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“The Seals Are About Gone…”
The crusading conservationist thought he had saved the fur seal from extinction. Then from the Pribilofs, home of the last great herd, came an alarming telegram:
June 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 4
Once again he stood on the windy bluff looking down on the rookery that had excited and thrilled him eighteen years before. Now he surveyed it “as one would locate a graveyard.” Instead of filling that great space at intervals of seven to ten feet apart, the groups were 100 to 150 feet apart; the bachelor hauling grounds were grass-grown where there had been bare rock polished by the flippers of seals. The scattered harems were in charge of old, idle bulls. Where were the formerly countless reserves of young breeding stock? Killed at sea before birth. Sharp-eyed and angry, Elliott inspected every shrunken rookery, examined skins in the salt-houses, studied the company records. He found the Aleuts had whistles for routing elusive seals, and were under orders to sprinkle coal oil and strew broken glass on ledges where the animals might retreat out of reach of the killing gangs. He saw seals who were past the desirable three-year limit driven and redriven, as the relentless hunt for marketable skins went on, until they dropped dead from exhaustion. At the close of the breeding season many females appeared in the daily drives. On July 20, ElIiott and Goff ordered all killing stopped. Goff remained at his post while Elliott hurried to Washington to expose the criminals and to save the remnant of the herd if it were humanly possible. Sick at heart, he blamed his own stupidity in believing that a commercial company would put the welfare of the herd ahead of profits.
Back in Washington, Elliott reported that the fur seals were facing extermination. The remedy was to stop all killing on land at once, for a period of years. He charged the fur companies with misconduct and deceit∗; government agents with falsifying reports; the government with gross negligence. Pelagic sealing should be controlled, he again insisted, by giving Great Britain a share in the sealing industry.
∗The lease of the Alaska Commercial Company had expired in 1890; the North American Commercial Company, as higher bidder, was thereupon awarded a twenty-year lease.
Such overwhelming charges of malfeasance by government officials stood little chance of government publication. The report was suppressed, and killing in the Pribilofs began again. Determined to make known the fur seals’ plight, Elliott released a digest of his report to a newspaper. Later on, when the controversy over pelagic sealing was before a tribunal of arbitration in Paris, the British counsel demanded and obtained the entire document, to use as evidence. The arbitrators paid close attention to the sections dealing with the abuse of the herd on land; they ignored the sections condemning pelagic sealing. Thus, by a painful irony, Elliott’s report became a factor in the decision of the tribunal that the United States—since it had allowed the ruination of the herd on land—had no property rights in the animals at sea. Unwittingly, the guardian angel of the seals had helped to do them in.
The decision of the tribunal unloosed a carnival of slaughter. Between 1893 and 1896, pelagic sealers took not less than 500,000 seals. Conscience-driven, frantic to save his seals, Elliott entreated politicians, lawmakers, and committee members to stop the killing on land until pelagic sealing could be halted by an international treaty; to act before it was too late to save the fur seal as a species. But many of his former supporters, fearful of their political futures and unable to comprehend Elliott’s ultimate goals, deserted him. His enemies called him fanatic, British agent, madman. He was excluded from inner conferences on the fur-seal question and was not appointed to serve on the Anglo-American commission of investigation sent to the Pribilofs in 1896. Instead of Elliott, Dr. David Starr Jordan, president of Stanford University, represented the United States.
After a brief stay on the islands, Jordan submitted to the government a report in complete variance with everything Elliott held to be true. Passionately, Elliott attacked Jordan’s report as the result of utter ignorance of the seal life and a desire to protect the North American Commercial Company, one of whose important stockholders, D. Ogden Mills, was a wealthy trustee of Stanford University. Among other accusations, Elliott charged Jordan with failure to stop the lessees from filling out their quotas with undersized skins—those of one- and two-year-olds.
Elliott’s exposure of the scandal kept the seal problem constantly before the public and frequently on the legislative agenda, but although Congress occasionally yielded to pressure and passed regulations intended to check the taking of undersized skins, the practice continued unabated. A beam of hope shone briefly in 1903, when the members of a congressional committee returned from the islands in unanimous agreement with Elliott’s long-held recommendations: land killing should be stopped and a treaty made with foreign nations. For the first time, a group of legislators saw the conservation of the herd on an international level.
Encouraged by Secretary of State John Hay, Elliott drafted a treaty of “mutual concession” and secured informal approval of it by the British ambassador—but Hay’s death in 1905 halted any further action. Elliott took the treaty draft to Hay’s successor, Elihu Root, but Root laid it aside with evident disinterest.