Volume 3 - No. 4
FEATHERS AND FURS
By Daniel B. Beard,
One of the loneliest graves in all the world is located on the extreme southern tip of the Florida mainland within the boundaries of the proposed Everglades National Park. The place is known as Cape Sable, inaccessible except by boat. The gravestone faces the Gulf of Mexico. Behind it is a single cocopalm, bent and partially uprooted by a hurricane. In 1935 the grave was under at least 10 feet of water when the hurricane which wrought such havoc on the Florida Keys piled water onto the "cape of sands." Back of the cocopalm is a miniature jungle consisting of wild coffee bushes, strangler figs, gumbo limbo trees, wild morning glory vines, cabbage palms, cacti, and other growths. Beyond this is a mangrove swamp and, bordering it, a brackish lake.
Thousands ot white ibises fly over Cape Sable as they return from their feeding grounds in the nearby Everglades. Roseate spoonbills in their bright pink feathers wade along the borders of the lake and sometimes spend the night among the nearby mangroves. Along the calcareous beaches that border the gulf, many snowy egrets, little blue herons, and occasionally an American egret or two dodge up and back like plovers to catch whatever may be brought in by the waves. Enormous numbers of wood ibises come thumping in to roost each evening in some hurricane-swept black mangrove trees. Great white herons may be observed standing belly-deep in the blue-green waters of Florida Bay southeast of Cape Sable. All this and much more can be seen within a mile of that lonely grave.
The grave is that of Guy Bradley, a warden who was murdered during the heyday of the plume trade which flourished from the Carolinas to southern Texas. Money was to be made - big money - by killing egrets and other birds for their nuptial feathers. The "aigrettes" were used to decorate women's hats.
The warden was not a scientist. In Florida they would have called him a "cracker", just an average native with an average education - the sort of a person who might run a chartered boat and know how to thread through the Ten Thousand Islands in order to reach tarpon-fishing water. He could have been making ten times his salary by killing birds because plume hunting went on with little pretense of concealment at that time. Instead, he tried to stop some hunters from ravaging a bird rookery, and his body was left in the wilderness of the southern Everglades. To me, the grave has always symbolized the constant struggle between the forces of conservation and those who would exploit wildlife to the bitter end for commercial purposes. Today's teeming bird life around Bradley's grave is proof that the forces of conservation won.
The laws that prohibited trade in wild-bird feathers contained some loopholes. You may have noticed lately that more feathers are being worn on women's hats. Usually they are dyed plumage from domestic bird, but that is not always the case. Past experience which almost ended in the extermination of certain birds showed that action was needed to head off this new "tendency." So, on February 6, 1941, the National Audubon Society negotiated a joint declaration of policy with the Feather Trade Industries, Inc. Members of the industry agreed to release at once their entire current inventories of plumages of bald eagles, golden eagles, egrets, birds of paradise, and herons, pending new laws. There were other provisions just as stringent. In 6 years other wild-bird plumage stocks will be disposed of in some manner. Praise is due all around to conservationists and civic-minded industrialists.
One of the most indicative things about the declaration of policy on feathers is that the industry itself cooperated. That is almost without precedent. Strange to relate, industries that have been dependent upon a perpetual supply of some wildlife species for their very existence have seldom favored conservation. They tend to go after all they can while they can, and make as much money as possible before the species become extinct. And unless something is done about it extinction is almost certain because when a wildlife species is exploited for commercial purposes - when feathers, hair, body, or bones become an article of commerce - that species is "on the skids."
It was not the trappers or fur houses that saved the beavers. Sturdy Mountain Men who penetrated the Rockies long before the first settlers arrived were searching for beaver pelts to be made into beaver hats and caps. Area after area was trapped dry by the skillful Mountain Men. Even in the Southwest, a good trapper could sometimes get more than sixty beaver pelts in a single day. The end seemed in sight when fashion decreed that hats of a different material should be worn. Thus the dandies of London and Paris unknowingly helped to save the beavers in the North American wilderness.
Some of the Mountain Men turned their talents towards scouting for the army, and others towards the bison slaughter that was gathering a full head of steam soon after the beaver trade died. As restless America moved westward after the War between the States, it took but a few years to kill most of the bison. Demand for hide, meat, and tongues was followed by a big market in bones. Many a prairie homesteader earned his first few dollars for subsistence and seed by picking up buffalo bones.
There are many other examples of commercial exploitation, some well known, some obscure. Fredric A. Lucas, in the annual report of the Smithsonian Institution (year ending June 30, 1889, pp. 609-49) said:
"In 1885 peccaries (wild pigs) were so abundant in the counties of Medina, Uvalde, and Zavala, Texas, that their well-worn trails were everywhere to be seen, while their favorite haunts could be readily picked out by the peculiar, musky odor characteristic of these little animals. Shortly after this date, hogskin goods being in favor, a price of 50 cents each was offered for peccary hides and by 1890 they were practically exterminated."
The peccaries are coming back now, in protected areas in Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas.
It matters little what species is involved in commercial exploitation; sooner or later unless some checks are enforced it will reach a point where natural reproduction cannot keep up with the take. It does not take a biologist to figure what the final result will be. The animals involved may be alligators, martens, otters, shadfish, shrimps, or little turtles with names of cities painted upon their backs. The general rule is equally applicable.
Alligator leather has always been in style. When handbags and luggage are made from it, then 'gator hunters take the tough hide from the back and sides, leaving the rest of the animal to rot. Sometimes alligator-skin shoes are in vogue. Then the softer hide of the under-parts is stripped and the rest is left for the buzzards. The results of this continual persecution for the market are plain to see throughout the entire South. The trade in baby alligators as souvenirs has also become a lucrative and destructive business. In a bulletin entitled "Reptiles and Amphibians of Texas", we find:
"At one time the range of the alligator included the whole eastern half of the state, but it is now principally confined to the extreme eastern and southeastern counties bordering Louisiana and the Gulf of Mexico. Old settlers claim that in former years this saurian was abundant all along the Brazos River, even to its sources."
When the Chinese market for sea lion trimmings fell off, and systematic hunting of rookeries stopped, the sea lion was saved from immediate extermination. A treaty between Great Britian, Russia, Japan, and the United States rescued the fur seals in the Pacific. Market hunters slaughtered prairie chickens, shorebirds, waterfowl, passenger pigeons, and other birds by carload lots to sell in big cities. Another example of the trade in wild-bird feathers is mentioned by David Condon in the January-February (1941) issue of "Yellowstone Nature Notes", when he quotes from an old report that "between 1853 and 1877 the Hudson's Bay Company sold a total of 17,671 swan skins." Swan's down was in style, and feathers made trimmings for women's wear. Much of the same thing happened with the grebes.
In 1933, 29,172 diamondback terrapins were sold for $25,000, and 145,000 pounds of "sea turtles" were marketed for $6,000 in Louisana (Bull. No. 25: 1-258, Louisiana Department of Conservation, 1934). In the last half of the 19th century and later, the toll of loggerhead, green, and diamondback turtles was enormous off the Texas coast. According to data collected by James O. Stevenson, of the Aransas Waterfowl Refuge, Corpus Christi, Rockport, and other cities along the coast had canneries and shipped out both the meat and live turtles. Logger-head and green turtles are now rare in Texas, as they are elsewhere along the Gulf of Mexico. The turtle business in Texas, Louisiana, and Key West in Florida has dwindled in spite of the catch noted in the first sentence of this paragraph.
One of the most significant developments in the last three decades is the concept of wildlife as a perpetual resource. Prior to that time there were two schools of thought. One was the ignorant "fallacy of abundance." The prairie farmer figured that he could always take his gun and pick off enough sharptails or prairie chickens for supper. The extermination of the passenger pigeon was a big jolt to that pleasant philosophy.
A woman who lives in a hillbilly shack in the shadow of Shenandoah National Park, Virginia, is an amusing, if not typical, case of this school of thought. She was asked if she could remember any passenger pigeons. "Doves?" she replied, "Yup, used to be plenty of 'em around here. Pappy shot 'em and we young'uns caught 'em in big nets baited with corn. What we couldn't eat, we'd salt down or give to the hogs. Don't see 'em anymore - 'spect they must fly down t'other side of the mountain - they made them hogs right fat around early killin' time too."
The other school of thought was that the presence of white man and wildlife in the same country was incompatible. In certain cases this has proved to be true. Packs of wolves and herds of domestic sheep cannot occupy the same range. In some instances, however, it is an erroneous concept and efforts are now being made to develop practical adjustments between agricultural uses of land and production of game, fur or other wildlife.
With all our progress in the past 300 years, the fur trade is still flourishing; but it has reached a critical state. I quote from an article by William J. Hamilton, entitled "Our Fur-bearers--a Vanishing Natural Resource", which appeared in the New York Zoological Society Bulletin (Vol. XLI, No. 3. May-June, 1938):
"One may weary of statistics, but they serve a purpose in establishing the immensity of the fur industry. Ashbrook (Fur Farming for Profit) has supplied the following data: About $26,000,000 worth of furs imported and $100,000,000 exported annually; $121,000,000 worth used annually in the states (retail value of furs and trimmings used annually in the United States $500,000,000); 20,000 concerns in the United States handling furs; 2,000 wholesale manufacturers of furs in New York with 8,000 workers; 160 fur-dressing and fur-dyeing concerns, with 5,500 workers, annual payroll $8,400,000, dressing and dyeing 40,000,000 skins annually, exclusive of rabbits.
These statistics mean just one thing to the conservationist: The fur industry is a huge commercial enterprise depending chiefly upon the continued availability of wildlife. Past examples of exploitation crowd into our thoughts and make us wonder. The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service has warned that more animals of certain species are being taken in the wild than are being produced. Did we say something about "coming events cast their shadows before them?"
Otters were once abundant in several of the Southwestern states, but are now seriously endangered there and everywhere else in this country. In many places they are already gone. Martens, wolverines, fishers, and other fur-bearers that are still taken in the wild are in a precarious condition. Sea otters were almost exterminated long ago but are now being brought back by careful protection. Even badgers have come in for their share of abuse - badger hair brushes, you know.
For many years conservationists have been concerned, and efforts are now being made to save our fur resources and put them on a sustaining basis. That tried panacea of closed season has been invoked in many states. Research is being conducted. The so-called "stepchild" of conservation is at last getting a pretty, modern dress and a new hair-do.
Commerce now cooperates with conservation, in bird feathers. Mutual plans to conserve and use fish resources off California are doing away with the old cut throat "if-I-don't-get-them-the-next-guy-will" techniques. The taking of furs has not reached that happy state yet, but it must do so or perish. Fur farms will not supply enough. Careful management of wild fur animals, and increased fur farm production will bring the products to hitherto unknown popularity, according to present indications. It is happening today with the beaver.
One sobering thought should be recorded. This is quoted from Wildlife Leaflet 170, issued by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service in August, 1940, entitled, The Annual Fur Catch in the United States:
"The wars in Europe and Asia have greatly affected the American fur import and export business. With the shipping of furs practically, if not entirely, stopped, importations are bound to be curtailed for a long time. If the coming year should show a shortage of furs from foreign countries, the American market will be more and more dependent upon local production. Many persons formerly engaged in trapping in foreign countries had to abandon the pursuit when called into military service. If the demand for furs in the United States continues, then, unless protective measures prevent, a larger number of fur animals will be trapped to meet the demand. In view of the already precarious condition of many fur species, trapping must be limited and shorter seasons promulgated to maintain the supply. The conservation of fur animals, therefore, should be given as much consideration as that of any other natural resource."
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