Sea Lion Trapping Program Results in Catastrophe
Earlier this year, the National Marine Fisheries Services (NMFS) gave wildlife officials in Oregon and Washington permission to trap, relocate, and kill California sea lions on the Columbia river. They did so at the insistence of sport, commercial, and tribal fishermen, who had vociferously demanded the exclusive right to "harvest" all of the salmon available on the Columbia, and did not want to share those salmon with any natural predators, particularly not the sea lions. Immediately, the Humane Society of the United States, the Wild Fish Conservancy, and two individuals who live along the Columbia filed suit in a federal court to stop the killing. While the case has not yet been heard, the 9th circuit court of appeals granted a preliminary injunction to prevent any sea lions from being killed before the case is resolved in court. (At this time, it is scheduled to be heard sometime in September.) The injunction did not stop the States from trapping and removing sea lions, only from killing them.
So, on April 24th of this year, the trapping program began in earnest, and it continued each Monday and Thursday, until it was dramatically and unexpectedly halted less than a month later, due to public outcry over the apparent unwillingness or inability of wildlife agents to competently safeguard the health and safety of the animals they took from the river. During the short trapping period, a total of 13 sea lions were "removed" from the Columbia. They were supposed to have been placed in zoos and parks, but this is not what happened. Of those 13 sea lions, more than 50 percent died in State custody. A staggering statistic, given that we were repeatedly assured that the sea lions would be handled humanely, professionally, and ethically. The first, a large male branded B198,
died at a temporary holding facility in Tacoma, during a medical exam. This animal had been strong-armed by at least six attendants, in order to extract blood, urine, and other samples from him. He was put under anesthesia, and was kept anesthetized for a prolonged period -- more than 4 times longer than other sea lions in the group. While the media reported that the animal died because he was simply too fat to survive, this was not correct. In fact, sea lions normally put on weight at this time of the year, to sustain themselves through the long and grueling breeding period, when males often go for days on end without eating or drinking as they defend breeding territory. The heavier males tend to be more successful at reproduction than less heavy males. So B198's weight, at over 1000 lbs, would have been an advantage to him, and cannot be compared to excessive and morbid weight gain in humans, as was done in the media. According to necropsy results, B198 died as a result of being kept under anesthesia for too long a time. In other words, his death was a direct result of the treatment he received in custody, and not a result of his own, natural physical condition.
Less than a week later, six other sea lions were found dead in two traps on the morning of May 4th under shocking and mysterious circumstances. The dead included three adult California sea lions, two endangered Steller sea lions, and one California sea lion pup. Officials announced that all six had been shot to death. Incredibly, it appeared to be an inside job. Brian Gorman, spokesman for the NMFS (206-526-6613 ), told the media that "There was a great deal of blood in both traps." He stated, "Whoever did this knew what he was doing. This was a very bold and open act." Bob Lohn, the regional administrator of NMFS (206-526-6150 ), stated that the shooter "would have to be somewhat familiar with the trapping methods." Both Gorman and Lohn hinted strongly that the culprit was probably someone who was involved in the trapping program.
Others speculated that the killer was likely a disgruntled fisherman. This speculation was supported by fishing websites that had been openly advocating for the illegal shooting of sea lions for more than a year. (See, for example, ifish.net.) It was also supported by statements made by many fishermen in the media, in the days following the killings, congratulating the killer and offering to pay their legal fees if they were caught.
On May 5th, Rick Hargrave of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (503-947-6020 ) announced that he was unaware of any witnesses or video surveillance that might illuminate who the killer was. In the days that followed, Army Corps of Engineers spokespersons confirmed that there was no video footage that could help to solve the mystery. Also on May 5th, Gorman told the press that, although the bodies had been riddled with bullet holes, a thorough exam had not found any bullets (other than fragments from old wounds that had not contributed to the killings). At that time, he said that it was likely that the sea lions had been shot at close range, with a high powered rifle. He said that, in that case, the bullets would have traveled all the way through the animals, and would not have been left in the bodies. Sea lion defenders at the scene witnessed five workers kneeling in the traps, combing over the floors, apparently looking for bullets or shells. Again, on May 6th, government officials were quoted in the media saying that the sea lions had been shot to death, probably with a high powered rifle.
This, of course, was a tremendous scandal for the federal government, and specifically the Army Corps of Engineers, who had been charged with ensuring the security of the Bonneville dam complex. After September 11th, the dam had been identified as a potential terror target. Huge amounts of money and resources were poured into the facility, at taxpayers' expense, in order to reassure the public that Homeland Security was on the job. Yet, on May 4th, we learned that all of those security measures were a sham. We learned that an armed assassin was able to breach what we had been given to understand was state of the art surveillance and security. This person either used a boat to cross into the highly sensitive and restricted area at the base of the dam, or else gained access to Cascades Island, a part of the complex that is supposed to be off limits to the public. He or she then shot to death six federally protected marine mammals, right under the nose of the Army Corps of Engineers. And no one saw a thing.
The following day, though, on May 7th, the story changed in some important and unbelievable ways. Suddenly, there were not only no bullets, but no bullet wounds either. In spite of the fact that officials were telling the public that the animals had been shot to death for three days after the exams of the bodies had been completed, Brian Gorman suddenly announced on May 7th that there was no evidence of recent gunshots, and that they did not know how the animals died. According to Gorman, x-rays did reveal metal fragments near the necks of two of the dead sea lions, and a metal slug was found in the blubber of a third animal. However, these were not recent wounds, and appeared to have been from previous gunshots that were not related to the animals' deaths. A fourth sea lion had shallow marks on its body that were consistent with bite marks, possibly from another sea lion. But, said Gorman, no recent bullet wounds.
Suddenly, State wildlife agents were implying that no foul play was involved after all, that perhaps the sea lions simply died of natural causes. ...All at once. ...In traps. Charlie Corrarino of the ODFW (503-947-6213 ) said, "It appears as though security may not have been breached." Matt Rabe, of the Army Corps of Engineers (503-808-4510 ) said that the dam's "critical features" had not been compromised. Other government officials were vying with each other to excuse and deny the lapse of dam security, and to blame the six dead sea lions on "natural causes." No one could verify what had happened up there because, incredibly, officials told the public on May 10th that no security cameras had been trained on the traps at all. (This, despite the fact that Sea Lion Defenders visited the dam in the days after the killings, and saw and photographed no fewer than 5 video cameras that would have had a clear view of the traps.) The cover-up had begun.
Gorman has not been able to explain his initial statement that there was "a great deal of blood in both traps." Nor has he explained why he was speculating about a "high powered rifle" on May 6th, if the exams done on the 4th had already discovered a lack of bullet wounds. Although one would think that a thorough exam of six dead sea lions would have shown, fairly quickly, whether there were bullet wounds or not, it apparently took three full days to determine that, no, the sea lions were not shot after all. Soon after this twist in the story, officials began speculating that, perhaps, the gates on the traps could have closed themselves. While Gorman seemed to be skeptical of this theory, saying that the sea lions in one cage would have fled as soon as the other gate closed, others were furiously promoting this scenario. Corrarino, among others, postulated that a drop in the water level below the dam could have put pressure on the ropes, causing the gates to close. Later, they backed away from this story, after it became clear that the water only dropped 1.7 feet between the time that the traps were checked at 7pm on May 3rd and found to be empty, and the time that the dead sea lions were discovered at 11:30am on May 4th. (Also, photographs of the crime scene printed in the media repeatedly reveal that the ropes, still attached to the gates, were slack.) So there is still no answer as to how the gates were closed, if not through human involvement.
As of May 23rd, as I am writing this, the results of tests supposedly done on tissue samples have not yet been completed and made public. Nevertheless, on May 14th, officials announced that the cause of death for the six sea lions was, incredibly, heat stroke. This seems very difficult to believe, since the temperature on the morning that the sea lions were found was not even 60 degrees. In addition, the sea lions could not have been in the traps for very long before they died. And finally, sea lions are known to routinely haul out onto hot rocks and bask in the sun for 8 to 10 hours at a time, in hot summer weather, even down in their breeding grounds in Mexico and Southern California where the temperatures often climb above 100 degrees. Even Gorman noted that the weather did not seem hot enough to have killed the sea lions, acknowledging that these animals often spend hours in the hot sun with no problems. The suggestion that they could have all succumbed to heat stroke, in such mild weather, in such a short period of time, is highly suspicious, to say the least. How convenient, though, for the Army Corps of Engineers, and Homeland Security. Now, they do not have to explain how an armed gunman could have accessed a supposedly secure facility (though they will still need to answer questions about why there was no surveillance in the area that could have put an end to the mystery sooner).
No matter what killed those six sea lions, the fact remains that they died unnecessary deaths in the custody of State agents, who were supposed to have ensured their safety and did not. Out of thirteen animals that had been removed from the river, seven died. That is more than half of the animals in their custody. Clearly, the trapping program can only be described as a dismal failure. It should be ended immediately. Further, it is worth noting that, of the six animals who died in the traps, three had metal from old bullet wounds in their flesh. That means, of this sad random sample of supposedly protected marine mammals, fully 50 percent had been shot, at least once, at some point in the past. How many other sea lions are shot out in the river, less spectacularly perhaps, but every bit as painfully? On May 12th, Dennis Richey, the executive director of Oregon Anglers was quoted in Newsweek as saying that, "The average Joe out there fishing is pissed off at the sea lions, but they wouldn't go up to the dam and shoot them in the trap." Ominously, he pointed out that there are "plenty of places to kill sea lions on the Columbia," presumably, where there would be less public scrutiny. Indeed, on May 7th, during the height of the shoddy and convoluted "investigation" into the crime at Bonneville, yet another dead sea lion was found floating in the river, miles downstream from the dam.
We must ask ourselves whether it is reasonable to allow those who want to exploit the salmon for their own self interests to determine wildlife policies in the Columbia river ecosystem. The State departments of Fish and Wildlife, we should recall, get their funding through fishing and hunting activities. The top two items on the ODFW's "Agency Priorities for 2007-2008" are, in fact, to "promote hunting, angling, and wildlife viewing opportunities, and to "develop strategies for recruiting and retaining hunters, anglers, and wildlife viewers."Given that this agency has asked us to allow them to kill sea lions "to save the salmon," and given that this same agency is actively promoting fishing on the Columbia, it would seem that they are talking out both sides of their mouths. If they really wanted to save salmon, it seems that they would be advocating an end to fishing on the Columbia, rather than "promoting" it, rather than "recruiting anglers." They have stopped the trapping program for this year, but your voice is urgently needed. Because they would like to resume the trapping next spring, and it is up to you and me to stop them. The sea lions are leaving the Columbia now, heading down to their breeding grounds in the South. But they will be back next year, and will need your help. They will need someone to have their backs on the river, to protect them from predatory and aggressive fishermen, not to mention state agents who are intent on "managing" them to death. Please stand up for the sea lions of the Columbia.
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