Commercial Whalers, Slave Traders…and Wolf Hunters

Now that I broke the ice, tested the waters and hopefully cleared the air by answering a reader’s question on a touchy subject in my last post, It’s Hard to Be Ethically Consistent While You’re Tap-Dancing on Eggshells, It’s my turn to ask a question:

Text and Wildlife Photos Copyright Jim Robertson

Text and Wildlife Photos Copyright Jim Robertson

Why is it that when members of the Wedge wolf pack were being killed in Washington State, people throughout the environmental community were up in arms, but now that the Colville Tribe has announced plans to initiate the first hunting season on wolves in the state on their northeastern Washington Reservation, folks are staying mostly silent about it?

People are fond of saying that the Native Americans believed this…, or did that…, as though all tribes were of one mind and every individual felt the same way as each other about everything, regardless of which tribe they were with or what part of the continent they lived in. For example, I’ll never forget this line that made me scoff out loud during a lecture: “Native Americans never ate anything that died in fear.” What? How does an animal pursued and shot with arrows not experience fear?

European Americans have gone from thinking of the Native Americans as barbaric savages to egalitarian angels. Neither impression is based on a scientific understanding of human nature. And neither is the revisionist notion that all tribes were like-minded on every issue (case in point are the different attitudes on wolves expressed by the Colvilles, who plan to hunt the few wolves who have returned to their reservation, and the Ojibwe of the Great Lakes region who respect wolves.   .

On a related issue, the following is an article I wrote while the Makah tribe were shoring up plans to kill whales off the Washington coast…

Commercial Whalers and Slave Traders

In a May, 1995 letter to the U.S. Commerce Department, Dave Sones, the Makah nation’s “fisheries” manager revealed the tribe’s intent “to harvest whales not only for ceremonials and subsistence, but also for commercial purposes.” This sentiment was recently echoed by Canada’s Nuu-Chah-Nulth tribe, who also hope to get into the commercial sale of whale products.

Despite continued public support for whales, our IWC delegates struck a five year deal with the Russians to get the Makah a back-door quota of whales. In 1997, defying an international treaty on trade in endangered species, they traded 20 of the Alaskan Inuit’s bowhead whales (down to only 13 percent of their original population) for 20 gray whales from the Russian Chukotkas.

The Chukotkas were happy to trade up for the more palatable bowhead. Very few of them will even eat gray whales, which are said to have the texture of gum erasers and are known in their language as “the one that makes you poop fast.” (The real source of the gray whale’s nickname “Devilfish”?)

Seeing as how the Clinton administration is assisting the Makah in their effort to return to whaling, wouldn’t it be a nice, symbolic gesture for the President to join them in their ceremonial whaling preparations? These included prayer and self-flagellation, as well as fasting and sexual abstinence.

Other rites that were part of their whaling ceremonies are kept secret from “outsiders;” they are “nobody’s business.” Are there skeletons in the closet they don’t want exhumed? The media have depicts a Disneyized version of the historic Makah: a simple, sharing people, unique in their reverence for the Earth’s creatures. Summon the image of the Plains Indians, substitute whale for bison. But the coastal Makah were different, killing more prey then they could ever eat themselves.

Whales were rendered into oil to be traded along the Pacific. They were a source of great wealth for the tribal elite, who thought themselves superior to other Indians, including buffalo hunters. Although the primitive Makah’s ability to conquer massive sea mammals without motor boats or heavy artillery was impressive, it was also excessively cruel. And, according to European witnesses, so were some of the related rituals: “Since it was the first whale of the season, special ceremonies we involved…When it was brought ashore, a slave was sacrificed, and the corpse was laid beside the whale’s head, which was adorned with eagle feathers…” observed Haswell and Boit, eighteenth century writers. Boit understood that cannibalism was also occasionally practiced.

Slave trading was an integral part of the Makah socioeconomic structure. Slaves were considered chattel, a thing of less than human status, one step below “worthless people” in their caste system. Possession of slaves was prestigious; to sacrifice a slave on a formal occasion demonstrated an arrogant disregard of wealth. Unfortunately for their lower castes, this was before the United Nations Decade of Education in Human Rights.

In order to capture new slaves and acquire new territories, the Makah frequently undertook military expeditions to distant villages. Relying on the element of surprise, they would attack and kill all of the adult males in the unsuspecting tribe. Women and children were taken as slaves; infants and elderly were left for dead. Slain members of the conquered tribe were decapitated, their heads brought back to be displayed as trophies. Clearly, the killing of whales is not the only bygone tradition that modern society would condemn or reject if given a voice. The Makah continued to capture and trade slaves well after the 1855 treaty prohibited it.

Meanwhile, Japan, in their ongoing effort to promote the backslide into commercial whaling, discovered a crisis situation in 1995. They learned the number of their young people who had never tasted whale was on the rise! In answer to that shocking trend, their “fisheries” agency began a slick marketing campaign that included a home delivery service for whale meat. A quarter-pounder there now goes for $55.00 U.S. That’s without cheese. Or a bun. But a word of warning to those planning to stop by the Moby Dick’s franchise (coming soon to your neighborhood) for a juicy double-devilfish burger: Don’t forget the Kaopectate!

Game “Managers” are Slow to Adapt

Judging by their eagerness to kill all the wolves in Washington’s Wedge pack, no matter the cost (helicopters, fuel, rifles fitted with night vision scopes and ammunition can get expensive), it appears that wildlife agencies don’t have their heart into this new-fangled idea of wolf recovery. It’s a shame that state and federal governments don’t have the same dedication and zeal for recovering endangered species that their forerunners had for their part in making our native wildlife, like wolves, endangered in the first place.

In spite of state bounties on predators throughout the 1800s and unrestrained trapping of wolves at the height of the fur trade, some wolves still miraculously survived into the twentieth century in the lower 48. It was a federal wolf poisoning program in the early 1900s, aimed at securing as much prime land as possible for cattle ranchers, which gave the species its last push over the precipice of extinction.

Since then, science has proven (many times over) the importance of wolves to biodiversity and enlightened people have called for the recovery of species essential to healthy, functioning ecosystems. But today’s game “managers” have been slow to adapt.

People who run cattle on our national forest lands should just accept the fact that there’s no guarantee their dehorned, unattended cow-calf “units” (as they so callously consider their animals) will ever be completely safe from natural predators. It’s not like ranchers really care about their cows—they’re just going to send them off to a horrible fate in a slaughterhouse sooner or later anyway.

The wolves of the Wedge pack found their way back to Washington on their own; their kind was here long before humans claimed the land for themselves. Yet game managers continue to side with their cattle rancher cronies, instead of righting a wrong and recovering a species their ham-fisted, anthropocentric predecessors were so keen to eradicate.

Text and Wildlife Photography ©Jim Robertson

Leave Wolves the Hell Alone

Northeastern Washington cattle rancher Len McIrvin has made it clear: he really hates wolves—especially members of the local Wedge pack. Though the rancher way of life depends on government handouts and write-offs, he’s been unwilling to accept compensation for the cows he claims to have lost to wolves, fearing it would legitimize protection of the natural predators.

It may not be fair to compare him and his son to poachers Bill White and son, who illegally killed most of the Lookout Pack (Washington’s first confirmed wolf pack to return home from Canada), since the McIrvins appear to operate above board by deferring to the state game department to do the dirty work for them. But they are all cut of the same cloth—cattle ranchers who think wolves serve no Earthly purpose and should be eliminated (once again).

It’s no wonder some ranchers feel they can get away with murder, so to speak. They’ve gotten used to having everything handed to them, ever since the government paid for the cavalry to wage war with the Indians and bankrolled bounties and poisoning campaigns against wolves to make room for their private ranches—and ensure “Manifest Destiny” (the doctrine or belief prevalent in the 19th century that the United States had the God-given right to expand into and possess the whole of the North American continent). But Western ranchers aren’t satisfied with keeping cows on their vast tracts of private land (possibly given to their ancestors free of charge back in the homesteading era); they want the Feds to throw in a few thousand acres of cleared national forest land so they can expand their claim out into the neighboring wildlife habitat.

The US Forest Service contends that grazing fees bring in funds as part of their “Multiple Use” policy, but ranchers contribute only about $1.35 per “Animal Unit Month” (a detached, depersonalizing term for a cow and calf pair feeding for four weeks on public forests). According to a 2005 Government Accounting Office report, that paltry one dollar and thirty-five cent fee covers only a tiny fraction of the grazing program’s administrative costs, making this in essence just another a subsidy program in disguise.

Still, McIrvin feels entitled to prevail upon his buddies in the game department and local politicians to do whatever they can to make the entire Wedge pack disappear. He recently told the Capital Press that the only compensation he’s interested in is a dead wolf for every dead calf, copping a Bill White-like attitude: “This isn’t a wolf problem, we always could take care of our own problems,” adding that the only acceptable option is trapping and poison. Now he’s at it again, making extreme statements in any paper that’ll print them. Yesterday he showed his hand by making this fanatical comment to the Seattle Times: “Wolves have never been compatible with raising livestock.”

Okay, so you want to be an extremist, eh, rancher? (I’m doing the Clint Eastwood talking to a chair bit now…) Go ahead, punk, make my day. Two can play at that game; I’ll show you extreme. Hows about you damned cattle barons gettin’ your cows off my national forest and leavin’ my wolves the Hell alone. The wolves were here first and your poor cows don’t want to be livin’ out on some steep, brushy clearcut anyway. In fact, maybe it’s time you got outta cattle-ranchin’ altogether and started growin’ some healthy, organic crops insteada turnin’ your introduced livestock out into the woods to tempt the wolves and compete with the native deer, elk and moose who belong there.

Text and Wildlife Photography © Jim Robertson

The Only Acceptable Option?

Make no mistake, not only is the mainstream media frequently full of shit, but also they distort the truth to fit their agenda. Case in point: the Spokane, Washington Spokesman Review ran an article on August 17th entitled, “Stevens County ranch reports new wolf attacks.” For one thing, the validity of the so-called “attacks” is still in question; and also, they didn’t happen on a ranch.

It turns out these alleged wolf attacks were on calves—not adult cows—yet the injuries were so minor some observers speculated that they could have been made by a strand of barbed wire. I’ve seen enough wolf kills to know that unless you arrive at the scene just when they were made, there wouldn’t be enough left on a calf-sized carcass to identify the cause of death. Wolves kill out of hunger and they eat what they bring down post haste, before the smell attracts a bear or any other scavengers.

Part way into the article, the “Inland Empire’s” largest newspaper revealed that the calves were not on the private Diamond M ranch, but on a Colville National Forest cattle grazing allotment, leased by the McIrvin family. That means the McIrvins (or their dogs or other guard animals) were not out with the cattle, so it’s highly unlikely anyone arrived on the scene of a fresh wolf kill.

I lived for many years in that part of Washington and worked in the Colville National Forest. I pity the cows, who are cruelly de-horned, trucked up to the ends of the logging roads and left to fend for themselves on some thistle-covered clear cut with only a dried up creek for water. My wife’s father “ran cattle” in the same way. It would be a big week if he checked on them twice. But he only had 30 “head” of cattle; the Diamond M ranch has over 400.

Rancher Len McIrvin has a state-issued wolf kill permit for depredation if wolves are caught in the act, but has said there’s little chance of meeting that requirement. The environmental organization Conservation Northwest released a statement questioning whether McIrvin made a “good faith effort” to reduce the risk of conflict between wolves and his livestock. “It’s unclear in this case whether the right livestock stewardship steps have first been tried to reduce conflict potential,” Mitch Friedman, Conservation Northwest executive director, said in the statement. “If we expect wolves to behave, ranchers need to meet them halfway.”

But Irvin told the Capital Press (a cattle industry tabloid posing as a newspaper) that the only compensation he’s interested in is a dead wolf for every dead calf. “This isn’t a wolf problem, we always could take care of our own problems,” he said, adding that the only acceptable option is trapping and poison.

Text and Wildlife Photos Copyright Jim Robertson