When William T. Hornaday joined in the fight to protect the Northern fur seal, he entered a decades-old battle concerning the overhunting of the species on and near the Pribilof Islands. Located 300 miles off the west coast of Alaska, the Pribilof Islands became the property of the United States in 1867, and they enticed enterprising businessmen who rushed to exploit one of the islands’ most prominent natural resources: fur seals. Seal hunting was an established and highly profitable business, and the islands were sought for their rookeries; additionally, during the 1880s, Canadian, American, and Japanese ships aggressively engaged in pelagic sealing to fuel the valuable industry.
By the end of the nineteenth century, hunting had depleted the islands’ herds to near-extinction levels. Alarm over this situation developed into a complex, often bitter, international affair involving politicians, government officials, scientists, and other private citizens. For many years, the loudest voice among this last group of individuals belonged to Henry Wood Elliott, an artist and self-described naturalist who served in the 1870s as assistant treasury agent for the Pribilof Islands. Elliott, who was among the first to study and paint the Northern fur seal, also witnessed the species’ massacre in the face of overhunting, and he embarked on a militant crusade for governmental action to protect them. Elliott believed in an end not only to pelagic sealing—a belief supported by many scientists and by the federal Fur Seal Service—but also to managed seal harvesting on land. In his tireless campaign to promote his views, Elliott had become, as Hornaday would later put it, “in much disfavor among the Congressional and departmental enemies of the fur seal,” and Elliott began to despair of his cause.
In 1907, feeling his campaign stalled, Elliott reached out to Hornaday for support. Hornaday readily took up the cause, backed by the Camp Fire Club, who agreed to make the issue an official club mandate. Initially, Hornaday’s strategy was to present himself as a nonpartisan figure. Attempting to set aside past history over the issue, he asked Elliott to remain in the background. In February 1910, Hornaday testified before the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and recommended the elimination of the government’s lease of the Pribilof Islands to private companies, an end to pelagic sealing, and a ten-year closed season on land sealing.
The bill passed with important provisions for the protection of fur seals. The leasing system was ended in 1910. Pelagic sealing was banned, and the so-called Fur Seal Treaty of 1911, signed by the United States, Great Britain, Japan, and Russia, became the first international treaty to address wildlife conservation.
And yet, in spite of this success, the bill was eventually implemented without a fundamental element of Hornaday’s recommendations: the closed season on land sealing, which, contrary to Hornaday and Elliott, many government agents and scientists did not perceive as a threat to the herds. Outraged, Hornaday summoned Elliott from the shadows, and the two marched forward into what Hornaday called the “war of the greatest bitterness ever waged in any fight over a wild animal species,” involving months of angry exchanges via letters and publications as well as congressional hearings on the matter. In the end, in August 1912, Hornaday and Elliott emerged successful, with Congress enacting a five-year closed season. When this closed season expired in 1917, the fur seal population had grown to a healthy count of nearly a half million animals.
Volumes 4, 5, and 6 of the Hornaday Scrapbook Collection on the History of Wild Life Protection and Extermination illustrate Elliott and Hornaday’s campaign for fur seal protection. The books are composed largely of correspondence and memoranda written by Elliott, who obsessively documented the affair, even drawing up his own political cartoons and organizing a “card catalog” of those he considered enemies to fur seal protection. For Hornaday, who compiled these books in the 1930s with the assistance of H. Ernestine Bulger Ripley, the preservation of Elliott’s materials was a testament to the man he considered the true victor of this fight.View this scrapbook >>