Dances with Coyotes
DICK RANDALL REMEMBERS THE TIME in 1973 he took his 10-year-old son, Andy, out into Wyoming’s Red Desert. Days earlier, he had set out 75 steel leghold traps to capture the coyotes that local ranchers complained were preying on their sheep. Walking along a rock ledge, Randall and Andy turned a corner and came face-to-face with a 30-lb. male bobcat.
The animal, its fool clenched in one of the traps, had chewed through its own ligament, muscle and cartilage in an effort to escape. As Randall approached, the cat, weak and dehydrated, summoned one final surge of strength and lunged. Then it collapsed and died. “Those wild, beautiful eyes just clouded over,” says Randall. “My son looked at me and asked, ‘Why are you doing this, Dad?’ ”
For 11 years Randall had shot, clubbed, gassed and poisoned thousands of “livestock predators” as an agent of the Animal Damage Control Agency, a little-known branch of the U.S. Agriculture Department whose main purpose is to reduce crop and livestock losses caused by birds, rodents and predators. In one record-setting month in 1972, he gunned down 230 coyotes from an airplane. “I killed and killed and killed and killed,” he says. But the slaughter was beginning to wear on him, and his son’s question finally stopped him in his tracks. In 1973 Randall quit the agency, and within six months he had launched a campaign by reform it. First as a field representative for Defenders of Wildlife, then as a consultant for the Humane Society of the U.S., Randall traveled the country showing photographs he had taken as an ADC agent to every community group or congressional committee that would listen.
Now, after almost two decades, his campaign is finally attracting attention—and influential support. One outgrowth: the Wildlife Damage Review, an organization started by Clarke Abbey, widow of author Edward Abbey, that has won the support of Robert Redford, Dances with Wolves author Michael Blake and Yvon Chouinard, president and founder of Patagonia, the outdoor clothing manufacturer. “The government has no money for social programs, but it’s wasting tax money on stupid programs like this,” fumes Chouinard.
Randall, 67, argues that ADC is little more than an arm of powerful Western livestock ranchers—funded at $35 million this year by the taxpayers. In fact the ADC budget has steadily increased since the mid-1950s, although the number of U.S.-raised sheep—the principal beneficiaries of ADC’s programs—has dwindled from 21 million to 11.2 million. “I know some good ranchers,” says Randall, “but most of them blame every death of a cow or sheep on predators to keep this insane program going.”
Sheep ranchers, on the other hand, claim the ADC is essential. In 1990, they say, coyotes took nearly half a million animals—worth $21.7 million. “If we quit controlling coyotes, we might as well go out of the sheep business,” says Jim Magagna, president of the American Sheep Industry Association, which represents 110,000 sheep ranchers. “In fact, we’d like more predator control and more toxicants. There’s no substitute for doing what works.” Randall concedes that selective control may be necessary. It’s the wholesale killing that he opposes.
Sometimes the victims are unintended. In addition to coyotes, ADC admits that in 1988 (the last year for which they have figures) the agency inadvertently destroyed, among others, 1,117 raccoons, 1,155 foxes, 231 rabbits and 104 domestic cats.
The ADC’s methods have also come in for criticism. The (General Accounting Office reported in 1990 that agents were poisoning coyotes with spring-loaded devices called M-44s that propel cyanide into the mouths of animals that bite a scented bait, and that they were also torching animals’ dens as well as capturing them in leghold traps. Says Wayne Pacelle of the fund for Animals: “Only because of Dick Randall has the public’ seen the astonishing degree of cruelty perpetrated by this agency on all manner of species.”
Much as Randall’s critics might like to, they cannot accuse him of being an effete Eastern intruder. He was born in Powell, Wyo., where his father owned a gas station and served as mayor for four years and his mother taught music. One of three children, Randall quit high school in 1942 to join the Air Force, then returned in 1944 to Powell, where he worked as a mechanic. Six years later he enrolled in the Arizona School of Photography and studied briefly with Ansel Adams.
But it was in his next job, with a Wyoming fuel-supply company, that he developed his outdoorsmanship. Periodically he would ride a horse into Wyoming’s Aspen Mountains to check for leaks in a natural-gas pipeline. During those outings he became an expert in animal behavior. “I’d follow the trails and get fascinated by the patterns of animals,” he says.
In 1957 Randall met a government trapper who was searching for a coyote den. Randall led him to it, and the trapper suggested he try for a job with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Randall was assigned to predator control along the Snake River, where one of his duties was trapping black bears. “They would look at you and bawl like a baby,” he recalls. “I would dream about them sometimes at night, but then I’d remind myself that the government said they were bad.”
In 1962 Randall tried another change in lifestyle. He sent away for a mail-order bride (Rita Turkicio, from Germany, who died in 1986) and opened a gas station and cafe in Montana near Yellowstone National Park, where Andy was born in 1963. Two years later Randall moved to Tucson, where he managed a photo store, but he missed Wyoming and returned in 1967, signing on as district supervisor for Animal Damage Control in charge of 5 million acres in southwest Wyoming.
Then in ’73, Randall finally found the job that suited him. Now assisted from time to time by Andy, a photo-journalist who is taking courses at Western Wyoming College, Randall is finally beginning to see some results. Last year environmental groups in Montana, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico forced delays or cancellation of dozens of ADC programs by filing appeals. These compelled the ADC to complete time-consuming environmental-impact studies before proceeding. When Secretary of the Interior Manuel Lujan counterattacked by abolishing the appeals process, the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund filed suit charging the ADC with violating the Endangered Species Act. “[ADC officials] want to do whatever they damn well please on public lands while denying the public a voice,” says Randall, who currently lives in Rock Springs, Wyo.
Now that he has gained allies in his lonely battle, Randall is trying to reach a wider audience with a documentary on the ADC that he is producing with the Humane Society of the U.S. “Mass extermination of wildlife has never solved the problem of protecting livestock from predators,” he says. “It’s cruel, it’s futile, and it has to stop.”
BILL SHAW in Rock Springs