Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Of Vermin and Varmints

How often have you heard the two words in the title in recent decades? Not much, I hope, though I know they are still used. I'd never thought of wildlife in these terms until I moved to Arizona in grad school, and discovered "varmint hunting." Say what?

Wikipedia does an intriguing etymological job on vermin, albeit relatively citation-free, pointing out that both words have evolved from the root (verm-, meaning wormlike), which originally included mostly insect pests, to cover pests that range in size from rats to small or medium-sized predators, such as (in Arizona's predominant case) coyotes. Soon I found myself writing letters to editors (okay, one, in response to a Paul Harvey diatribe) and hanging out with HSUS types occasionally. I wanted a chance to see coyotes, alive and without holes in them. And that, in the category of "things you can see while hiking in Arizona," is putting it mildly.

"God's dog," it turns out, is persona non grata in the Southwest, where hunting is regulated not as a game animal, but in a special class for predators.* I'd say "was" but here's what the AZ Game & Fish Dept has to say on their website today:
The take of coyotes by hunters has been relatively stable during the past 10 years, about 13,000 hunters taking an average of between 30,000 and 40,000 coyotes a year. Most of these animals are taken while "varmint calling," while hunting other game, or simply as opportunities arise...[updated April 2009]
* "Predatory mammals as defined by A.R.S. 17-101 are coyotes, bobcats, foxes, and skunks. Bobcats are the only predator also classified as a furbearer with an export tag required to ship a bobcat pelt out of state.
August 1 - March 31 is open season for Bobcat and Foxes as authorized in Commission Order 13. The season for Coyote and Skunk is yearlong." [Emphasis mine.] If you like this one, you'll probably want to read their Predator Management Policy.

From the immediate at that time, my interest shifted to the historical today. Just last month I encountered an arresting tidbit: this account of pests destroyed at a bird sanctuary in 1929-30, from Bug Girl's blog. I hope she won't mind my repeating it here for those who may have missed it.

A Disgraceful Tally

You really should click to enlarge this—it gives you an idea of the real abundance and variety of wildlife, even into the early decades of the last century, if so much can be destroyed on one small 700-acre preserve. (Note, however, that the take of most every group was down substantially the second year.) I've no doubt the taking of 174 snakes and 58 owls necessitated the killing of the 2,644 mice!

"Such birds and animals as were poisoned have not been included in these totals." Gee, that's good to know.

I quite agree, Bug Girl—things have changed, thank goodness! Else we couldn't have enjoyed last week's Cooper's hawk without fears, so close to "civilization," for his life.

In related news, on March 6th Dyana Furmansky, author of Hawk of Mercy, a biography of Rosalie Edge, will discuss her book. In the early 20th century, Edge earned the title "Nature's hellcat" by campaigning against such prejudicial practices on the part of conservationists who protected sport species (think ducks) at the expense of hawks and snapping turtles. Details here, and a great story on Edge by the author here.

Note: Illustrations, from a collection I did years ago, are copyright S.L. White and not to be used without permission, as are photographs. Thanks!

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