answers are not easy, but they have to be marshalled and discussed and acted upon.

Robinson is Carnivore Conservation Coordinator for the Center for Biological Diversity. He is a defender of species who writes as a scientist and a partisan. Can a partisan be fair to all sides while retaining credibility? Yes, it can be done and that's something to celebrate. Readers of the dominant form of investigative reporting find themselves slotted into that fugitive ideal known as balanced reporting. However, quotations from both, or all three, sides do not a believable balance make. It's a sedative, that style, sometimes known as utter boredom. It creates a hunger for the full-blooded story. That's one reason why Predatory Bureaucracy offers such a tasty spread.

Circumstances and their own integrity forced the Bureau's scientific field men to admit that opposition to predator extermination could no longer be half hidden behind collegial relationships. Outspoken Bureau insiders included Olaus J. Murie who had studied caribou in Alaska and elk, coyotes and mountain sheep in the west, and former predator killer Dick Randall who quit that trade to speak out in open opposition. The many non-bureau scientists included Joseph Grinnell, director of California's Museum of Vertebrate Zoology; E. Raymond Hall, director of a strong mammalogy enclave at the University of Kansas; Aldo Leopold, forester and wolf hunter reborn as a philosophically searching writer. Rosalie Edge, lone wolf, formed her own organization. Florence M. Bailey, ornithologist and writer, no doubt influenced her husband, Vernon, the Bureau's Director of Biological Investigations, who in retirement invented humane traps. I remember tagging along with my dad, Olaus, one winter, trying Verbails on coyotes. Later, Rachel Carson brought new forces into the struggle.

The science of ecology was emerging from the findings of these and other people, other places, worldwide. It was not easy. Little did the pioneers know how bitter and long-drawn-out the infighting would turn out to be. It's still with us, in spades.


· · · · · ·
Robinson, Michael J.: Predatory Bureaucracy. The Extermination of Wolves and the Transformation of the West, University Press of Colorado, November 2005, ISBN 0-87081-819-8, 473 pages, $24.95 (paperback)

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About the Author

Martin Murie retired early from his teaching position to go back to the land and write novels, poetry, and rants. Murie grew up in Wyoming. He served in WWII with the 10th Mountain Infantry. With an undergraduate degree in literature/philosophy and a PhD in Zoology, he taught life sciences at the University of California, Berkeley, and Antioch University.



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Published April 24, 2006