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Makah leaders seek to distance tribe from whale killing

Neah Bay, Washington (AP)

The Makah Tribe said it was flying some of its members to Washington, D.C., to assure the state’s congressional delegation the tribe did not authorize the killing of a gray whale the weekend of Sept. 8th.

The tribe has spent years trying to win back federal approval to exercise its treaty rights to hunt whales.

In 1999, five years after the gray whale was taken off the endangered species list, members of the northwest Washington tribe legally hunted and killed their first whale in seven decades. The hunt was met by fierce protests and animal welfare activists sued, leading to a court order that the tribe obtain a waiver under the Marine Mammal Protection Act to continue hunting whales.

Brian Gorman, a spokesman for the National Marine Fisheries Service, the agency reviewing the waiver request, said he does not believe the whale killing will affect the tribe’s application.

But Tribal Chairman Ben Johnson Jr. said he feared it has damaged the tribe’s case – both with the fisheries service and the public.

“We know it’s going to hurt,” Johnson told the Peninsula Daily News.

Five men have been accused of harpooning and shooting a California gray whale with a high-powered rifle in the Strait of Juan de Fuca on Sept., 8. One witness reported hearing 21 shots fired.

The Makah Tribal Council denounced the killing, calling it “a blatant violation of our law” and promising to prosecute those responsible.

The U.S. Coast Guard detained the five men then turned them over to tribal authorities. The council said the men were booked into the tribe’s detention facility, released after posting bail and will stand trial in tribal court.

The tribe’s chairman told the Peninsula Daily News the men who face prosecution are Theron Parker, Andy Noel, Billy Secor, Frank Gonzales Jr. and Wayne Johnson, captain of the 1999 whaling crew. Parker and Noel also participated in the 1999 hunt.

All five could face civil penalties of up to $20,000 each and up to a year in jail, Gorman said.

Emily Langlie, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, said that prosecutors were still collecting and reviewing reports about the incident before deciding whether to pursue criminal charges.

The Makah delegation headed to the nation’s capital hoped to meet with Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell and with Rep. Norm Dicks, all Washington Democrats.

“They need to know that we didn’t condone the hunt,” Ben Johnson said.

Wayne Johnson, a member of the tribe’s whaling commission, told The Seattle Times that he and four fellow tribal members set out in two boats on the morning of Sept. 8th and plunged several steel whaling harpoons into the whale then shot it with a .460-caliber rifle. He said he had no regrets – other than waiting so many years to do it.

“I’m not ashamed,” he said. “I’m feeling kind of proud. ... I should have done it years ago. I come from a whaling family, on my grandmother’s side and my grandfather’s side. It’s in the blood.”

The 30-foot whale was pronounced dead about 10 hours after it was harpooned. It sank in 500-foot-deep water about a mile east of Cape Flattery and two miles south of the Canadian border.

Gov. Chris Gregoire said she was “very upset” by the killing, but encouraged that the tribe has denounced it and vowed to prosecute those responsible.

“Not only did we lose a very important species here, but that is now sitting at the bottom of the water. It’s not even to feed the poor at the tribe. It does nothing. And it flies in the face of the law,” Gregoire said in a weekly meeting with reporters.

The Makah abandoned whaling in the 1920s after non-Indian whalers nearly drove the gray whale to extinction.

Tribal police set up a checkpoint just inside the reservation’s boundary, bracing for anti-whaling demonstrations, but protesters never showed up. Still, tribal officials say the tribe has received death threats since the whale’s killing.
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