In this history, Frank Van Nuys chronicles America's relationship with predators of the American West, especially the gray wolf, coyote, grizzly bear, and mountain lion. Van Nuys contends that in the West of the last two centuries, animals were "defined primarily in economic terms" (6) and that the policies of states and the national government regarding these mammalian predators have been defined by "practicality" and "economic and cultural impulses" (23, 25). Varmints and Victims provides an admirable introduction to how Americans have treated the other apex predators on this continent, and although Van Nuys perhaps overstates the case that 19th-century Americans were nearly univocal in the call to eliminate the "charismatic" beasts, the book's strength is in its detailed depiction of the struggle between 20th-century science-based, and later urban-based, environmentalism and the anti-predator perspectives of government bureaus and rural cultures to find an acceptable place for predators.
The narrative begins with two chapters describing the arrival in the West of Anglo-American migrants with their herds of domesticated animals and their perpetuation of European "patterns of conflict" often described as "warfare" with the resident predators, especially wolves (15). Chapters 3 through 5 emphasize the struggle between producers of livestock, particularly sheep, and the animals that purportedly ravaged their flocks and the methods by which the progressive-era Bureau of Biological Survey (BBS), formulating policy congruent with the interests of livestock and wool producers, decimated remaining predator populations. Van Nuys maintains the progressive impulse to create "an idealized natural landscape—free of predators and made permanently safe for 'good' animals and enterprise" dominated the policy of the BBS throughout the 20th century (54).
The final two chapters and epilogue relate attempts starting in the 1970s under the umbrella of the Endangered Species Act to reestablish existing populations of predators in national parks and in western states and recount the challenges the programs and animals have faced on Capitol Hill, from state governments, and from rural values. In short, Van Nuys asserts that the threat to the four species of predators has come from European cultures based on domestication and animal husbandry, a Christian religion that embraced dominion over nature, urban sprawl that eliminated essential habitat and provided protection for prey species, and most importantly, the economic interests of livestock producers and, more recently, the profits tied to sport hunting. In the end Van Nuys concludes that despite politics and poison, "The predators are still here" (256). Yet, his prognosis for the beleaguered minority is carefully optimistic—at best.
Varmints and Victims paints the early history of America's "war" on predators thinly and with a broad brush and only begins to provide focus in the third chapter with its articulation of the procedures for eradicating, or controlling, predators in the national parks and by the BBS in conjunction with states and private organizations. In regard to the Great Plains, Van Nuys pays particular attention to the animals and affairs in South Dakota, Iowa, Colorado, Kansas, Montana, and occasionally, northern Texas. As the history is more about human actions than the story of the "varmints," the study is at its best starting with chapter 5, offering details of the shifting politics, the spectrum of scientific criticism of anti-predator policy, and the popular environmentalism of the last four decades. Also to its credit, the book concludes with copious endnotes and a solid bibliography. [End Page 152]