Makah whale hunt faces threat
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MARCH 30, 2001

Two animal rights groups, including one based in Australia, on Thursday announced they have petitioned the federal government to put the Pacific gray whale back on the endangered species list.

Claiming that a number of factors ranging from global warming to El Niño to offshore oil and gas development are harming the once endangered species, the Fund for Animals and Australians for Animals want the Department of Commerce, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), and Secretary of Interior Gale Norton to re-list the animal under the Endangered Species Act. Yet while the coalition cites the whale hunt of the Makah Nation as a threat, they deny their focus is to stop the Washington tribe from exercising its treaty rights.

"Certainly both groups have for years been actively involved in preventing the Makah from whaling," said D.J. Schubert, an Arizona consultant who prepared the group's 44-page petition. "I think this extends beyond the Makah. It's really the cumulative impact of all these different factors."

But the tribe, who waited more than 70 years to resume their hunt, isn't buying Schubert's defense. And neither is the federal government, charged with upholding the 1855 Treaty of Neah Bay, the only treaty which specifically secures a tribe's right to whale.

"There is no doubt at my mind that this petition is not aimed at protecting the gray whale population from some putative threat other than the Makah hunt," said Brian Gorman, an NMFS spokesperson. "My guess is they can't mount a successful challenge against the tribe's treaty rights, so they are raising the biological question."

"In that, they will fail," said Gorman, who noted the gray whale is already protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Driven to near extinction by commercial whaling, the gray whale was taken off the endangered species list in 1994. The tribe and the federal government then began working on an agreement to resume the hunt and the tribe successfully took a whale in 1999.

But the tribe has faced considerable opposition from animal rights and anti-treaty rights group who want to stop the hunt. And last summer, a court challenge mounted in part by the two groups seeking the listing and former Congressman Jack Metcalf (R-Wash.) forced the government to prepare a new environmental assessment of the hunt.

The assessment, issued in January, estimated the gray whale population to be 26,000, a number the group says is based on "fuzzy math." But Schubert admitted his clients don't have its own estimates of the whale's population.

"We don't know what the population is," said Schubert. "We simply believe there is a great deal of question associatiod with their optimistic estimates."

Even so, Arnie Hunter, Vice-President of the Makah Whaling Commission, said the hunt doesn't have a significant impact on the population. Under the tribe's old agreement with the government, up to five whales per year could be hunted.

"The gray whale numbers are too great," said Hunter. "Even the five we get a year wouldn't hurt their numbers any."

"We do have a treaty," he added. "That's the law."

Gorman said the government has received several hundred comments on its draft assessment and is now working on a final version. He anticipated it would be available in several weeks.

In the meantime, he said NMFS would take a look at the group's petition and decide if it has merit. Schubert said a lawsuit wasn't out of the question if his clients aren't successful.

Although a potential listing resides primarily under the jurisdiction of the Department of Commerce, an Interior spokesperson yesterday warned the coalition might not have much success.

"The Secretary considers the gray whale an endangered species success story," said Stephanie Hanna. "Don't hold your breath waiting on a listing."

Norton was a former solicitor in US Fish and Wildlife and worked to restore a number of endangered animals.

Get the Endangered Species Petition:
Petition to List the Gray Whale under the ESA (The Fund for Animals)

Relevant Links:
Makah Whaling, National Marine Fisheries Service -

The Makah Nation -
The Fund for Animals -
Australians for Animals -

Only on Indianz.Com:
The Makah Whale Hunt (A Top Story of 1999)

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