I’ve got my share of weaknesses, but one thing I’m really good at is spotting patterns. I think it’s a skill I learned in college, though maybe I had it all along and just refined it there. A lot of engineering – whether it’s aerospace or software – is looking at a problem from several perspectives, understanding it, and then categorizing it. Once you know the type of problem, you can figure out which of a set of solutions is the best match.
As a youngster, I spent a fair amount of time in the outdoors around wildlife (usually searching for it in vain). My father was and still is an avid outdoorsman, and taught his sons to fish and hunt starting at an early age, along with associated skills related to wilderness survival. Even though I didn’t have as much interest or skill in hunting and fishing as Dad probably hoped, I always had an interest in wildlife.
In the fall of 2001, I was between jobs. I had been laid off from a dot-com startup in Denver, and took advantage of the time off to go spend some time in the desert in Utah. One night, I was staying at Canyonlands National Park and there was a ranger talk about coyotes. So I decided to go.
Part 1: Breeding More Coyotes
The ranger giving the talk was a research biologist specializing in mammals, so she knew a lot about coyotes, tonight’s topic. I paid close attention. One part of what she explained was a huge surprise to me, and has stuck with me to this day.
The common methods for controlling coyote populations, she said, were 180 degrees backward. It turns out that if you kill coyotes, such as by hunting – as ranchers had been doing for the past 80 years or so – and you don’t make any other changes to the environment, the end result is actually more coyotes. What? How is that possible?
You see, coyote mothers actually change their biology as a result of food pressures. If there is a lot of food pressure, meaning that there are a lot of coyotes in a given area competing for a small amount of food, then the mother will have small litters of pups. Why waste energy producing a lot of pups if some are likely to die of starvation?
But if there is a lot of food in an area, and the population is low, then pregnant mothers create larger litters. So if, for example, humans go shoot half the coyotes in a region, birth rates spike up the next year, and soon there are suddenly even more coyotes than before. But now the area is overpopulated, so the next year’s litter size goes down. Over time, these spikes up and down dampen out like a spring, and things come back to a natural equilibrium.
The arrival of the white man and his sheep about a century ago threw things into imbalance. Now there’s a larger-than-normal supply of food (sheep, trash, pets), so Mother Nature said, “Hey, let’s make more coyote pups to eat all this food.” Of course that wasn’t OK with the sheep ranchers, and so for the past century they have typically shot or poisoned any coyotes they encountered. The US government even sponsors coyote hunts in an effort to protect sheep ranchers’ investments.
But something strange has happened. Despite intense hunting, the overall population of coyotes in North America has actually grown over the past century. Coyotes now live in more parts of the continent than ever before. You can probably guess why – more food and less pressure at the same time! Less pressure from some coyotes getting shot, but also less pressure because we killed off all the wolves that historically kept the coyote populations in check. That has caused coyote populations to expand in both numbers and territory.
As a side point, biologists and smart ranchers have known this since the 1970s, at least. Yet we still shoot coyotes and think we’re reducing their overall numbers. It sure seems like this approach is the right approach! “How could shooting coyotes not reduce their populations?” we ask. And when there are still coyotes eating our lambs, we say, “We must redouble our efforts and shoot or poison even more of them!” That’s been the attitude of both the Department of Agriculture and the sheep ranching industry.
But I’m not here to discuss politics or economics. The point is that ranchers and the US government have spent a huge amount of effort trying to kill off coyotes for a century, and they’ve utterly failed. They caused the exact opposite outcome to occur from what they wanted.
Don’t believe me? OK, I’m just a city boy who doesn’t know squat about ranching, sheep, or coyotes, right? I don’t blame you for being skeptical, so I’ve provided links to a few studies so you can go read about this yourself. Don’t take my word for it. Listen to the scientists who spend their lives in the field tracking coyote populations.
“Coyote Management: A Rationale For Population Reduction” by Dale A. Wade, Texas A&M, 1981.
“The Effects of Control on Coyote Populations: Another Look” by Guy E. Connolly, USDA-APHIS Animal Damage Control, Denver Wildlife Research Center, 1995.
Part 2: Breeding More Terrorists
Also in the fall of 2001, while I was learning this surprising fact about the biology of coyote population control, something else happened. Some terrorists hijacked some airplanes and flew them into some buildings on September 11.
Americans were stunned, and then pissed off. How could these terrorists do such a thing? Why would they do it? The story most people in the media – as well as the US government – liked to tell is that America had just been sailing along minding its own business when out of nowhere these crazy Islamic foreigners decided to hit us with a sucker punch. We hadn’t done anything to warrant this, we told ourselves.
But the reality of it, fairly plain to anyone who paid attention to the history of Middle Eastern geopolitics, was that we had in fact done things to warrant this, at least in the eyes of a lot of the downtrodden. And we’d done these things consistently over a long period of time – a thousand years to those who still held a grudge for the Crusades, or sixty years to those who fault us for treating the region as our personal oil reserve since WWII.
So now what? America – and especially President Bush – wanted blood, revenge against someone, even though it was hard to say exactly who was really responsible. The US government eventually selected some Muslims to be the targets of our revenge, and then began the campaign to sell the idea to the American public.
In much of America the sentiment was, “Bomb ’em back to the Stone Age!” US citizens honestly thought the solution was to level every city and village in Afghanistan (and Iraq, for some reason). The sentiment felt a lot like the sentiment of the sheep ranchers who had lost some of their lambs to coyotes. And I remember thinking to myself, “Hmm, if we just indiscriminately drop bombs on random Muslims in this area, aren’t we just gonna create more terrorists?” That’s exactly the opposite of the intended outcome!
Imagine some ten-year-old kid living in dusty hut in Afghanistan. There is some chance that he’s going to grow up to be a terrorist with the ability to threaten America later on. But he’s much more likely, left to his own devices, to grow up to be a regular person, a farmer or shopkeeper or maybe a doctor.
Now imagine a scenario where instead of being left to his own devices, this ten-year-old’s parents are killed as collateral damage from an American drone strike trying to take out some terrorism kingpin. Americans justify these deaths to themselves by saying the civilian deaths are an unfortunate cost of war. The process of making America safe from terrorism includes some collateral damage from time to time. But from the kid’s perspective, this is terrorism. His parents, law-abiding citizens just going about their business, were killed by surprise by a missile in the dark.
Now the kid is scared to death – terrified. Is he gonna die next? Let him live in fear for a decade, and what’s that kid going to be like as an adult? Do you think he’d like some revenge against the people who ruined his family for no good reason? That kid has just gone from being unlikely to become a terrorism threat to being reasonably likely. Same with his brothers and his cousins and his friends.
In other words, in the process of killing off terrorists, we just inadvertently created even more terrorists. It’s just like the coyotes. It seems like killing the pests is going to eliminate the pests, but that’s not how it really works.
Now fast forward a decade. That kid who would’ve grown up to be a farmer or shopkeeper or doctor is now a perfect recruit for ISIL.
Why has Iraq turned into such a hotbed of insurgency? Diplomats and military strategists use the term “power vacuum” to explain it. When we caused Iraq to undergo a forcible regime change (the ouster of Saddam Hussein’s government), there was no good, stable, strong leader waiting in the wings to step in and take over.
Hussein had ruled with an iron fist. He committed so many human rights atrocities that America felt justified in removing him even if he didn’t have any weapons of mass destruction. But this power kept a lot of fringe elements in check. With him gone, these fringe elements have been able to expand, the latest being ISIL.
The same thing happened in America with coyotes and wolves. Before the white man arrived, the wolves kept the coyotes at bay in much of what is now the USA. But we killed off wolves, and that left a power vacuum. And in that vacuum, coyotes were able to expand.
So what’s the best approach to reducing the population of ISIL combatants? Don’t ask me; I’m no expert. What’s the best approach to reducing the population of coyotes? I bet that may lead to the solution.
They both follow the same pattern – the more you try to kill them using brute force, the more they reproduce. So I bet they both follow the same pattern of reduction.
Part 3: So Now What?
The parallels between terrorists and coyotes that I was afraid of in 2012 and 2013 all came flooding back to me when I recently read an article by Peter Van Buren, called “You Won’t Like It, But Here’s the Answer to ISIS”.
Van Buren’s suggestion is to admit that what we’ve tried the past 14 years has failed, and try something different. All the current candidates in the presidential race of 2016 support doing the same old thing, though.
Why are the failed options still so attractive? In part, because bombing and drones are believed by the majority of Americans to be surgical procedures that kill lots of bad guys, not too many innocents, and no Americans at all. As Washington regularly imagines it, once air power is in play, someone else’s boots will eventually hit the ground (after the U.S. military provides the necessary training and weapons). A handful of Special Forces troops, boots-sorta-on-the-ground, will also help turn the tide. By carrot or stick, Washington will collect and hold together some now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t “coalition” of “allies” to aid and abet the task at hand. And success will be ours, even though versions of this formula have fallen flat time and again in the Greater Middle East.
But it doesn’t work, and hasn’t worked, partly because “someone else’s boots” never materialize, or if they do they’re woefully ineffective.
Once you admit that the old approaches haven’t worked, Van Buren suggests coming to grips with the real risk of terrorist attack, which he says is significantly lower than the fearmongering government would lead us to believe.
Hard as it is to persuade a constantly re-terrorized American public of the actual situation we face, there have been only 38 Americans killed in the U.S. by Islamic terrorists, lone wolves, or whacked-out individuals professing allegiance to Islamic extremism, or ISIS, or al-Qaeda, since 9/11.
That number is insignificant compared to just about any other source of risk of death – domestic violence, drunk driving, HIV infection, lightning strike, dog bite, etc. So is it right for the government to spend so much of our money (and infringe on so many of our freedoms) to battle Islamic terrorists?
Washington’s war on terror strategy has already sent at least $1.6 trillion down the drain, left thousands of American troops and hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Muslims dead. Along the way we lost precious freedoms to the ever-expanding national security state.
So what should we do? We’ve gotta do something! Well, here’s where it gets good.
With coyotes, if you want to get rid of them, you take away their food source. If you’re a sheep rancher, you put your lambs in a safe area that coyotes can’t get to. If you’re a resident of the prairie, you put your trash in containers that coyotes can’t get into and you keep your lap dogs indoors.
With Islamic terrorists, if you want to get rid of them, you take away their food source. That means removing their cash flow. ISIL gets its money from selling petroleum and from private donations. So you blow up the trucks of smuggled oil they’re selling in Turkey. And you use the international banking system to make it impossible for our allies (and our enemies) to transfer money to them.
Then you move all America’s military assets out of the area, and cut your losses.
Land the planes, ground the drones, and withdraw. Pull out the boots, the trainers, the American combatants and near combatants (whatever the euphemism of the moment for them may be). Anybody who has ever listened to a country and western song knows that there’s always a time to step away from the table and cut your losses. Throwing more money (lives, global prestige…) into the pot won’t alter the cards you’re holding. All you’re doing is postponing the inevitable at great cost.
In the end, there is nothing the United States can do about the processes now underway in the Middle East except stand on the beach trying to push back the waves.
This is history talking to us.
When will we be ready to listen?