HOWL Colorado

Interview: “Predatory Bureaucracy” author Michael J. Robinson

HOWLColorado had the opportunity to speak to author Michael J. Robinson about his book, Predatory Bureaucracy, and the potential presence of wolves in Colorado.

Michael Robinson authored Predatory Bureaucracy:The Extermination of Wolves and the Transformation of the West in 2005 which chronicles human conquest of the West with a particular focus on the extermination of the wolves, set against the backdrop of swift transformation in the West as technology, and economy, forced progress at any cost.

Predatory Bureaucracy: Michael J. Robinson (author)

Predatory Bureaucracy: Michael J. Robinson (author)

HOWLColorado had a chance to talk to Mr. Robinson shortly after evidence was found to suggest that wolves had returned to Colorado more than 60 years after the last wolf in Colorado had been killed – a poignant moment in his book.

In a development which may, in some ways, serve as a bookend to events you talk about in Predatory Bureaucracy, wolves are just a DNA test away from being confirmed as being back in Colorado.

HOWL: In today’s world, what new challenges will wolves returning to Colorado face?

Robinson: The new challenges are two-fold: Greater numbers of humans and their developments, and technology to aid so-called wolf “control” that wasn’t available in 1945, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service trapped and killed the last wild wolf in Colorado (also quite likely the last western-U.S.-born wolf). That technology is the radio-collar that enables telemetry monitoring and efficient aerial gunning.

The environment in Colorado today, politically and ecologically, is quite different from when wolves were last here. How do you see this benefiting a new generation of Colorado wolves?

Wolves will enjoy several significant benefits not available in 1945 or the previous three decades in which they were actively hunted by the U.S. government. Most significant are the protections of the Endangered Species Act, signed into law in 1973 in part to limit the discretion to kill predators that a livestock-industry-dominated government had abused. Wolves that migrate naturally to Colorado should be afforded 100% of the protections of the act, and the Center for Biological Diversity for which I work will oppose the inevitable attempt to weaken those protections. Second, wolves will find high numbers of deer, elk and other natural prey in Colorado, in contrast to a hundred years ago when these animals were near extinction and a federal wolf extermination program was shortly to be inaugurated. Third, wolves face a public that overwhelmingly favors their return and their protection, and values their ecological role, including a majority on the West Slope that favor wolves.

Now, turning to your book – Predatory Bureaucracy – you chronicle in detail the destruction of wolves, and other species, in the Rocky Mountain Region.

How would you summarize the part which Denver, and the state of Colorado, played in that process?

Colorado was the epicenter of the western livestock industry and a primary reason was greater and earlier railroad access in Colorado over other western states. The rail access made Denver the “Queen City of the Plains,” an economic hub, and enabled rail shipment of livestock to replace long cattle drives. The ensuing high cattle and sheep stocking rates in Colorado coupled with extensive market hunting of wildlife — also facilitated by railroad access and refrigerated rail cars — largely eliminated bison, elk, deer, pronghorn antelope and bighorn sheep from most of the state by the first decade of the 20th century. As a result, wolves preyed heavily on livestock and the livestock industry used its political clout, which was stronger in Colorado than other states, first to authorize and fund a state bounty system, and then when that effort failed to eliminate wolves, to contribute financially to a program of salaried federal trappers and poisoners that operated systematically and very effectively to exterminate wolves.

What was the most surprising discovery you made while researching this book?

There were a lot of surprises, but one of them was the strong opposition of scientists as early as the 1920s to the federal government’s predator extermination program, coupled, unfortunately, with their political naiveté. Another surprise was to uncover the blow-by-blow political intrigue that subverted high officials in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration, and even undercut the efforts of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, in their attempts to reign in the government’s mass killing of wildlife.

Aldo Leopold – famed conservationist and infamous wolf killer – was, for much of his life a proponent of killing the wolves. Even this most ardent and some would say callous, wolf killer was able to see how important wolves were and change his stance.

I doubt Leopold was any more callous than anyone else in his era. What he had was the patience and the curiosity to observe nature closely and the eagerness to question his own assumptions based on what he saw.

The media referred to wolves as criminals, or demons which did not have a place in modern civilization.

Yes, calling wolves criminals, desperados, and so forth was part of a propaganda program by the U.S. Bureau of Biological Survey (predecessor to today’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and to the secretive USDA Wildlife Services) to arouse a largely urban Colorado citizenry in the 1920s, a citizenry ravaged and outraged by the violence surrounding Prohibition. If wolves were like the homicidal bootleggers that made headlines regularly, little mercy need be extended to them.

Predatory Bureaucracy does a remarkable job of capturing the opinions of the day.

Thank you. I think it’s important to try to understand people’s point of view from a previous era, try to look at the world through their eyes, and especially important if one disagrees with those views. In the early twentieth century many people were especially susceptible to scapegoating wolves, not to mention many other perceived threats including immigrants, because their lives were being uprooted by wrenching technological, economic and social changes; many people were dissettled about the state of the world. There are lessons in that for today’s era as well.

The book seems to document perhaps one of the most successful “smear” campaigns carried out against any specific group. How would you say the time period covered by the book has molded the viewpoints of wolves today?

Well, the time period starts almost five centuries ago, but the heart of Predatory Bureaucracy’s action was from mid-nineteenth century through today. Look, wolves have always been reviled by livestock owners, and to some extent the word “wolfish” is coded into the English language as a surrogate for rapacious appetites and merciless behavior. So there’s that strike against them. But what occurred from 1915 to the present time is the livestock industry hijacked an arm of the U.S. government to do its bidding not just in exterminating wolves, but also in serving as a megaphone in propagandizing against wolves. That reinforced prejudices that already existed. More importantly, the act of extermination independent of any rhetoric led to severe overstocking of livestock, and unleashed expectations that government would continue to cushion the livestock industry from the vagaries of predators, the weather and even the business cycle. Exterminating wolves helped create a culture of dependency, encouraged livestock owners to feel the public lands were theirs by right, contrary to the law, and ultimately fostered an unbecoming sense of entitlement that is now at odds with the public’s right enshrined in the Endangered Species Act to recover wolves in their natural ecosystems. Conversely, the reintroduction of wolves reflects and in some cases enhances an optimism that we can undo past mistakes, that the balance of nature can be restored – and that it ought to be.

Is it likely there are many who might read your book and agree with the statement that wolves were an impediment towards progress and that given the same situation today, they would advocate for the removal of wolves?

People who already feel that way will find that Predatory Bureaucracy supports their view. And most of those people, certainly the ones who feel strongest about it, are lessees using the public lands for commercial livestock grazing. The livestock industry is at the forefront of working to exterminate wolves once again. Wolves were an impediment to progress, but I think many people who read Predatory Bureaucracy would agree that “progress” as conceived then hid many pitfalls that have bedeviled us since.

Has the underlying opinions towards wolves really changed from the late 19th century?

Yes it has. The science of ecology has revealed predators’ and especially wolves’ centrality in the functioning of natural ecosystems. People highly value those ecosystems today. And 40 years of nature documentaries, feature articles and books have in large part disseminated those scientific findings to the general public. Polls show consistent support for wolf recovery in many western states, including Colorado, and including in rural areas.

Do you see anything which gives you cause for concern when you compare the behavior of federal and state governments from today with those from the late 19th in to the first third of the 20th century?

The institutions of government have shifted in shape and structure, changed their names multiple times, and adopted the antiseptic modern lexicon of “wildlife management.” But the USDA Wildlife Services agency is still poisoning wildlife, setting leg-hold traps and wire snares, and shooting wild animals. At any time, even as you read this, they may be gassing a den of wolf pups in Montana, aerial gunning wolves in Idaho, or calling and shooting them from the ground in Wyoming. And the agency’s once-conjoined twin, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which spent 100 years as the same agency as Wildlife Services and was only separated 25 years ago, has almost uniformly worked to hand over responsibility for wolves to Wildlife Services, and to approve destruction and capture of wolves even when they are officially listed as “endangered.” Sadly, the record of both these agencies with other wildlife is comparable.

What is the greatest threat to today’s wolves?

Government “predator control.”

One passage you use in your book describes a man’s experience of sitting next to his campfire at night and wolves coming into the campsite to be near the fire.

That is the opening scene in my book and many people have been struck by it. It was just one wolf, apparently drawn by the warmth of George Frederick Ruxton’s blazing campfire during a snowstorm in the 1840s in South Park, Colorado. Ruxton was asleep under deer-skins but woke to see a wolf sitting by the fire, “his eyes closed and his head nodding in sheer drowsiness.”

How would you best explain behavior like this, and more broadly, the relationship between wolves and humans which may explain how dogs came from that connection?

Dogs are thought to have evolved from wolves; who knows what first drew the two species together? What occurred in early-day Colorado and throughout the West is that wolves followed white hunters and trappers who often killed an entire bison just to eat the tongue; many animals were gunned down without any of their meat or hides used or salvaged. These carcasses became a reliable food source for countless wolves and other scavengers. In the process, they lost some of their fear of humanity. Of course, that changed quickly once wolves themselves became the targets.

One thing which is hard to deny, and harder to fully appreciate is the amazing resilience of wolves. A resilience not exhibited by their contemporaries. This leads to a question relating to a project which is especially close to you.

Why, in reintroduction attempts for Mexican gray wolves, is the wolfish resilience which seems so strong in your book not proving enough to bring back this particular subspecies?

The primary reason is that the Mexican gray wolf reintroduction program was set up without the minimum science-based standards and protections for wolves that were reintroduced into the northern Rocky Mountains just three years earlier; northern wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone and central Idaho beginning in 1995, and Mexican wolves reintroduced to Arizona and New Mexico beginning in 1998. First, wolves in the Southwest can only be released from captivity into a relatively small area, which is now largely occupied by territorial wolves; that limits the numbers of wolves that can be released to the wild. Second, Mexican wolves are required to stay within arbitrary political boundaries, even if they’re not bothering anyone, and are trapped and removed if they establish territories outside these areas. Third, unlike northern Rockies’ wolves, Mexican wolves were never protected from the consequences of scavenging on dead livestock — animals dead of disease, starvation, accidents, other predators, poisonous weeds, birthing problems, etc. – and then beginning to prey on stock. Once wolves in the Southwest began depredating, often after they had first scavenged, until very recently the government invariably removed them. The upshot of the recent predator-control program against Mexican wolves is that removal of genetically-valuable wolves from a tiny population of just seven survivors of the original extermination campaign, has now led to inbreeding depression and lower pup recruitment and survival. Low numbers, and the government’s nine-years-and-counting delay in enacting management reforms proposed by scientists, may have also emboldened some enemies of the wolves to step up their criminal efforts and try to kill the last few that are out there. Just 42 Mexican wolves and two breeding pairs survive in the wild; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service mismanagement has exacted a steep price from the “Lobo.”

What is the one lesson you hope readers of Predatory Bureaucracy will walk away with?

Readers tell me they find many insights and lessons in Predatory Bureaucracy. I will let the book itself answer this for those willing to plunge into a 480-page read, rather than try to summarize here.

What one message would you send to Coloradoans about wolves as they return to their ancestral home – a state which wolves are designed to live in?

Once there are more than a handful, the wolves will survive on their own so long as government is constrained from removing them. Don’t acquiesce to federal wolf-removal, which is the factor that originally wiped out wolves. The reasons for “control” are articulated very differently today from almost a century ago, but the result may be all too similar

And remember: The public lands belong to everybody, not just those using them for profit.

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Robinson also serves as a Conservation Advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity, and has been involved in projects such as trying to turn around the struggling Mexican gray wolf reintroduction program, or holding agencies accountable for protecting species such as the Florida panthers.

Visit the official site for Predatory Bureaucracy.

You can buy Predatory Bureaucracy from Amazon, or from the University Press of Colorado

Find out more about the work of Michael J Robinson and the Center for Biological Diversity.

To learn more about the Mexican gray wolves, visit www.mexicanwolves.org

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