Cultural demand for killing wildlife is much stronger than economic interest
SEATTLE––The good news for wolves, grey whales, and California sea lions in the Pacific Northwest is that all three once-endangered predators, now long off the U.S. endangered species list, are reclaiming small niches in habitat that for millennia they dominated, before human activity––especially hunting––drove them to the brink of extinction.
The bad news is that the economically driven hunting pressure that reduced wolves, grey whales, and California sea lions to distant memories for most of the 20th century has been superseded by culturally driven political pressure.
And that may be harder to stop than the momentum to kill wolves only to prevent losses of livestock, to kill grey whales for meat and blubber, and to kill California sea lions for fur.
Wolves symbolize changing times
Wolf predation today kills fewer cattle and sheep than speeding cars and trucks when livestock break through fences. More plant-based burgers are consumed than meat from free-range cattle and sheep.
Yet wolves are today as hated as ever in eastern Washington, among the most politically conservative and culturally intolerant parts of the Pacific Northwest.
Reintroduced to eastern Idaho in 1995, working their way west ever since, wolves––while doing little harm to anyone and much ecological good––have become fiercely resented symbols of big government and alleged interference by city people in rural ways. This translates, basically, into wolves having become emblematic of changing times, among rural dwellers who don’t want to change.
Grey whales killed to maintain sense of difference
Grey whales are targeted by the Makah tribe as a symbol of ethnic pride, largely in defiance of non-native disapproval.
Makah leaders voice unlikely hopes of selling whale meat to Japan. But Japan already has many years worth of stockpiled surplus from “research” whaling, also conducted chiefly as a nose-thumbing exercise against the rest of the world.
Makah elected officials have for 25 years invested heavily in trying to revive a whaling tradition that never really existed, at least as claimed, mainly because the isolated tribe has little to boast about, not even a prospering casino, beyond maintaining a sense of difference from everyone else.
Sea lions are scapegoated for the entire 20th century
California sea lions are killed as part of a regional pretense that something can be blamed for fewer fish, other than generations of overfishing, damming rivers, logging alongside spawning streams, and warmer waters due to climate change.
In other words, sea lions are scapegoated for the transformation of the entire Pacific Northwest from what it was when salmon and steelhead were last abundant in historical numbers, back in the mid-19th century.
Behind the quests to kill wolves, grey whales, and California sea lions lies another reality: cultural identities are often inextricably knotted together with how people historically obtained food. Ranching, salvaging stranded whales, and netting salmon and steelhead were all longtime food-getting pursuits that defined many residents of the Pacific Northwest.
None are essential today, not even practiced by very many people, relative to the Pacific Northwest population as a whole. Even most of the salmon that humans consume these days has been farmed, not caught from the wild. Yet letting go of the mythology surrounding ranching, whale-killing, and salmon fishing seems to be more difficult for those whose ancestors included ranchers, whalers, and salmon fishers than abandoning all but the vestigial remnants of these practices themselves.
Wolves wander back toward the coast
These realities were brought to the forefront of discussion three times in two days during the first week of April 2019, beginning when on April 4, 2019 the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife announced that a radio-collared male wolf who meandered over the Cascade mountains in 2017 had found a mate over the winter.
The wolf couple––who have not yet raised a litter––are reportedly now living near Diobsud Creek, south of Baker Lake and north of Highway 20, near the town of Marblemount, where the highway closes every winter for the snow season.
“Wolves are definitely a keystone species out there, and they are recovering and expanding in Washington,” Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife wolf specialist Ben Maletzke told Seattle Times staff reporter Evan Bush.
Can wolves expand their range?
“They need a healthy prey population to expand. The eastern part of the state is definitely getting to the point of saturation for the number of packs we expect to see,” Maletzke noted.
The mule deer population from the Cascades to Puget Sound is far denser than in eastern and central Washington, hinting that wolves could range farther west. But that would almost certainly bring wolves into increased conflict with humans, since deer tend to congregate around the Seattle, Everett, and Bellingham suburbs, where woodland browse and edge habitat are abundant, and there is perhaps more hunting pressure from pumas than from people with rifles.
“Wolves were trapped, poisoned and hunted to local extinction in Washington in the early 1900s,” recalled Bush.
Wolves are persecuted where they are now
Returning to Washington in 2008, wolves across the state now number about 126 individuals in 27 packs.
“Most live in rural, rugged areas of northeast Washington,” Bush continued––the very part of the state which has historically been not only the most politically conservative, but also the most economically dependent upon ranching, logging, and trophy hunting tourism.
Under pressure from Washington state representative Joel Kretz, a Republican rancher who moved to the region from the Seattle suburbs and now has one of the longest tenures in the Washington legislature, Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife agents in 2018 killed four wolves from three packs for allegedly killing livestock.
Whole pack was killed in 2016
The entire 11-member Profanity Peak pack was exterminated in the same area in 2016, after preying on cattle from a herd pastured on two Colville National Forest grazing allotments held by Diamond M Ranch owners Len McIrvin, his son Bill McIrvin, and his nephew Justin Hedrick.
From families that have used the allotments since 1943, the owners were uncooperative with non-lethal predator control efforts, charged Robert Wielgus, then director of the Large Carnivore Conservation Lab at Washington State University. Wielgus lost his job amid the ensuing controversy.
Makah again seek to hunt grey whales
The Makah tribe, meanwhile, who inhabit a reservation at the outermost tip of the Washington side of Puget Sound, far off the beaten path for tourism and farther from anything resembling a prosperous community, “could soon be hunting gray whales again,” wrote Seattle Times environment reporter Lynda V. Mapes, “under a proposal from the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration that would grant [the tribe] a waiver” to the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act.
The Makah retained whaling rights under the 1855 Treaty of Neah Bay, the only U.S. tribe to do so. This was based on a multi-century history of salvaging stranded whales, verified by archaeology, and a claimed history of having hunted whales with spears from small boats in the rough waters where Puget Sound empties into the Pacific Ocean.
The latter claim appears questionable, since the Makah were not boat-builders of the skill of the Haida and Tlingit tribes, who frequently conducted slave-capturing raids against the Makah, much as the Vikings raided England, Ireland, and coastal France during the Dark Ages.
But certainly the Makah did kill grey whales, when they could, in the quieter bays of the Strait of San Juan de Fuca.
No grey whales killed for more than 70 years
As grey whales vanished through aggressive commercial whaling, the Makah found fewer either to kill or to salvage––and none at all from 1922 to 1936, when grey whales were globally protected through an international agreement brokered by the League of Nations, nine years before the successor United Nations formed the International Whaling Commission.
The U.S. removed grey whales from Endangered Species Act protection in 1994. Announcing intent to resume whaling almost immediately afterward, the Makah legally killed one grey whale on May 17, 1999. A Makah crew illegally harpooned another grey whale on September 8, 2007, but failed to land her, though she is presumed to have died.
“Two tribal members ultimately did jail time for killing the whale,” recalled Mapes.
“The hunt the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration [now] proposes is limited,” Mapes continued.
The Makah, Mapes said, sought to kill as many as 20 gray whales every five years.
“Instead,” Mapes wrote, NOAA “proposes a limited hunt and a sunset on the [Marine Mammal Protection Act] waiver after 10 years. The tribe must get a permit from NOAA before any hunt. The strike would be made by toggle harpoon, and the kill by a .50-caliber rifle, the better to kill the whale quickly. The first permit granted would be good for three years.
“Special protections are proposed for the more than 200 gray whales who frequent Neah Bay,” the Makah seat of tribal government and the only town of size on the Makah reservation, Mapes continued. “While not designated by NOAA as a separate stock, those whales are recognized as a local feeding aggregation. To avoid them, and also to protect public safety, no hunt would be allowed in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.”
Hearing to be held on proposal
The latter requirement in effect means the Makah whalers will find few opportunities to take easy pot-shots, but will also mean protesters using small boats and jet skis will have a harder time trying to come between the whalers and whales, a tactic often attempted in 1999.
The National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration is to present its case for issuing the waiver of the Marine Mammal Protection Act to a federal administrative law judge on August 12, 2019 in Seattle. Would-be hearing participants must sent a letter of notification by certified mail, before May 6, 2019, to Barry Thom, Regional Administrator NMFS, West Coast Region, 1201 N.E. Lloyd Boulevard, Suite 1100, Portland, OR 97232, with electronic cc. to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sixteen sea lions killed on the Willamette
Even as the news broke that the Makah might again be killing whales as early as 2020, Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife spokesperson Michelle Dennehy and senior policy analyst Shaun Clements boasted to media that killing 16 California sea lions on the Willamette River, the largest tributary of the Columbia River, appeared to have enabled 2,400 steelhead to reach the upper Willamette and tributaries to spawn since January 2019.
This, though well within the range of normal annual fluctuation several decades ago, was “the most in three years and double last year’s tally,” reported Gillian Flaccus of Associated Press.
“Less than 30 years ago,” Flaccus mentioned, “the number of steelhead making that journey was at least 15,000 a year, but pollution and the construction of dams on key rivers reduced that number dramatically.”
Clements told reporters that about a dozen California sea lions “have been eating an additional 25% of all returning steelhead at that spot in the Willamette River, south of Portland, while as many as 40 sea lions “are eating up to 9% of the returning adults” from the spring chinook salmon run,” Flaccus summarized.
Both the steelhead and spring chinook runs are officially endangered.
Elaborated Flaccus, “The latest permit from the National Marine Fisheries Service says the targeted sea lions must have been observed eating at least one steelhead near Willamette Falls, or have been observed in the same stretch of river on two consecutive days. Individual sea lions are identified by trained observers who look at brands on their back or tags on their flippers. The animals are euthanized by a veterinarian by lethal injection in the same way that dogs and cats are put down, Wright said. Their flesh goes to a rendering plant.”
Cormorants also blamed
Zoos and aquariums are allowed to claim any captured sea lions they want, but as there is little zoo and aquarium demand for sea lions, this provision of the National Marine Fisheries Service permit is more a placebo for opponents of the killing than an effective non-lethal alternative.
Steelhead and salmon losses during spawning runs have also been blamed on cormorants.
However, cormorant massacres conducted annually at East Sand Island from 2015 through 2017, near the mouth of the Columbia River between Oregon and Washington, not only did not save any salmon and steelhead from predation, but may have tripled predation losses, according to recently published research by Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife avian predation biologist James Lawonn.