By Lesley Parilla, Field Book Project
Many of us enjoy the great American outdoors, going for hikes in national parks or nature walks near home. One prepares for a multitude of possible challenges: adverse weather, a run-in with wildlife, or possible injury. How many people prepare for the possibility of discovering an illegal moonshine still?
While locating biographical information on collectors, I have come across a handful of stories recounting specimen collectors coming across moonshine stills. I enjoyed these stories in passing; however, I recently came across a reference to a still in a field book entry. The entry was terse, and initiated a series of questions for me. How many times had this happened? What wasn’t written down? The more I considered these questions, the more I wondered about the precautions and approaches collectors might take in this kind of situation.
How does one deal with the unexpected discovery of illegal activities in an isolated place and the diplomatic requirements of such a situation?
One of the first stories I came across was told by Ashley Gurney in an obituary for Harry A. Allard. He recounted that when Allard collected in the mountains of Virginia, he was careful to “avoid locations of stills and bring cigars for men with whom he became acquainted.”
How often have scientists come across a still because the user inadvertently harmed the surrounding wildlife, thus attracting government attention?
This question came expressly after I found the journal entry (that inspired this blog) of A. H. Howell who was working for the US Biological Survey (USBS).
[February 16, 1923] Riverton, Kansas, with Mr. Chas. Williams…and observed the ducks on Spring River where the sickness had been. Williams had already found out that the malady was caused by eating sour mash dumped near a bootlegger’s camp.
It turns out that this quote was not the anomaly for the US Biological Survey that I initially thought it was. With a little research, I found there was a surprising correlation between the history of USBS efforts and illegal alcohol.
What challenges did USBS face because of these kinds of activities?
This part of the story begins when the USBS (established in 1885) was put in the role of enforcer of the Lacey Act. The law prohibits shipment of illegally taken wildlife and importation of species across state lines. Additionally, between 1908 and 1918, the Biological Survey took on the responsibility of establishing and running new bird refuges as farmers took over existing migratory bird habitat for new farm land; for more background on this, read our blog post from 2011 on duck bombs. Treaties signed with Canada and Mexico during this time imposed additional restrictions. Then came Prohibition (1920 to 1933) and the Great Depression (1929 – c. 1939).
It turns out that the sites for many of the refuges were appealing not just to wildlife but also to bootleggers and moonshiners. They were isolated and well-situated for hiding from the authorities. During the 1930’s there was a significant increase in the number of refuges as part of the Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress Administration. The Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act also ensured more consistent funding for the USBS and meant they could hire more staff to monitor and maintain the refuges. In fact many of the early field books we have cataloged for the Field Book Project document investigations of proposed or existing wildlife refuges.
So the bootleggers were in the refuges (several refuge museums even feature stills found within their borders), and USBS staff were monitoring their wildlife populations. What now you ask? It seems that the bootleggers realized that they had the infrastructure to move more than alcohol. During the 1930’s they began to bootleg ducks. Yes, ducks. Ducks were killed (out of season and against the statutes of international treaty) and then were transported by bootleggers to restaurants and nightclubs, sometimes also the recipients of bootlegged alcohol. Some of the interactions between bootleggers and USBS staff took a violent turn.
Luckily the vast majority of the references I have found indicate that any exchange between USBS and still owners was usually peaceful. But, for me, it highlights that the challenges and difficulties of collecting in the field are not just finding flora and fauna.
US Fish and Wildlife Service. “Origins of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.” Retrieved September 6, 2012 from http://training.fws.gov/history/TimelinesOrigins.html
Gurney, Ashley B. (1964). Harry A. Allard, Naturalist: His Life and Work (1880-1963) Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club, 91 (2), 151-164. Retrieved February 23, 2011 from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2483615
US Department of Agriculture, Office of Information. (December 31, 1928). [Press Release] Secretary Jardire Commends Bravery of Game Protector. Retrieved September 25, 2012 from http://www.fws.gov/news/historic/1928/19281231.pdf