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Helping Endangered Whales Becomes Difficult Due To Shutdown

These circumstances require extremely specialized training and resources and NOAA is the lead organizer of large whale and other disentanglement efforts

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Whale
A North Atlantic right whale feeds on the surface of Cape Cod bay off the coast of Plymouth, Mass., March 28, 2018. VOA

Rescuers who respond to distressed whales and other marine animals say the federal government shutdown is making it more difficult to do their work.

A network of rescue groups in the U.S. works with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to respond to marine mammals such as whales and seals when the animals are in trouble, such as when they are stranded on land or entangled in fishing gear. But the federal shutdown, which entered its 33rd day on Wednesday, includes a shuttering of the NOAA operations the rescuers rely upon.

NOAA plays a role in preventing accidental whale deaths by doing things like tracking the animals, operating a hotline for mariners who find distressed whales and providing permits that allow the rescue groups to respond to emergencies. Those functions are disrupted or ground to a halt by the shutdown, and that’s bad news if whales need help, said Tony LaCasse, a spokesman for the New England Aquarium in Boston, which has a rescue operation.

Pilot whales
Orca

“If it was very prolonged, then it would become problematic to respond to animals that are in the water,” LaCasse said. “And to be able to have a better handle on what is really going on.”

The shutdown is coming at a particularly dangerous time for the endangered North Atlantic right whale, which numbers about 411, said Regina Asmutis-Silvia, a senior biologist with Whale and Dolphin Conservation of Plymouth, Massachusetts. The whales are under tight scrutiny right now because of recent years of high mortality and poor reproduction.

NOAA recently identified an aggregation of 100 of the whales south of Nantucket — nearly a quarter of the world’s population — but the survey work is now interrupted by the shutdown, Asmutis-Silvia said. Surveys of rare whales are important for biologists who study the animals and so rescuers can have an idea of where they are located, she said. No right whale mortalities have been recorded so far in 2019, but there have been at least 20 since April 2017.

“There’s a really significant impact on marine mammal conservation based on this shutdown,” Asmutis-Silvia said. “We have little to no ability to find them because of NOAA’s being furloughed.”

U.S., Shutdown
The Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum is seen shuttered during the partial government shutdown, Jan. 4, 2019, in Washington. VOA

Many in the conservation community are anticipating potential changes to federal government’s Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan, which is a tool to reduce incidental deaths of whales. But that process, too, is on hold because of the shutdown.

Calls from The Associated Press to NOAA spokespeople were not returned. Some spokespeople for the agency have voicemail set up to say they will return to work when the shutdown is over.

Working around shutdown

Scott Landry, director of marine mammal entanglement response for the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, Massachusetts, said a NOAA whale entanglement hotline is currently being forwarded to him, and he’s managing to pick up the slack so far. Rescue groups anticipated the shutdown and are working together to make do until it’s over, he said.

Also Read: The Great U.S. Government Shutdown

In Virginia, one of the state’s first responders for whale rescues is the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Resource Center in Virginia Beach. Mark Swingle, the aquarium’s director of research and conservation, said the center would not have “the usual assets we depend on to support the response” if it needs to assist an endangered whale.

That’s because NOAA staff and the Coast Guard would not be available, Swingle said.

“These circumstances require extremely specialized training and resources and NOAA is the lead organizer of large whale and other disentanglement efforts,” he said. “Live strandings pose their own set of challenges that NOAA helps navigate appropriately.” (VOA)

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“They Don’t Make Prayerful Offerings When They Harvest,” Story Of The Native American Church

“The extraordinary and the phenomenon are not necessarily unexpected, but they are definitely not precluded.”

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Church
The sun sets over the gateway of peyotera Amada Cardenas's house in Mirando City, Texas. Ironwork reflects core Native American Church values of faith, hope, love and charity. VOA

Back in the day, when the “grandmas and grandpas” of the Native American Church (NAC) needed peyote, they would make a 2,000-kilometer pilgrimage from the reservations of South Dakota to the tiny town of Mirando City, Texas, close to the U.S. border with Mexico. That’s where they could find Amada Cardenas, a Mexican-American woman who at the time was the only peyote dealer in Texas.

Cardenas was not Native American, nor was she a member of the NAC. But she understood how sacred the medicine was to church members and defended its use as a religious sacrament to those who sought to ban it.

Amada Cardenas, holding a basket of peyote, outside of her home in Mirando City, Texas, 1994.
Amada Cardenas, holding a basket of peyote, outside of her home in Mirando City, Texas, 1994. VOA

“After Amada’s passing, the peyote distribution system lost heart and seemed to be about monetary compensation,” said Iron Rope, former chairman of the Native American Church of North America (NACNA) and today chairman of the NAC of South Dakota. He is concerned that the remaining three or four peyote dealers in Texas — all non-Native — don’t give “the medicine” the reverence they should.

“They don’t make prayerful offerings when they harvest,” Iron Rope said. “We’ve heard reports about intoxicated harvesters. Sometimes, the medicine that comes to us was mushy or small, and the harvesting technique was not one that would allow regrowth.”

Careless and sometimes illegal harvesting, along with increased land and resource development in Texas, has led to a decline in peyote’s quality and availability. Prices have gone up, and church members worry the cactus, now listed as a vulnerable species, could become endangered.

In 2013, NACNA began researching ways to conserve peyote and its natural habitat.

Lophophora williamsii, more commonly known as peyote, which grows in the wild in southern Texas and Mexico.
Lophophora williamsii, more commonly known as peyote, which grows in the wild in southern Texas and Mexico. VOA

Pan-Native religion

Peyote, or Lophophora williamsii, is a succulent that contains psychoactive alkaloids and only grows in southern Texas and a handful of states in northern Mexico.

Indigenous people have used it ceremonially and medicinally for centuries, as noted by 16th century Spanish missionaries, who condemned it as an evil. Peyote use persisted, however, and by the late 1800s, had spread to present-day Oklahoma, where tribes adapted it to suit their individual spiritual traditions.

In the face of government efforts to ban peyote, peyotists in the early 20th century sought to incorporate as a formal religion. In 1918, an intertribal group established the NAC, which has evolved to include tens of thousands of members across dozens of tribal nations. Members view the church as an important component of healing from historic trauma and reconnecting to tradition.

Peyote was banned in the United States in 1970, but the law was later amended to allow peyote to be used in “bona fide religious ceremonies of the Native American Church.”

Texas allows several peyoteros registered with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency to harvest and sell peyote, but only to card-carrying NAC members with proven Native American ancestry.

Peyote buttons are shown in the yard of a peyote dealer in Rio Grande, Texas, Oct. 12, 2007.
Peyote buttons are shown in the yard of a peyote dealer in Rio Grande, Texas, Oct. 12, 2007. VOA

‘A beautiful ceremony’

Unlike other religious denominations, said Iron Rope, the NAC is not a unified theology.

“Different variations of the ceremony have come into play,” he said. “There are Christian aspects to the NAC today and traditional aspects, as well.”

Wynema Morris, a member of the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska and an NAC member, grew up with an understanding of the sacredness of peyote and the religious etiquette surrounding its use.

“It was my own grandfather, Samuel Thomas Gilpin, who actually received peyote early on from the Winnebagos, a neighboring tribe, and passed it on to his sons, my uncles,” she said.

This 1924 photo by Edward S. Curtis is entitled "Cheyenne Peyote Leader." Courtesy: Library of Congress.
This 1924 photo by Edward S. Curtis is entitled “Cheyenne Peyote Leader.” Courtesy: Library of Congress. VOA

Peyote is much misunderstood and maligned, she said, viewed by many anthropologists through the lens of colonial prejudice.

“I don’t like their use of the word ‘hallucinations,’” she said. “You don’t use peyote to get high. You use it to pray and communicate with God — the same God everyone else talks to.”

She described all-night services of prayer, song and meditation.

“The ceremony is beautiful,” she said. “The extraordinary and the phenomenon are not necessarily unexpected, but they are definitely not precluded.”

Sacred gardens

In 2013, NACNA began looking at ways to conserve and sustain peyote for future generations of indigenous Americans, Mexicans and Canadians.

“It was our intent to eventually have our own land and be able to have our own peyote dealer who could understand our concerns as the Native American Church,” said Iron Rope.

The sun sets over "the 605," acreage in Thompsonville, Texas, which the Indigenous Peyote Conservation purchased in 2018 for the conservation of peyote, a sacrament of the Native American Church.
The sun sets over “the 605,” acreage in Thompsonville, Texas, which the Indigenous Peyote Conservation purchased in 2018 for the conservation of peyote, a sacrament of the Native American Church. VOA

In 2017, NACNA and partner organizations formally launched the Indigenous Peyote Conservation Initiative (IPCI). With funding from the Riverstyx Foundation, a nonprofit that supports research of medicinal uses of psychoactive plants, IPCI purchased 245 hectares (605 acres) of land in Thompsonville, Texas, to serve as “Sacred Peyote Gardens.”

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It is their hope that by 2021, “the 605” will house a nursery, residential and guest housing, and youth training, all supported by peyote sales.

“It’s about generations to come,” said Iron Rope. “To reconnect them to the land and to the medicine. And that’s the healing process that we’ve been missing.” (VOA)