Varmints and Victims: Predator Control in the American West by Frank Van Nuys (review)
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Varmints and Victims: Predator Control in the American West. By Frank Van Nuys. (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2015. Pp. xiv, 338. $29.95 cloth)

The cruel history of predator control in the western states has long sullied triumphal narratives of American environmentalism, and Varmints and Victims provides an account of the roles that industrial agriculture, science, and political activism have played in the ongoing politics of slaughter and salvation that have faced America’s carnivorous mammals over the last two centuries. It traces the historical transformation of predatory animals—mainly bears, coyotes, mountain lions, and wolves—from their status as economic pests in need of eradication to their more recent elevation as icons of ecological integrity. The book covers a lot of historical territory; its first two chapters describe the nineteenth-century origins of state involvement in anti-predator campaigns. A third chapter covers the professionalization of predator-control efforts within the federal ranks during the Progressive era. Two middle chapters discuss the mounting opposition of mammologists and, later, ecologists to federal eradication and poisoning campaigns, offering a solid primer on the political history of predator control from the passage of the 1931 Animal Damage Control Act to the Reagan-era transfer of predator-control responsibilities from the Department of the Interior to the Department of Agriculture. The final two chapters discuss the historical impact of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) on the recent political landscape of predator conservation, focusing primarily on the protection and reintroduction of gray wolves to the northern Rockies, as well as their subsequent removal from ESA protections in 2011—a decision made by the Republican-majority Congress in a line-item appropriations bill that barred judicial review.

Frank Van Nuys is at his best in these later chapters, describing the complicated legal and political thickets that scientists and environmental advocates have had to negotiate in order to achieve meaningful reforms to anti-predator laws that have institutionalized varmint-killing as an intractable aspiration of federal environmental [End Page 300] policy. His research on the federal agents who shot and poisoned predators across the American West adds new sources to the historical literature, and his study of the familiar faces of twentieth-century predator control also produces some rich anecdotes. In 1926, for instance, Stanley P. Young, head of the Bureau of Biological Survey’s Division of Predatory Animal and Rodent Control, announced to the listeners of a Denver radio broadcast that killing wolves was “a form of true conservation,” a claim that must have seemed bogus even by contemporary standards (p. 61).

As a whole, however, Varmints and Victims sacrifices precision for sweeping narrative. Van Nuys’s repeated insistence that livestock-growing westerners wanted to eradicate predators out of “economic practicality” rings false. From an economic standpoint, there was nothing practical at all about the vast enterprise of predator control, which was largely a failure, and which cost livestock growers and the American public hundreds of millions of dollars for little, if any, reward. And for all the nuances and complexities that Van Nuys so deftly considers in his later chapters, he is dismissive of the multifaceted politics of predator control during the nineteenth century, which “was blessed in a way,” he writes, “by a coherent set of beliefs and practices in relation to predators” (p. 5).

Nevertheless, Varmints and Victims offers a valuable synthesis of the history of predator control. It also arrives at a timely moment. Given the imminent return of gray wolves to California, Colorado, Oregon, Utah, and Washington, debates over the place of predators in the American West of the twenty-first century are about to heat up again. Van Nuys reminds us to think about these “few thousand varmints, mostly roaming around the middle of nowhere” as more than just the distant victims of America’s ceaseless war on wildlife (p. 249). They are its survivors, and that is a fresh and badly needed historical perspective. [End Page 301]

Michael Wise

MICHAEL WISE is the author of Producing Predators: Wolves, Work, and Conquest in the Northern Rockies (2016) and an assistant professor of history at the University of North Texas.


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