Monday, February 13, 2017

Why You Cannot Defend Orcas and Donald Trump Simultaneously

Donald Trump meets with Blackstone Group executive Jonathan Gray.

It seems almost counterintuitive that a person who spends their time advocating on behalf of killer whales might support a politician like Donald Trump.

For good reason: Trump is notoriously anti-empathetic -- particularly when it comes to LGBT people, Muslims, Hispanics, and other minorities -- and indisposed to even expanding civil rights for his fellow humans. It would be astonishing if someone who produced two big-game-trophy-hunting sons were ever to advocate on behalf of such entities so beneath him in the hierarchy of things as animals.

And yet, there are such folks. A few of them are my friends. So I'm here to explain to them why any support for the current occupant of the White House is support both for the current regime of enclosure in tiny tanks for the captive-orca population, as well as for the eventual extinction of the Southern Resident killer whale population, as well as inflicting harm on all the world's wild orcas generally.

You are being, in short, no friend of the orcas, either captive or wild.

First, it's important to know that the nemesis of orca captivity reformers -- SeaWorld -- is closely allied with Donald Trump.

SeaWorld's majority stockholder is the Blackstone Group, the onetime owners of the company who took its stock public and who have taken the biggest hit from the Blackfish effect. Blackstone CEO Steve Schwarzman has been one of Trump's biggest cheerleaders in the media. And the admiration is clearly mutual; Trump recently invited Schwarzman along for a ride on Air Force One.

(It was Schwarzman, you'll recall, who put his foot in the company mouth on national television by blaming Dawn Brancheau for her death when she was attacked by Tilikum: Challenged about SeaWorld's stock, Schwarzman told his CNBC host that the company had only "had one safety lapse -- interestingly, with a situation where the person involved violated all the safety rules that we had." The company quickly tried to backtrack, saying that Schwarzman had "misspoken," explaining that "his comments did not accurately reflect the facts of the accident or SeaWorld’s longstanding position on it.")

One of Trump's earliest rumored picks for Treasury Secretary was Blackstone Real Estate president Jonathan Gray. Instead, he chose Steve Mnuchin, the notorious "foreclosure king."

What Schwarzman is particularly hopeful of is that Trump will heavily deregulate business. For businesses like SeaWorld, that will mean potentially releasing them from OSHA regulations, not to mention those from APHIS.

Speaking of APHIS: Trump named Brian Klippenstein, the notorious puppy-mill defender, to the transition team making his choice for Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The website of Klippenstein's organization, Mother Jones notes, "stresses the importance of 'defending our traditions,' and includes photos of performing elephants."

The man they chose -- former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue -- is close to agribusiness interests and a Confederacy fan to boot. He also has long been closely affiliated with the Georgia Aquarium, which has been fighting to keep cetaceans in captivity through their beluga collection. That is a fight it has been losing -- until now.

In early February, Trump's new USDA promptly blacked out all previously available information on puppy-mill operations. The agency released an Orwellian statement saying it removed the information “based on our commitment to being transparent … and maintaining the privacy rights of individuals.”

And those are just the concerns around captive cetaceans. Trump's ascension to the presidency is even more troubling, and likely devastating, to the wild killer whale population of the Salish Sea -- and for wildlife, particularly the endangered kind, in the USA and elsewhere generally.

Those who follow my work regularly, and particularly in the past year, are well aware that the Southern Residents are slowly starving to death. This trend reached its apotheosis this year, when we lost seven whales, including the century-old matriarch, J2 Granny, at the end of the year.

The orphaned J-54, starving after his mother's death, is supported in the water by family members shortly before his own demise.
It was truly a gut-wrenching experience this year, watching familiar orcas like the great J-28 slowly waste away from malnutrition. Then we saw her orphaned and unweaned calf, J-54, slowly starve to death too. At the end, he was so weak, he was being held up in the water by his sister, J-46 Star, and cousin, who were so desperate to keep him afloat they were raking him with their teeth. But he died anyway.

One of the keys to getting them the salmon they need, as most orca advocates are aware, will be removing the four dams on the Lower Snake River and restoring the salmon habitat behind them, to provide them with more Chinook at the mouth of the Columbia in the critical winter and spring months.

However, these dams have been held in place forever because they have been a political football of the rabid Republican right in Washington state since the 1990s, when they held rallies with bulldozers to defend their dams from the threat of those urban environmentalist liberals from Seattle who wanted to restore the salmon runs by tearing them down. That mentality has never abated.

One of their chief defenders, in fact, is Rep. Cathy McMorris-Rodgers of Spokane, a sturdy Republican who wields considerable power in the House. McMorris-Rodgers not only defends the dams, she wants to pass legislation that will make them permanent. In other words, she is hoping to prevent a federal judge's impending order (that might take effect in as soon as five years) from removing the dams. Here's what she recently wrote:
There are some who believe the Snake River dams are not allowing for adequate salmon recovery. However, thanks to collaboration between states, tribes, federal agencies, and private property owners, our salmon are returning at record levels. Since 2014, more than 2.5 million adult salmon and steelhead passed Bonneville Dam, the highest returns since they began counting in 1938. The Sockeye, Fall Chinook, and Coho were also among record and near-record runs as well.
In reality, salmon runs on the Columbia have collapsed in the past two years; those "record" runs were not the result of rehabilitation measures, but rather reflected a short-term experiment on the river when the system was flooded with large numbers of salmon fry to see what the effect might be.

Cathy McMorris-Rodgers after meeting with Trump
It won't matter, however. Not only is McMorris-Rodgers one of the most powerful members of the Republican House now in control in Washington, she's also a close ally and longtime supporter of Donald Trump. He briefly considered her for his Interior Secretary position (and was even reported to be the choice in the press), but then went with Ryan Zinke instead, choosing to keep McMorris-Rodgers in her influential role in the Congress.

Afterwards, she said that Trump had asked her about federal lands policies: "He wanted to know what steps we could be taking," she said. "He’s very interested in more access on federal lands."

The dams, of course, are hardly the only front on which the Trump administration -- and the complete Republican control of the Congress -- are going to wreak havoc for wild orcas. Salmon-habitat restoration fights in the West have all revolved around entrenched business interests that would be harmed (or at least face added costs) by the steps required to bring back the fish.

So naturally, salmon -- and, consequently, orcas -- will be among the main species affected by the recent announcement that the Republican House intends to gut the Endangered Species Act. Another Republican actually has introduced legislation to eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency altogether.

In the meantime, global climate change -- and the ocean acidification that accompanies it, which in turn is believed to be playing a major role in the decline of salmon populations -- will continue at full blast, because we the USA now has an administration led by a man who believes that global warming is a "Chinese hoax."

Look, it's hard to say what attracted any orca lover into the Donald Trump camp. Maybe you thought it would have no effect on the orcas you love. But as your friends, we're asking you to wake up and smell the coffee. You made a bad choice. You have empowered the very people who will do the most possible harm to our black-and-white friends. We all mistakes, right?

But moving beyond them entails a first, essential step: You have to cop to it.

And then let's move on to making a real difference for these orcas. That's going to entail real political awareness going forward. And knowing just who your enemies, and who your friends, really are.

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