Must They Die? (1971)

Faith McNulty
Ballantine Books

McNulty, then "wildlife reporter' for The New Yorker, uses the mid-60s  sighting of a rare and extremely endangered black-footed ferret in South Dakota as an entryway to discussing the controversy over "predator control" in the American west.  Most have some familiarity with these debates--western ranchers of sheep and cows want natural predators like coyotes, wolves, bears, foxes and other species "controlled" (i.e. exterminated) so as not to eat into their profit margins.  Much of the book details the rather sordid history of PARC (Predator and Rodent Control), a government agency that devoted most of the twentieth-century to eliminating any animal that might pose a threat to commerce, even if that "threat" was often specious and unproven.  There is also a rather excruciating survey of the various ways these predators are destroyed, the most horrifying of which is the M-44 (a spring loaded wick scented with carrion and buried in the prairie.  When an animal bites and pulls on the wick, it shoots a cyanide pill down its throat).

It's not just "predators," of course, but also animals considered expensive pests--thus enters the prairie dog.  Prairie dog colonies were once ubiquitous across the American west.  Considered a hazard to horses and other hoofed animals that might step into their holes, as well as a competitor for prairie grass, prairie dogs have been systematically exterminated for decades, usually with little concern as they appear hardy enough to bounce back wherever they are under attack.  As it turns out, the extremely rare black-footed ferret depends on prairie dog colonies for shelter (they live in their empty dens) and for food (they eat their slow and dimwitted pups).  McNulty documents the various back-and-forth struggles between preservationists, the Feds, and local government officials in trying to delay the poisoning of a prairie dog colony thought to contain the elusive ferret.

Forty years later, things still don't look so great for the black-footed ferret.  As wiki puts it: 

The Black-footed Ferret (Mustela nigripes), also known as the American polecat or Prairie Dog Hunter, is a species of Mustelid native to central North America. It is listed as endangered by the IUCN, due to its very small and restricted populations. First discovered by Audubon and Bachman in 1851, the species declined throughout the 20th century, primarily due to decreases in prairie dogsylvatic plague, to the point where it was considered extinct in the wild by 1987. However, a captive breeding program launched by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service resulted in its reintroduction into eight western states and Mexico from 1991–2008. There are now over 250 mature, wild-born individuals in the wild in 18 states of the USA, though only three of these populations (two in South Dakota and one in Wyoming) are viable.

Prairie dogs, by the way, live in large "towns," but socialize in smaller social groups known as "coteries."  See, you want them less dead now.

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