Monday, May 13, 2013

Coexisting with Wildlife

Fascinating story in the Times by John Mooallem about the murderous attacks on endangered monk seals in Hawaii. The background to the killings, and to the killings of many other endangered species around America, is a sense that the Endangered Species Act is the ground zero of obtrusive government interference in American life, and also that spending so much to protect a handful of monk seals or sandhill cranes shows that we care a lot more about wild animals than about people. As endangered species recover, Mooallem notes, we are reminded of why we nearly exterminated them in the first place. A successfully restored species, like wolves in the Rocky Mountains, becomes a problem for rural people:
The monk seal is not one of these success stories. The species, as a whole, is still slipping toward extinction. But the situation in Hawaii follows the same script: there used to be zero monk seals living around the main Hawaiian islands; there are now between 150 and 200. And I heard story after story from fishermen about seals stealing fish from their nets or hooks, or lurking at favorite fishing spots and scaring away everything else. A lot of fishing in Hawaii is done for subsistence — a way for working-class people to eat better food than they can afford to buy. The monk seals are perceived as direct competition, or at least an unnecessary inconvenience. “They’re troublemakers,” a young spear fisherman told me one morning at Kauai’s Port Allen pier.

Also, as often happens with endangered species, many of the people asked to coexist with the monk seal see the animal less as an autonomous wild creature than as an extension of the government working to save it. There has been frustration with the federal government among fishermen and other “ocean users” in Hawaii since at least 2006, when President George W. Bush turned the water around the Leewards into the Papa­hanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, barring a small number of fishermen who had permits to work there from 140,000 square miles of the Pacific, an area larger than all of America’s national parks combined. Now various agencies are bandying about so many other proposals — to protect corals, humpback whales, sea turtles — that several people I met on Kauai seemed to be making second careers of attending the government’s informational meetings to keep watch over their rights. It’s unclear if these proposals might lead to new fishing regulations, but the sheer volume of environmental strategizing, and the bureaucrats’ sometimes inelegant ways of communicating their plans, have led some people to presume that it’s all one big, aquatic land grab. A commercial fisherman named John Hurd told me that he believed the feds wanted to make the ocean “a fishbowl.” “Divers can’t go in there, fishermen can’t go in there,” he said. “It’s going to be an aquarium.”
Mooallem meets Tea Party types sure that the whole environmental movement is
a deliberate conspiracy to install totalitarian government in America while distracting its citizens with cuddly, vanishing animals, just as Hitler’s rise to power in Germany was cloaked by nationalism.
As long as many rural people feel that way about their government, they will keep killing endangered animals.

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