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Biological warfare gone wrong in wildlife control

March 9, 2014
Nick Buseman - Grundy County Conservation Operation Supervisor , Reinbeck Courier

The term biological warfare is a term that many associate with the different terrorist groups throughout the world, but I was shocked to see that the use of biological warfare was used for controlling wildlife back in the early 1900's. As settlers moved west they came in constant battle with the wolf and coyote of the west; causing great destruction to their cattle, horses, and other livestock, resulting in the Montana government attempting to eradicate the wolf and coyote in support of the area ranchers.

The first effort to eliminate the wolf population was the introduction of bounties for the pelts of area wolves. The law was passed in 1883 to pay a bounty of 1 dollar per pelt, the first year they collected 5450 wolf hides. Soon after the passing of the bounty law a cottage industry of "wolfers" cropped up to reap the reward for harvesting wolves; killing more than 55,000 wolves a year. By 1911 the bounty price per pelt had risen to 15 dollars a hide. Those were unbelievable prices for back in the early 1900's. The Montana government had paid $342,764 for 80,730 wolves between 1883 and 1918. By 1905 lawmakers decided to look for a better and cheaper way to eradicate the wolf and coyote by whatever means possible.

Their idea was simple and cheap; their plan was to infect the wild coyote and wolf populations with a disease caused by tiny skin burrowing mites called mange. Mange was introduced as a killer, a simple and cheap way to destroy the canine populations. As some of you may know mange is an awful disease causing the animals to itch feverishly losing their hair; therefore leaving the animal susceptible to hypothermia, infections, and other health problems. Personally witnessing an infected animal is one of the most gruesome, torturous things I have seen.

In March of 1905 the Montana state veterinarian captured six wolves and six coyotes in eight different counties and infected them with mange and sent them off in six different directions. Mange being very easily spread, these infected animals would take this disease back to the pack or den and start the government's attempt of biological warfare on the coyotes and wolves of Montana. Documentation of this project was very scarce, due to what many people think is the destruction of records due the controversy of the project. There are a few newspaper articles with quotes from the state veterinarian stating that by 1909 about 200 wolves and coyotes had been infected and released; believing that some of them may have reached Wyoming or South Dakota. He said that he was constantly receiving reports from ranchers finding dead or badly diseased wolves and coyotes that were easily killed, so sick that they were unable to get out of the way. He also reported in 1913 that ranchers in eastern Montana said that 95 percent of the wolves and coyotes were affected by this disease.

The experiment ended in 1916, with some success, but wolves were not eliminated from Montana till the 1930's. Some have speculated, but it's impossible to prove that the mange seen today all over the U.S. is related to Montana's efforts in the early 1900's. I found it very interesting that today rather than spending $15 for a dead wolf, the federal government spent $3 million in 2007 to keep about 1200 wolves alive in the Northern Rockies.



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