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Silent Spring, Summer, Fall, & Winter

Since 1915, the U.S. government has funded wildlife-killing campaigns designed to protect agribusiness -- the only thing that has changed since its inception in 1885 is the agency's name.

In 1931, Congress passed the Animal Damage Control Act. It required the Secretary of Agriculture to eradicate wildlife deemed harmful to agribusiness (7 U.S.C. § 426). As a result the then named "Biological Survey" initiated massive poisoning campaigns in the 1920s and 1930s that greatly diminished America's wildlife -- from rodents to birds to native carnivores.

In 1930, the American Society of Mammalogists issued a statement that the Biological Survey's Predatory and Animal Rodent Control, is "the most destructive organized agency that has ever menaced so many species of our native fauna [1]." (In June 1999, the American Society of Mammalogists reiterated this and condemned what is now called "Wildlife Services" for its practices and called for fundamental reform [3].)

By the 1940s, the federal-wildlife-killing agency had contributed to the extirpation of species such as wolves and grizzly bears from the Lower 48 states. It distributed poisons as part of its campaign. In one case, according to Edge, 700 miles of poison baits were strewn along Idaho's Lemki National Forest, leaving a wake of dead predators. Not only did the Biological Survey poison wildlife within national forests, it conducted its campaigns ubiquitously. Edge wrote: "The wonder is that there are any wild birds or wild creatures left in the western states [1]."

Others suffered as well. The Biological Survey, according to Edge, dropped over three million pounds of poisoned grain over fourteen million acres of prairie habitat in the late 1920s, which eradicated significant populations of prairie dogs, gophers, birds and other species [1].

Early Native-Carnivore Biologists

By the 1930s, biologists began to uncover the importance of top carnivores in ecosystems. In 1937, Adolph Murie began his ground-breaking research on the ecology of coyotes in Yellowstone National Park. Sent by the National Park Service, he was to determine if coyotes undermined the viability of "more desirable species" such as deer or elk. Murie painstakingly examined what coyotes ate as he analyzed more than 5,000 coyote scats. Coyotes, he found, dined mostly on mice and ate far more crickets and grasshoppers than birds. Murie wrote, "the problem of the big game species in Yellowstone is not one of [coyote] predation, but of inadequate winter range [4]." Murie added: "We must conclude that the role of the coyote in the fauna is not a harmful one [4]." He concluded that coyote numbers were kept in check by disease, starvation, and "natural controls." Murie found that coyotes were a "desirable member of the assembly of animals" and that coyotes contribute "to the interest and variety of this fauna [4]." In other words, coyotes were an important component of ecosystem function -- contrary to the belief system of the federal wildlife-killing agency. 

Other researchers began to confirm Murie's work. In 1941, Aldo Leopold first published his essay, "Thinking Like a Mountain" (republished in 1949 as part of A Sand County Almanac). In "Thinking Like a Mountain," Leopold 

recounted how, early in the twentieth century, he himself engaged in wolf-extermination efforts. He wrote, "I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters' paradise [5]." He later regretted his actions, noting that predation plays an important role in natural processes, and without predation comes ecological collapse. He wrote: "I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer [5]. 

 By the 1950s and 1960s, both the scientific community and the public began to change their attitudes toward predators. This shift may have been in large part due to Farley Mowat's (now discredited) 1963 book, Never Cry Wolf, which depicted wolves as compassionate and social animals. While he dispelled the myth that they were ravenous wanton killers, Mowat wrongly postulated they mostly ate rodents. By 1983, Mowat's book had sold over a million copies and in that year, Disney turned it into a blockbuster motion picture [6, 7].

Mid-20th Century Reformers

As chair of an Interior-appointed commission, A. Starker Leopold (Aldo Leopold's son) issued his "Leopold Report" to Stewart Udall, Secretary of the Interior, and to Congress in 1964 [8]. This report described widespread abuses by what was then called Predatory Animal and Rodent Control (PARC). It noted the agency's penchant for indiscriminate wildlife killing through the use of traps and poisons, particularly Compound 1080 (which was later banned under the Nixon Administration in 1972 and partially restored to usage in the mid-1980s under the Reagan Administration.). According to the Leopold Report, the American populace especially favored native carnivores. The public's sentiment in favor of carnivore protection, however, was ignored by PARC and decision makers who continued to respond to agribusiness pressures [9].

In 1971, a second report, the "Cain Report", was issued to the U.S. Department of Interior and Council on Environmental Quality, this time from a panel chaired by Stanley A. Cain (A. Starker Leopold was also a member of this second panel). The Cain Report lamented that the Division of Wildlife Services continued to ignore both science and the sentiments of the majority of the American population, who supported wildlife protection. Cain's 207-page report offered 15 recommendations to Congress including no toxicants for predator and rodent control. The report cited an internal culture that was "resistant to change" and was influential when Pres. Richard Nixon cited the report in his 1972 Executive Order that banned sodium cyanide and Compound 1080 for predator control on federal lands [9]. (Nixon's Executive Order was rescinded by the Reagan Administration.)

Despite the high profiles of both the Leopold and Cain committees and their respective reports, fundamental reforms in the federal animal damage control program have not occurred. Rather, Wildlife Services continues to operate under the Animal Damage Control Act of 1931, continues to be funded through partnerships with local and private parties such as the Cattlemen's Association and the Woolgrowers, and continues to indiscriminately kill carnivores and other wildlife at alarming rates.

Despite dramatic changes in public perceptions and values pertaining to wildlife, Wildlife Services continues to conduct its business based on archaic myths and ideologies. Animal Damage Control's 1994/1997 Final Environmental Impact Statement concludes that language like "eradication", "suppression" and "campaigns for the destruction" is no longer politically correct. And while Wildlife Services no longer broadcasts strychnine and cyanide across the Great Plains and the West as it did in the 1920s and 1930s, because of court orders, it continues to kill millions of animals each year -- including nearly 5 million in 2008 alone.                                        

 The Animal Damage Control Act of March 2, 1931 authorized the Secretary of Agriculture to "promulgate the best methods of eradication, suppression, or bringing under control" on both public and private lands a whole host of species, including "mountain lions, wolves, coyotes, bobcats, prairie dogs, gophers" (7 U.S.C. § 426). The intent of this work, according to Congress, was to protect livestock interests. Based on political expediency, Wildlife Services continues to ignore the best available science -- especially with regards to the vast literature on the roles of top carnivores, and the values of the majority of the public who embrace conservation. The federal wildlife-killing agency, founded in 1885, continues to exterminate large numbers of wildlife in misguided attempts to placate agribusiness, the timber industry, extreme hunting groups, and uninformed Western wildlife commissions. The battle is now eighty years old. With help from you, we hope to end the work that a maverick wildlife activist, Rosalie Edge, so bravely began in the early 1930s.

For more information, see the USDA-APHIS-Wildlife Services timeline.

  1. Edge, R., The United States Bureau of Destruction and Extermination: The Misnamed and Perverted "Biological Survey". Rosalie Barrow Edge Manuscript Collection.
  2. Stolzenburg, W., Us or Them. Conservation in Practice, 2006. 7(4): p. 14-21.
  3. American Society of Mammalogists, Mammalian Predator Control in the U.S. 1999.
  4. Murie, A., Ecology of the Coyote in the Yellowstone, in Fauna of the National Parks of the United States, U.S.D.o. Interior, Editor. 1940, U.S. Government Printing Office.
  5. Leopold, A., A Sand County Almanac. 1949, Reprint 1977, New York: Ballantine Books. 295.
  6. Dunlap, T.R., Saving America's Wildlife. 1988, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. xvi, 222.
  7. Mighetto, L., Wild animals and American environmental ethics. 1991, Tucson: University of Arizona Press. xiv, 177.
  8. Leopold, A.S., et al., Leopold Report: Predator and Rodent Control in the United States: Report submitted to Department of Interior. 1964.
  9. Robinson, M.J., Predatory Bureaucracy: The Extermination of Wolves and Transformation of the West. 2005, Boulder: University Press of Colorado. 473.