Friday, November 18, 2016

Salmon and Beaver; Politics and Biology

President-elect Trump’s promise to promote coal mining and open more public lands for development of natural gas and oil is not new politics. And the Indian-centered and inspired movement to stop the Dakota Access pipeline is not the first fight by Native Americans against the Euro-American drive to exploit natural resources.

I thought about this as Nez Perce Fisheries workers joined my class (AG 301- ECOSYSTEM SCIENCE OF PACIFIC NW INDIANS) in La Grande last week to talk about salmon and treaties. They explained that the beaver and salmon had developed an intricate symbiotic relationship that had been totally interrupted by the extermination of the beaver almost 200 years ago.

They knew the biology; I could fill them in on the history.

The biology: a series of beaver dams forms perfect habitat for salmon, providing pools for growth and rest, avenues for running up river, and spurts of fast water from the dams’ depths to flush smolts downriver.  Beaver dams also create the hydrology and habitat for flora and fauna on rivers’ extended banks.

The history: One of the peculiar junctures in American history occurred when two countries “jointly occupied” the region the US called the “Oregon Country” and Great Britain’s surrogate, the Hudson’s Bay Company, called the “Columbia District.” The region stretched from the Mexican border (now the California border) far into present-day Canada, and from the Pacific to the Continental Divide. The joint occupation, set originally in 1818 to last ten years, held until an 1846 resolution.

The Americans, hungering for a Northwest Passage and the resources of the region, had sent Lewis and Clark on a reconnaissance exploration in 1804, and in 1811 John Jacob Astor, in consultation with his friend, Thomas Jefferson, had set out to secure a port—Astoria—and establish a foothold for a new state or friendly new country on the Pacific Coast to take advantage of the beaver and otter trade from North America to the rest of the World.

The jockeying for the region went on for some time before Joint Occupancy, with the British Crown’s Hudson’s Bay, the Canadian North West Company, Astor’s American Fur Company, and “free” trappers and traders working the territory, shipping beaver pelts back over the Rockies or around the Horn and eventually on to Europe and Asia. Then there was a war—the War of 1812; The North West Company bought Astor out in 1813. In 1818 the two countries agreed that they would “jointly occupy” the territory. In 1821 Hudson’s Bay absorbed North West, and became the British presence in the region.

The region was, of course, already occupied by Indians of numerous tribes. And the European presence was miniscule—Russian, English, and Spanish ships along the coast, fur trappers and traders inland. But the resources in the territory were tremendous—beaver and otter were the prime targets, but settlement and further exploitation were alive in some eyes. They would come to dominate activities in the Oregon Country until a final resolution was reached in 1846.

The British thought Americans should be held at the Columbia; the Americans lobbied for a boundary further north (Polk’s “54 40’ or fight” election campaign). Hudson’s Bay moved settlers from Red River in Canada to the region and built a fort at Vancouver; the British sent David Douglas to scout the territory and put their stamp on it; American frontiersmen trapped and traded and, eventually guided the missionaries to the Oregon Country.

The real mover and shaker over the middle years of Joint Occupancy was Sir George Simpson, Governor-in-Chief of the Hudson's Bay Company. From 1820-1860 Simpson was in practice, if not in law, the British viceroy for the most of Canada. The Columbia District was under the direct leadership of John McLoughlin at Fort Vancouver, but Simpson was the law. And his law said:

Strong trapping expeditions should be sent south of the Columbia. These may be called the “Snake River Expeditions." While we have access we should reap all the advantage we can for ourselves, and leave it in as bad a state as possible for our successors.

Simpson chose Peter Skene Ogden to lead the operation. In less than six years, operating with military precision, Ogden and his men trapped the region bare, from the Upper Columbia and Snake Rivers to California and Nevada. The “scorched earth” policy was ruthless. Mountain men were drowned, murdered, starved, and exhausted. Most of Simpson’s own men died along with the beaver.

The beaver were gone, but the dams carried on for some time, and then, in 1866, the canneries took over. By 1886, 39 canneries took over 43 million pounds out of the Columbia with their very efficient fish wheels. Those wheels stayed in the Big River until the 1930s!

One wonders whether beaver trapping and fish wheels—politics and economics—might have bled the region of salmon if a big dam had never been built.

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