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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
Root’s indifference and the defeat of a bill to stop land killing, followed closely by reports of Japanese sneak raids on the rookeries, finally broke Elliott’s spirit. Burdened with a guilty sense that the whole tragedy was the result of his blind trust in lessees and government agents, he sank into despair. One day in 1907, utterly without hope of saving the seals through his own efforts, he wrote a single line to his old friend Dr. William T. Hornaday, director of the New York zoo, “Do something to save those seals.”
For the first two years Hornaday’s efforts also met defeat; meanwhile, the seal herd steadily diminished. Then, backed by the influential Camp Fire Club of America (of which he was president), and with the support of Senator Joseph M. Dixon, chairman of the National Resources Committee, Hornaday launched a vigorous campaign to arouse sympathy for the seals. In February, 1910, Senator Dixon introduced a bill in Congress embodying Elliott’s main objectives: abolishment of the leasing system, and a five- to ten-year suspension of land killing. Charles Nagel, Secretary of Commerce and Labor, got the bill reworded to give him discretionary powers over leasing the islands and permitting or suspending land killing. Hornaday protested the changes but had to settle for a “gentlemen’s agreement” that the original provisions would be upheld. The revised bill became law on April 21, 1910.
Nine days later a Seattle newspaper stated that the Commissioner of Fisheries intended to allow the taking of seals as usual during the coming season.
“The lid is off,” Hornaday wrote to Elliott. “Get into the fight any way you see fit.”
That note brought Elliott into the fray like an avenging fury. Charging the Department of Commerce and Labor with misconduct, he demanded and obtained a congressional investigation into the administration by the Bureau of Fisheries of the fur-seal industry. The hearings began in May of 1911, and continued for nearly three years. Elliott was the complaining witness and, it might almost be said, the prosecutor, for he, as often as any member of the committee, interrogated witnesses or interposed barbed questions to bring out the validity of his charges.
Among those charges were that Commissioner of Fisheries George M. Bowers had obtained his position through the influence of Senator Stephen B. Elkins of West Virginia, a stockholder in the North American Commercial Company; and that Senator Elkins had put him in that job in order to have control over the bureau; that Bowers’ chief agent, W. I. Lembkey, allowed the illegal killing of 128,000 yearling seals between the years 1896 and 1911; that the skins of these yearlings were loaded with blubber and salt to make them weigh up to the required five pounds; and that there was no truth in David Starr Jordan’s statement that surplus bulls trampled pups to death and should therefore be killed.
Perhaps the mire of misconduct and crooked politics Elliott exposed generated a far-reaching wave of moral revulsion, for in July, 1911, the envoys of the four nations most concerned with sealing—Japan, Russia, Great Britain, and the United States—met in Washington and without friction or delay signed a treaty of “mutual concession and joint control”—basically the treaty drafted six years before by Elliott. At last, through international co-operation, the seals were safe at sea.
It took longer to protect them on land from unscrupulous government officials. Despite the hearings, the killing continued with ruthless vigor during the summer of 1911. In 1912 Elliott and Hornaday succeeded in getting a law passed for a closed period of five years. But it was not until 1913 (Elliott was on St. Paul’s gathering further evidence at the time) that the closed-season law became effective, giving the seals their long-delayed holiday from death. From that time forward the seal harvest was to be under government operation, with no leases to private companies. The seals were saved.
The hearings on the conduct of the Bureau of Fisheries concluded in 1914. The majority of the committee members supported the charges, with referral of the matter to the Attorney General for possible trial. But there were still friends of the culprits in high places; no one was ever brought to trial. Elliott, weary from his long campaign, retired to his home in Cleveland, satisfied that his chief goal was accomplished.
His retirement was brief. Within two years he was back in Washington to take up arms against the awarding of a government contract to a private firm for the processing and selling of sealskins harvested by the government. To Elliott, it was the old specter of selfish interests seeking control of a public resource. He contended that if raw skins were sold without a middleman, the public coffers would benefit; but his words went unheeded. The fur-dressing contract was awarded to—and has been held ever since by—a private fur company. For ten years thereafter, whenever the contract was up for renewal, Elliott tried to influence the terms for the benefit of the American public. He made one last appeal in 1926. Then eighty years old, he finally realized he would have to leave the guardianship of the sealing industry to future generations.