Monday, April 27, 2015

Oath Keepers Come Out to Heckle Oregon Residents Who Want Armed Gathering to Disband

[Cross-posted at Hatewatch.]

Perturbed by the influx of armed militiamen bristling with guns and angry rhetoric into their normally quiet little town, residents of rural Josephine County, Oregon, are fighting back, asking the assorted “Oath Keepers” and other “Patriots” who have arrived recently to ostensibly defend a local miner to pack their bags and leave.

As if to prove their point, a number of Oath Keepers showed up on the scene last week and heckled local residents, intimidating them into retreating through the courthouse where they had stood to hold a news conference on Friday.

The community residents – who included a sporting-goods business owner, a former dean at the local community college, and several local church leaders, each of whom read a prepared statement – spoke to reporters outside the Josephine County Courthouse in Grants Pass.

“Certainly the miners are entitled to get their fair day in court and not have anything done to them until after the legal process, but they don’t need gun toting people coming around, threatening the whole community,” said Jerry Reid, a former dean of Rogue Community College.

The news conference, held in response to the rally organized by the mine’s supporters outside Bureau of Land Management offices in nearby Medford on Thursday, was organized by a local man named Alex Budd, who told Hatewatch he simply was concerned about what he was observing in the community and on the conspiracy theory corners of the Internet, where the hopes of another Bundy Ranch-style armed standoff run high.

“I want to acknowledge that it takes courage to be here today,” Budd said in introductory remarks to the press. “I think we all know that here in Josephine County, we’re very diverse folks, and you can find people of just about every stripe. One thing I think we all agree on is that we should not be afraid or intimidated within our own communities to speak to our neighbors.

“But that’s where we find ourselves today. And that in itself tells you that what’s happening here is wrong.”

“Over the last few years, I’ve gotten more and more questions from my customers about the safety of coming to Josephine County to recreate,” sporting goods business owners Dave Strahan said, describing how his work required him to travel the region widely. What he called the presence of “nutty, tough-acting, gun-toting thugs” is driving away visitors by reinforcing the perception that southwestern Oregon is a dangerous place.

Joseph Rice, coordinator of the county’s Oath Keepers chapter and one of the leaders of the Patriot encampment outside of Grants Pass, near the road leading to the disputed mine, began heckling the speakers as they took questions from reporters.

“Have any of you ever talked to the miners?” he demanded to know. When Strahan retorted: “I’m not here to answer your questions, Joseph,” Rice nonetheless persisted. “If I understand correctly, you’ve never spoken to the miners?”

According to Budd, at that point others in the small crowd joined in. He said that Brandon Curtiss of the local III Percent chapter “came up to me right afterwards with Joseph Rice and was filming me on his cell phone, and they were trying to heckle.” He said another local Patriot started ranting at him, at which point Budd and the rest of the group retreated back through the courthouse, because “we didn’t want to let it turn into a shouting match.” He said another Patriot kept sticking a camera into his face as he tried to conduct an interview with a local TV reporter.

“It was blatantly clear they were there to try and intimidate people,” Budd said. “They were shouting that we were wrong and sticking cameras in the faces of community members to record them. It was definitely meant to be intimidating; our group went back inside the courthouse and everyone left out a back door because they didn’t want to have to walk through them again.”

Afterwards, Rice and his fellow Oath Keepers held court with the press. “These groups coming in or not pushing any national agenda, the mining owners came directly to us and asked for assistance. Here’s the fact of the reality: if the BLM was following constitutional due process this never would have occurred,” Rice told reporters.

Former Josephine County Sheriff Gil Gilbertson – a longtime leading member of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, the “Patriot” law-officers group led by former Sheriff Richard Mack – was among the faces in the crowd. He told reporters he had made several trips to the mine.

“Nobody’s talking about violence. They’re not here for violence. They’re here to make a point and that point is the federal government has overstepped some of its bounds,” said Gilbertson.
At the center of the dispute is the Sugar Pine Mine, whose owners – Rick Barclay and George Backes – received in March a “letter of noncompliance” from the BLM informing them they needed get their operation into compliance with federal regulations for mining on federal land. The letter gave the owners three options: to cease operations and clean up and leave; to bring their operation into compliance; or to file an appeal of the BLM’s finding with either its regional chief or with a three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit of Appeals.

The mine’s owners filed the paperwork for the latter option on Wednesday, and then on Thursday told the assembled supporters and the press that they were being denied their rights to due process. Barclay in particular has been adamant in claiming that the BLM would come in and remove his equipment and destroy his cabin even while the process was being adjudicated.

“Just because I turned in my paperwork doesn’t mean the BLM won’t come up there tomorrow and set everything on fire,” he told Hatewatch.

Mary Emerick, the Josephine County Oath Keepers’ spokeswoman, issued a statement decrying the press conference: “We are not seeing armed men with long guns in our city. We are not bringing demonstrators into the city. In fact, we carefully screen our volunteers. We have asked that if you come with a different agenda or to stir up trouble, DO NOT COME, we do not want you. We are keeping the peace. We are protecting the mine from a specific threat and we are assuring that due process takes place.”

In the meantime, the “III Percenters” from Idaho responded to the conference by compiling a video of support from locals who say they are happy the Oath Keepers are present.

Indeed, southern Oregon has been a hotbed of “Patriot” organizing for many years, dating back to the Klamath water dispute of 2001, and more recently of Oath Keepers-based organizing. If the Oath Keepers follow the mine owners’ wishes and keep up their encampment until the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals hears his case – an event likely to occur more than a year from now – then they will be there a good long time.

Friday, April 24, 2015

‘Patriots’ Rally For Oregon Mine Owners Turns Out a Tepid Affair

The big anti-BLM rally in Medford drew about 50 protesters.
[Cross-posted at Hatewatch.]

So much for a repeat of the Bundy Ranch standoff.

A collection of about 50 antigovernment “Patriots” gathered Thursday in the parking lot of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) office in Medford, OR, to protest what they believe was the federal government’s “tyrannical” treatment of miners in the region.

But the organizers of the affair were adamant they were uninterested in a standoff with federal authorities similar to the confrontation between BLM agents and hundreds of heavily armed “Patriots” a year ago at Cliven Bundy’s ranch in Nevada. All they wanted, organizers claimed, was to defend ordinary citizens from federal abuses.
Joseph Rice

“You have untrained people, uneducated people, throwing around their weight, abusing people who are trying to earn a living, and they think it’s OK,” Joseph Rice, coordinator for the Josephine County chapter of Oath Keepers, told about 50 people gathered. “I took an oath to uphold the Constitution against enemies foreign and domestic, and a domestic enemy is anyone who will abuse someone’s rights within that Constitution.”

Rice added, “Today it is the BLM, because they did not allow the due process to occur. They need to seriously look at their administrative process and procedures and address that. It’s a cultural issue. We saw it a year ago. Here we are again today. It doesn’t seem to be willing to change or improve that.”

At issue is a dispute between the BLM and the owners of the Sugar Pine Mine near Merlin, Ore., who were given a “letter of noncompliance” last spring telling them they either needed to clear out of the mine within 60 days or file an appeal of the ruling that they were not in compliance with BLM mining regulations.

What followed was a nationwide callout to defend a couple of miners in imminent danger of having their constitutional right to due process destroyed by the BLM, according to the local chapter of the Oath Keepers that made the plea. And they called it a “security operation” because owner Rick Barclay insisted that the BLM was notorious for burning down miners’ cabins in the backwoods, and he believes they would have destroyed his mine if he had not called for help.

BLM spokesman Jim Whittington told Hatewatch that these were absurdly groundless fears. “The idea that we would go in on Friday and wipe everything off the claim is just not true,” he said. “It has no basis in reality.”

There were few guns on display, and no threats or intimidation. A large group of black-clad “III Percent” movement followers from Idaho made their presence known, but the crowd and the speakers remained relatively sedate. Even with such sedate activists, the BLM and the U.S. Forest Service closed their joint offices as a precautionary measure. Only five people spoke, including both of the mine owners and two local Oath Keepers. Within an hour, everyone was gone.
Rick Barclay

The issue persists, however. The miners and the “Patriots” insist the BLM’s issuance of a letter of non-compliance amounts to a denial of due process, and the Oath Keepers have insisted their presence is about “defending the Fifth Amendment rights” of the miners.

Rick Barclay, one of the mine owners, told Hatewatch that the BLM had violated his due process in the letter. “They short-circuited the due process by telling me I have to remove my equipment before I ever even get a hearing,” he said.

However, the letter of noncompliance is clear that removal of the cabin and equipment are only among the mine owners’ three options, and says at the end: “If you do not agree and are adversely affected by this decision you may ask for a review by the State Director … or you may appeal to the Interior Board of Land Appeals.”

Barclay filed paperwork in his appeals process on Wednesday, but indicated that he hoped the Oath Keepers would stay on site until he actually has a hearing. “After I get my day in court and get a stay, then they will go home,” he said. “Just because I turned in my paperwork doesn’t mean the BLM won’t come up there tomorrow and set everything on fire.”

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Oath Keepers Descend Upon Oregon with Dreams of Armed Confrontation over Mining Dispute

A sentinel greeted visitors on the road to the Sugar Pine Mine. (Credit: Josephine County Oath Keepers website.)
[Cross-posted at Hatewatch.]

What began as a paper dispute over the language in a claim for an old gold mine in the hills of southwestern Oregon has lurched into what the antigovernment “Patriots” arriving on scene seemingly hope will be an armed confrontation with federal authorities.

Most of those arriving at the scene of the dispute over the Sugar Pine Mine near tiny Merlin, Ore., and nearby towns such as Grants Pass and Medford, believe they are engaging in a stand against a tyrannical federal government and the Bureau of Land Management – the second chapter in a fight that began a year ago with the Bundy Ranch standoff.

But as the mine owners now are stressing to the militia members and antigovernment activists pouring into the valley after heeding the call: “This is NOT a standoff with BLM. We are NOT promoting any confrontation with BLM. This is a security operation for the protection of Constitutional Rights.”

“If you are on a fringe element, and you’re here to protest, or provoke a reaction with the federal government, I don’t want you here,” said Joseph Rice, the “security coordinator” for the Josephine County chapter of the Oath Keepers, in a YouTube video on the Oath Keepers site. “Let me repeat that: If you’re here to protest and to provoke a reaction with the federal government, I do not need you.

Since the people arriving in Oregon are apparently ready for action, and there isn’t any action on the horizon other than in a courtroom or at an administrative hearing, they’re taking matters into their own hands.

Today, they’re planning a “Sugar Pine Mine Support Rally” outside the combined offices of the BLM and the U.S. Forest Service in Medford. Organizer Kerby Jackson urged all supporters who couldn’t attend to hold protests outside their local BLM offices.

“We are calling on all miners, loggers, farmers/ranchers and freedom lovers everywhere who are tired of government abuse to tell the BLM that the people of this country that they are sick to death of the way that they have been conducting themselves,” he wrote on Facebook.

Jackson is one of the ringleaders of a group at the center of the dispute, which includes the mine’s co-owners, Rick Barclay and George Backes, who both have expressed affinities for the Oath Keepers’ “constitutionalist” beliefs. They and the Josephine County chapter of the Oath Keepers last week sent out a nationwide plea for help in protecting the mine from the BLM.

Coming the same week as the one-year anniversary of the Bundy Ranch standoff, the story was widely circulated by websites as Alex Jones’ InfoWars and the similarly conspiracy theorist website NextNewsNetwork, whose reporter interviewed Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes about the scene in Oregon. “Our goal is to make sure the miners have their day in court and due process,” Rhodes said.

And Oath Keepers are coming come en masse to ensure that happens.

Among those who have come to the mine is Arizona militiaman Blaine Cooper, who made a video widely seen on YouTube urging Patriots to make their way to Oregon.

They’re calling it a “security operation” largely because owner Rick Barclay insists that the BLM is notorious for burning down miners’ cabins in the backwoods, and he believes they’d have destroyed his mine if he had not called for help. Cooper was last seen leading a group of anti-Obama protesters outside the White House, including several who demanded the president be hung.

So far, the mine’s owners have seemed to welcome support from the antigovernment movement.

“I’m absolutely positive the BLM has not destroyed my property because it has been protected, as have my rights, by a group of folks,” Barclay said in a video posted on the Josephine County Oath Keepers site. “They came at my request. I requested their presence. I still request their presence, until such time as I achieve my due process.”

BLM employees are somewhat flabbergasted that a dispute over unfiled paperwork could somehow erupt into a situation in which weapons are now being brandished.

“From our perspective, it’s been pretty much the same thing we always do,” BLM spokesman Jim Whittington said. “This is not a process that is new to us. We have hundreds of claims down here, and it’s not uncommon for us to come across operations that are not in compliance or don’t have documentation. So it’s kind of a shock to have this blow up like this.”

What the Oath Keepers will do now is anyone’s guess, considering that guards on the dirt road leading up to the staging area are reportedly turning away anyone without specific permission from the Oath Keepers.

The Sugar Pine Mine is an old claim dating, its owners say, to 1865. It is located on land administered by the BLM, though Barclay and his peers claim, much like Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy did, that federal jurisdiction doesn’t extend to their claim. Also like Bundy, Barclay claims that his title to the mine preceded Oregon and federal jurisdictions and that federal officials hadn’t sent them proof that the BLM had obtained surface rights to the mining claim.

Whiting explained that the owners’ complaints about nonresponses to document requests were a matter of impatience: “They filed a bunch of FOIAs and we’re like any government agency that’s inundated with FOIAs, it’s just the nature of the business. We answered two last week, two this week, and another one is coming next week.”

As for the mine owners’ fears that BLM would destroy their property, Whittington said it’s just a groundless charge. “The idea that we would go in on Friday and wipe everything off the claim is just not true,” he said. “It has no basis in reality.”

He reminded Hatewatch: “These are public lands. The road going through their claim is a public road. Even if they did have surface rights, BLM could still come in there and inspect the mining claim to make sure they were following the law.”

Whittington said that so far, BLM employees in the field haven’t had any ugly incidents. However, office workers manning their phones in the past week have had to deal with a barrage of threats from anonymous callers angered after reading the Internet accounts from Oath Keepers and other “Patriots.”

“We take threats to BLM employees and other federal employees seriously, and we will investigate those threats. As long as those threats are under investigation, then we are not going to comment on the particulars of those threats. There have been threats, but they have all been by phone,” Whiting said.

In the meantime, rumors are beginning to circulate of dissension within the ranks of the gathered Oath Keepers – a familiar scenario that also manifested itself at the Bundy Ranch after a few weeks of forced togetherness among the gathered “Patriots” there, who eventually broke apart amid acrimony and pointed guns.

As the Thursday event approached, even Rick Barclay was sounding eager for his would-be defenders to leave.

In an interview with the Medford Mail-Tribune, he denounced the scene near his mine: “What you’re seeing is mostly a spectacle caused by social media and ‘keyboard commandos’ whooping it up.” He seemed eager to draw a curtain on the drama.

“As soon as I get my court arrangements made, the Oath Keepers are leaving,” he said. “It’s OK. It’s going to be OK.”

Friday, April 17, 2015

Simcox Child-Molestation Case Underscores How Court System Can Be Manipulated by Extremists

Chris Simcox during an earlier hearing in his child-molestation trial
Nobody in the suburban Phoenix neighborhood knew who Chris Simcox was, at least not by the Minuteman movement persona he had cultivated on television only a few short years before. As far as Michelle Lynch knew, he was just the dad who would hang out and watch the kids play outside, like involved dads do

“I had met him just a few times,” she recalled in an interview, describing the period in early 2013 when they lived in the same suburban Phoenix apartment complex. “He was always outside the apartments that we lived in. There were a lot of families like that, especially around 4:30, 5 o’clock, all the families would come outside and the kids would all play. There was always a ton of children outside, and he was always outside with his kids.

“I remember once he said to me, ‘You know, my motto is, if there’s light outside, there’s no reason to be inside.’ … And I thought, ‘Oh, you know, he’s an involved father,’ but that didn’t last long.

“All of a sudden they were always inside. And you know, he had kid stuff on his back porch, and my daughter liked going over there because they could paint and stuff.” The girls enjoyed each other’s company. There were sleepovers. There was candy.

That all culminated – after months of manipulation of her daughter – with the then-5-year-old girl telling her mother about how Simcox had molested her one night in February. It happened as they were going to bed together one night in May – three months later.

Even after she informed police and they began investigating Simcox, the manipulation continued.

After his arrest in July 2013, his ability to toy with her daughter changed dramatically, but not entirely: Simcox has delayed the trial multiple times, and eventually asserted and obtained his right to represent himself in court, raising the specter of the alleged perpetrator cross-examining his victim on the witness stand.

To Michelle Lynch, that was the final manipulation, and a chance for Simcox to traumatize her daughter a second time.

And until the Arizona Supreme Court intervened last week, that prospect very nearly became a reality after both the trial judge and an appeals-court panel decided to let the trial proceed with Simcox having the right to cross-examine all witnesses, including a third young girl who is expected to testify about his similar attempts to abuse her.

Meg Garvin
“This is just crazy,” says victim’s rights expert Meg Garvin, executive director of the National Crime Victim Law Institute. “We shouldn’t ask the victims that much, and we don’t need to ask them that much. Because you can balance these easily.

“I actually don’t think this is as hard as some courts are making it,” Garvin explained in an interview. “The individual’s right to self-representation has well been acknowledged to be limited. You can put reasonable limits in place. And when those limits are necessary to protect someone else’s constitutional rights, particularly a state constitutional right, which is the one at issue here – although at other times it can be a federal constitutional right to privacy, depending on the type of question being asked – then the answer should be pretty straightforward: have a standby counsel ask the questions.”

Daphne Young of Childhelp, an Arizona nonprofit that advocates for abused and neglected children, said that permitting such a situation would be a gross mistake.

“When a potential predator has the opportunity to cross-examine a child victim of sexual abuse, there’s a great risk for intimidation, manipulation and re-victimizing of that young victim,” Young told KPHO-TV. “When you consider all the verbal and non-verbal cues that a predator uses to groom a young victim, there’s a lot that can happen under the nose of the judges and even experts in the field because of the intimate relationship that abusers use to create silence.”

The trial judge in the case, Superior Court Judge Jose Padilla, is no stranger to controversy. In 2009, he came under harsh criticism for having refused to allow a Phoenix woman named Dawn Axsom to move herself and her son out of state to avoid violence that she feared at the hands of her ex-boyfriend, who a short while later shot and killed both Axsom and her mother before killing himself.

Michelle Lynch said that her greatest concern in all this is that, if Simcox gets his way, he’ll traumatize her daughter all over again. She described to Hatewatch how her now-7-year-old girl broke down in hysterics when informed recently that Simcox might be asking her questions directly.

“I am concerned that the system will make my daughter a victim again,” she said. “There’s no reason for this to be happening. If there is this consensus as to it not being appropriate, I don’t understand why it is happening.”

She looks back on the situation now with a mother’s guilt, knowing there were abundant signals that something was amiss. “I felt bad because I trusted him,” she said. “There was this candy thing. The kids have all mentioned candy, which was how he lured them.

“I remember one day the doorbell rang and my son answered the door, and Chris and his daughter were standing at the door, and Chris handed my son a two- or three-pound bag of Skittles, and told my son to give it to my daughter for being a good girl. And at the time I couldn’t understand why someone would give that much candy to a child. It didn’t even register.”

That happened sometime after the February molestation, but before Lynch finally learned in May from her daughter that Simcox had molested her. “It had been happening for a couple months,” she said.

Then came what seemed like an interminable period between her report to police and Simcox’s arrest. “When I told police, and they were investigating him for over a month, my daughter and I were dodging him,” she said. “I mean, he would walk by our house and we wouldn’t go outside. The minute we got home we would run up our stairs and close the door.

“His daughter gave mine this handmade birthday invitation. And I told [my daughter] she couldn’t go, and she wanted to write a letter. I actually have the letter she wrote. She responded with, ‘I’m sorry, [Girl 2], I can’t go to your party because your dad is doing disgusting things to me.’ ”

No one in the neighborhood seemed to have any idea that the person they were dealing with was Chris Simcox, the onetime nationally famous leader of the “Minuteman” nativist border-watch movement. As early as 2005, Simcox’s erratic behavior – including allegations of an attempt to molest another of  his daughters – had been explored in detail by the SPLC. Even as late as 2010, he had managed to remain in public view, running briefly for the U.S. Senate in Arizona.

Yet in the little neighborhood where he moved after divorcing his third wife, Simcox was just another guy. It never crossed Lynch’s radar, at least not until she reported him to police, that he was someone quite well-known.

“My older [teenaged] son, once he looked up who this guy was, after the Scottsdale police department told me who he was, my son started sleeping with a knife under his pillow,” Lynch recalled.

Once Lynch realized who he was, though, more of the pieces fell in place. “Those personalities like Chris have the narcissistic traits, and that’s the first thing I think of when it comes to him, you know,” she said.

“I really feel like because of the kind of person he is, I think he’s trying to make a comeback to being a nationally known person again. Especially with representing himself and all that. In all honesty, he’s going to make a mockery of himself. Because once people start to hear what he is going to throw out there as his evidence – it’s absolutely ridiculous.” Indeed, Simcox has hinted that he plans to present a “grand conspiracy” defense predicated on the idea that he is being persecuted by nefarious forces.

Seeing justice served on Simcox is only part of her intent, though. Her chief focus is seeing that her daughter is treated the right way by the justice system. As she explained to Judge Padilla in a letter pleading to keep Simcox from questioning her daughter directly on the stand:

I understand that within the justice system, all accused have specific rights that officials do their best to uphold so to be fair and maintain the integrity of the Constitution, but it is my hope that my daughter’s rights are also taken into consideration and [she] is given the opportunity to progress and not regress due to the ensuring of one individual’s rights over another.

Meg Garvin says that these kinds of conflicts in pro se cases happen on “a not-infrequent basis.” She says that while it’s rare, there have been cases where accused perpetrators directly cross-examined their ostensible victims. But she insists that there’s no reason for that to happen.

“This isn’t that complicated. To ensure that the defendant’s rights, the real test is if he is directing his representation, and he would still be able to direct the questions,” Garvin said. “The victim would not have to be subjected to a very intrusive, invasive and harassing moment where the perpetrator is essentially assaulting again.”

Yet even though it seems simple, instances such as this one happen all too often in the American legal system, Garvin says. “Courts routinely defer to defendants’ rights without doing an appropriate calculus of the victims’ rights,” she said.

Michelle Lynch believes there’s a real cost to that. “There’s a lot of people out there that don’t even pursue stuff like this because they’re frustrated with the criminal-justice system,” she said. “And I get it. I fully understand, now that I’ve been through this process, why people would just give up and not do anything about it. But I’m a very strong-willed person.”

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Evidence Mounts: Big Ships Are a Noisy Problem for Orcas

Back when I was putting together a piece for Seattle magazine about the threats posed by increased shipping in orcas' territory to the endangered Southern Resident population -- particularly the lethal specter of increased oil traffic -- I noted that one of the secondary threats posed by these large ships (including, possibly, coal ships coming from Cherry Point, north of Bellingham) is the terrific amount of racket they put up:

Along the western shore of San Juan Island, across Haro Strait, the view that most people observe when the killer whales are present is generally a placid one: The only noises are the sounds of the currents rushing, the “koosh” of the whales as they surface and blow plumes into the air—although at times, the calm is broken by the engines of the boats, sometimes 30 vessels at a time, that come crowding around the whales to get a close look at them. If there are large ships in view, they are mostly distant and seem almost silent as they glide past.

But drop a hydrophone into those same waters and the picture changes dramatically. There will be whales, all talking in their distinct Southern Resident dialect to each other and echolocating for fish. There will be the whale-watch boats, whose engines are mostly short-lived whines and low-level thrums. And then there will be large cargo ships. Because sound travels so well in water, a ship or a orca can be heard across great distances. The underwater sound of a loud ship passing a mile or two away produces a sound that compares to the sound a chainsaw might make in the air.

Val Veirs, a semi-retired physics professor, listens to all this racket, and monitors and records it with an array of hydrophones he has set up off his waterfront home on the west side of San Juan Island. What he and his fellow scientists have found is that killer whales will more often than not increase the volume of their vocalizations when there is higher background noise from boats and ships around them. Researchers at NOAA Fisheries are still studying whether whales fall completely silent because noisy ships are around.

But, according to Veirs, it’s inevitable that these noise levels—particularly the high-frequency component of ship noise—are going to affect their abilities to communicate and hunt, both of which are closely connected to sound. Vocalizations not only appear to play a role in the social component of their salmon-hunting behavior, the orcas also rely directly on echolocation.

Veirs says the ship-noise potential for all this traffic worries him when it comes to the whales. “Right now, about 60 percent of the time, there’s no ship within hearing range,” he says. “But if you put a couple thousand more ships per year in there, it seems to me you’ll end up with about 30 percent of the time...that the whales are able to communicate without interference from vessel noise.”
At the time I put the piece together, the conventional wisdom among whale scientists (including those at NOAA/NMFS, who I queried regarding the issue) was that whale-watching tour boats were a bigger problem for whales, because the frequencies of noise they created were more in the zone used by orcas and dolphins, whereas big ships created lower-frequency noise that was less likely to interfere.

Now, there is further research to corroborate Veirs' views:

Marla Holt, a research biologist with NOAA's Northwest Fisheries Science Center, has found that loud boat noise forces endangered orcas to raise the volume of their calls.

But the question, Holt says, is "so what? What are the biological consequences of them doing this?”
To answer that question, Holt and her NOAA colleague, Dawn Noren, a research fishery biologist, studied captive bottlenose dolphins.

They had the dolphin swim into a floating plastic helmet device and whistle at a normal level for two minutes. Then they rewarded the dolphin with fish. The device measured how much oxygen the dolphin used to accomplish that task.

Here's the dolphin whistling at a normal level (audio).

Then by knowing oxygen consumption, the scientists calculated the metabolic rate of the dolphin while making calls at a comfortable level.

Next, they had the dolphin whistle more loudly for two minutes (audio).

Holt and Noren found that when the dolphin was whistling harder and louder its metabolic rate rose by up to 80 percent above normal resting levels.

Just like with humans, when marine mammals' metabolism goes up, they burn more calories. Dawn Noren calculates that a dolphin making the louder call for two minutes would burn the same amount of calories it would get from eating half of a small fish.
These studies mainly looked at vocalizations, which appear to be the main way that orcas communicate. But even more important is the effect on their echolocation sense, which is fundamental to their ability to hunt prey. As Veirs explained it to me, some of this is just the sheer physics involved: When the volume of noise is that high, the amount of loss in the signal return from an echolocation click can be enough to render their ability to see underwater almost useless.

The studies also did not distinguish between noise from whale-watching boats and from large freighters. But what Veirs told me was that while the whale-boat noise could be intense, and it made a significant contribution to the problem, the biggest and most constant contributor to background noise, by far, was large shipping vessels.

My own experience corroborated what Val Veirs was saying. I own a hydrophone (thank you, Cetacean Research Technology) that I take kayaking with me, and I drop it in whenever whales are present (and sometimes even when they are not, just to see if I can catch any sound of them from a distance), and I've been using it for a number of years. That experience has made it clear to me that large vessel noise is far, far more likely to disrupt and disturb orca communication. After awhile you have to take the headphones off for some ships because they throw up such a racket. 

[You don't need to go out in a kayak to experience this for yourself. You can listen to the stationary hydrophones at Veirs' observatory overlooking Haro Strait at the Orcasound link here -- or to the Lime Kiln Lighthouse hydrophone at the same website. Even if it's quiet when you start it up, leave it on for awhile and a ship will come by,]

It seemed obvious to me that the sheer volume issue alone was going to interfere with orcas' abilities to get clear signals back from their echolocation clicks. The volume of large-vessel noise was much more intense, and much, much more sustained.  

And indeed, I have heard orcas shut up when big ships were present, and start vocalizing again when their noise went away. An example of this occurred the same summer I was out gathering some of the material for the Seattle article, and I described it there:
In calm seas off the west side of San Juan Island, my kayak bobs gently in a kelp bed. In the water about a quarter-mile distance from me, orcas mill and frolic, most likely hunting their favorite chinook salmon. I drop my hydrophone (an underwater microphone) into the water to listen to their distinct calls.

A low clanging—whang, whang, whang—fills my headphones. It is the steady and overpowering sound of a cargo ship, one of the regular features of underwater life in the San Juan Islands’ Haro Strait.

At first, a quick scan of the horizon doesn’t reveal the source of the noise. Finally, I spot it: A lone log-bearing ship heads out to the open sea around the very southern tip of Vancouver Island. Whang, whang, whang. It is at least nine miles away.

Finally, the ship rounds the bend, and the sea quiets for just a moment before the orcas’ distinct whistles, grunts and rat-a-tat-tat-tats fill the water. These are J pod whales from the Salish Sea’s famous and endangered Southern Resident orcas, and they are making the well-known calls known as “S1.”

Seemingly energized, the whales head toward my kelp bed and surround it, chatting loudly and rolling in the kelp. It crackles and pops underwater as the orcas rip up fronds while “kelping” themselves, something the Southern Residents are fond of doing, apparently for the massaging effect.
I recorded the whole event, which I've embedded below. This is the whole 24-minute recording. Now, I recommend using this file non-passively: trust me, you will want to skip over the clanging ship noise, which dominates the first five minutes. But I've included it here so you can get a sense of what I'm talking about regarding the incessant and pervasive quality of the noise from big ships. Once you get a taste of that, skip forward to about the 5:00 mark and you'll hear the orcas -- which had been milling off a rocky point, well within my view but not uttering a peep the whole time -- chirp up as soon as the ship noise fades away.

One of the fun things about this encounter was that I was indeed in a kelp bed, so when the orcas came by, I was well out of their way (you can hear me making some ungodly noise in a few spots on the recording as I repositioned myself into the middle of the kelp). What I also didn't realize is the amount of tearing and breaking of the kelp fronds that occurs when orcas "kelp" themselves, as they were doing here. That's all the crackling and popping you hear amid the vocalizations.

Here's a somewhat more pleasant version, with the extraneous ship noise and some of the silent spaces and paddling/repositioning noises edited out. This is the one you want to just hit "play" on:

The larger and more significant takeaway from this is that scientists should probably take a longer look at the effects of large ship noise, and begin thinking about ways to mediate that. Considering the amount of money that we're seeing go up and down Haro Strait, we have to know that making any changes there is going to be an uphill battle. But it may prove to be an important component of recovering this endangered population.

Mother of Simcox’s Alleged Victim Recounts Nightmare Scenario in the Court System

[Cross-posted at Hatewatch.]

Ever since that night in May 2013 when her daughter told her that her friend’s daddy – the seemingly ordinary guy who hung out with the kids in the neighborhood, but who turned out to be former “Minutemen” leader Chris Simcox – had molested her the previous February, Michelle Lynch’s world has been an endless limbo of uncertainty while wrestling with her daughter’s pain.

It’s a feeling, she says, that has only been worsened by her experiences with the court system as she awaits the day when Simcox will stand trial more than two years after the event.

Lynch says her daughter, now seven, was a happy and well-adjusted little girl before that night in 2013.

“Before this event, [she] fell asleep with no problems and slept through the night,” explained Lynch in a letter to the trial judge, Superior Court Judge Jose Padilla. “She was very trusting; any complaints of feeling sick were far and few between and were due to true illnesses, and she was only emotional/angry when the time was ‘right,’ which was determined by your typical 7-year-­old child.

“She now has nightmares and does not fall asleep without complaining of her stomach hurting. She also complains of being ‘sick’ when I have to leave her. She does not sleep through the night and most nights she finds her way into my room, even though she has her own room and bed. She worries about the doors being locked and asks over and over if they have been secured.”

In her letter, Lynch went on to describe a litany of changed emotional behavior, including “extreme sensitivity” and frequent crying, as well as extreme anger and occasional hitting. She described what should have been a fun trip to Disneyland transformed into a series of panic attacks.

“I realize that nightmares and separation anxiety may be typical of a young child’s behavior and that many children will exhibit periods of emotional sensitivity and anger; these behaviors were never existent in [my daughter] prior to this happening to her,” she explained.

Lynch wrote her letter because she faces the horrifying prospect of having her daughter be cross-examined by Simcox himself, a prospect that very nearly became a reality when Padilla approved Simcox’s request to represent himself at his trial. Late last week, the Arizona Supreme Court intervened.

Lynch wrote the letter in March, hoping to persuade Padilla to agree to a prosecution request that Simcox be required to only cross-examine the girls through a court-appointed associate attorney.

“Her father and I continually do our best to help [the girl] through all of this by providing her with comfort, consistency, and other avenues that encourage her to work through this in a positive manner to where her daily life isn’t effected,” Lynch wrote. “Allowing Mr. Simcox the ability to address my daughter, I fear, will only set [her] back in her healing and quite possibly exacerbate her symptoms and anxiety/panic attacks.”

However, Padilla ruled in Simcox’s favor, telling Lynch and the other mother in the case that their letters did not constitute evidence that the girls would be traumatized: “With all due respect,” he said, “[the mothers] are simply not qualified to make that assessment.”

That ruling, and the subsequent decision by the state appeals court to allow the trial to proceed even as it considered the legal propriety of allowing a pro se defendant to cross-examine his alleged victim, was in many ways a culmination of Lynch’s nightmarish experience with the court system since Simcox’s arrest.

In interviews with Hatewatch, Lynch has described feeling “left hung out to dry” by both the judge and the prosecutors in the case. She’s especially harsh in her assessment of the performance of the county’s victims’ rights advocates unit, which she says “has just not done their job.”

At one point, Lynch became furious with prosecutors when Simcox was offered a plea bargain that would let him out of prison after 10 years, in exchange for not forcing the girls to testify. However, Simcox himself dismissed the offer, and it was eventually taken off the table.

Lynch was also outraged at the way evidence was handled in the case, particularly the fact that Phoenix detectives failed to seized Simcox’s computer – the one on which he allegedly showed Lynch’s daughter pornography. Prosecutors reportedly explained it away by saying that he was only watching adult porn, a legal activity, on the computer, and so no search warrant for it was ever issued.

Lynch described feeling abandoned by the system. “Over the whole two-year process, victims’ rights in general have just not been followed,” she said. “I’ve gotten more information from reporters and television than I’ve even had with my own victim’s advocate. And I do all the reaching out to them, they never reach out to me.

“My daughter has only met her two times, for a maximum of two hours. So Padilla wants the victim’s advocate to be up on the stand with my daughter, but that’s a stranger too. So you want a stranger to sit with my daughter so that a man who has hurt her can question her. It doesn’t make any sense,” she said.

“You know, she’s not going to want to reach for somebody she doesn’t know, while somebody she does know who hurt her gets to talk to her.”

Lynch did, however, credit Phoenix New Times reporter Stephen Lemons with keeping her informed on the case, saying Lemons texted her with vital updates on the various court rulings and had apprised her of other developments in the trial as they occurred. At other times, she said, she was informed through the social media grapevine.

“I found out about Chris representing himself two weeks after it was filed and approved, through a television news picture that my boyfriend sent me,” she said. “I had a panic attack at work, because nobody had told me about it.

“I went on the county website and found that it was all there, but no one had given me a heads up,” she added. “I should have gotten a phone call the day that he filed to represent himself. I shouldn’t have to do all of that work. I shouldn’t have to become my own legal aide.”

The most difficult part, she says, has been helping her daughter – who gets counseling weekly – heal from her trauma.

“It’s definitely no fun,” she said. She described the recent upheaval in the case as especially trying, since her daughter had not yet been told that Simcox would be asking them questions.

Her daughter was shocked. “She was hysterical. She started crying. She didn’t want to talk to him, and she cried herself to sleep in the car. And then it was an hour later that the advocate texted me and said there was nothing going to happen on Thursday and the judge was going to wait until Monday. So after all that I had to go in and tell her it wasn’t going to happen.”

She is elated that Phoenix attorney Jack Wilenchik (who had been referred to her by Lemons) was able to stop the train wreck from happening, at least for now, by persuading Arizona Supreme Court Justice John Pelander that, in the words of his petition, “if the court allows the child victim to be subject to cross-examination by her abuser, then the victim’s constitutional right [under the Arizona Constitution] to be free from harassment and intimidation will be permanently violated.”

“It’s been really, really difficult,” Lynch said. “I honestly am pleased about the delay, because it’s about making sure that my daughter doesn’t suffer more trauma than what she has been going through."

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Why SeaWorld's Ads Claiming 'Our Whales Live as Long As They Do in the Wild' Are False

J2, aka 'Granny, estimated to be over 100 years old, plays in the kelp
A lot of my non-dorca friends have been remarking about how frequently they have been seeing the SeaWorld counteroffensive to the #Blackfish Effect on their teevee sets these days, especially on sports and news programs.

What they mostly remark on, in fact, is just how utterly insincere the people they are putting onscreen are coming off. "There are people who believe the crap that Sea World says," says my friend Michael Rogers. "The people in the ad are not two of them."

That's just the tell, though. If you dig into the factual content of these ads, what you'll discover is that they are deeply misleading, bordering on the outrageous.

See for yourself. Here's the most frequently seen ad, featuring a SeaWorld veterinarian and the company's animal-rescues chief, Pedro Ramos-Navarrete (which is kind of weird, considering that SeaWorld has never rescued an orca nor does it support people such as New Zealand orca scientist Ingrid Visser, who actually is engaged in orca-rescue work).

You'll notice that Ramos-Navarrete says the following:

"And government research shows they live just as long as whales in the wild!"

This, over a text that reads:

"Survival in the wild is comparable to survival in captivity." -- Wall Street Journal

Note the little sleight of hand there? The first statement actually describes longevity -- how long the whales live. The second statement in fact is about survival rates -- that is, the likelihood of a whale surviving any given year. These are completely different things.

Then there's the longer SeaWorld propaganda ad addressing the same topic, appended to the above video. It features Chris Dold, SeaWorld's head veterinarian, holding forth to a confused member of the Twitter public, deriding their critics' claims that SeaWorld whales don't live as long in captivity as "false":

You don't need to take our word for it. Some of the best marine mammal researchers in the world work for the federal government at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center. You know what they found? That killer whales that live at SeaWorld live just as long as killer whales in the wild. One of the authors of that report told the Wall Street Journal, "Survival in the wild is comparable to survival in captivity."
You'll note that it indulges the same sleight of hand -- assuming that people will believe that survival rates determine how long a whale lives. But they are completely separate measures.

SeaWorld's claim, you see, rests entirely on the work of Alaska scientist Doug DeMaster, who has been compiling statistics on annual survival rates. These are handy numbers and probably give us an accurate picture of the likelihood of any given orca surviving the year, both in the wild and in captivity.

Back in 1995, DeMaster and his partner found that there was a significant difference in those rates between orcas in captivity and those in the wild, favoring wild orcas by a large percentage (as differences in these rates go). But by 2013, he explained to Politifact, he had found their annual survivorship rates to be comparable. That's the study cited in the WSHJ piece as well.

But what SeaWorld isn't telling you is that there's a caveat to DeMaster's observation, and it's a big one:
"[A]s long as you use data from 2005 to 2013."
That's an eight-year data sample to assess how likely an orca is to survive in an institution that has been in operation for over fifty. In statistics, that's what we call a "skewed sample", or more precisely, an "inadequate sample.

That's SeaWorld saying, "Hey, we may have been insanely awful in how we handled orcas before, but we've been doing much, much better the last eight years!"

More to the point, annual survivor rates won't tell you how long the animals will live -- which is, of course, exactly what both Dold and Ramos-Navarette were claiming. All that number gives you is a kind of snapshot of the current health of the population, how likely their animals are to live through the year. If you want to know how long the animals will live, you need to look up longevity statistics.

Now, let's be specific: We don't really have a complete longevity picture for the orcas in SeaWorld's care, in part because they have only been in business for a little over fifty years now, and orcas in the wild (particularly females) are known to live often into their eighties, and even beyond. Atop the post, you'll see my 2013 shot of Granny, the matriarch of the Southern Residents' J clan orcas who is believed to be over 100 years old (though her age is in fact an estimate).

A whale whose age we know a little better is this one: L-25, believed to be about 85. She is also believed to be the mother of Lolita, the L-pod female who has been held captive at the Miami Seaquarium for the past 45 years and counting.

The oldest SeaWorld orca, by contrast, is the female Northern Resident orca Corky, who was captured as a 2-year-old calf from the A5 pod, whose whereabouts remain well known (though in fact her mother has since passed away). She is 47 years old.

The next oldest are the Icelandic orca females captured on the same day in 1978, Katina and Kasatka, who are estimated to be 39 and 38 years old, respectively. The oldest male in the collection, Ulises (another Icelandic capture) is 37.

Those are, however, the outliers when it comes to longevity at SeaWorld to date. The bottom line is much more grim.

As Naomi Rose has explained in detail, SeaWorld is even distorting the annual-survival-rate (ASR) data, which still does not favor SeaWorld:
However, the most recently presented ASR – not peer-reviewed, but presented at a scientific conference (Innes et al. in prep – this is for the period 2005-2013) – calculated from captive killer whale data in the Marine Mammal Inventory Report is lower, at 0.983, than the Alaskan ASR for both sexes aged 1.5-2.5 (0.997), females aged 15-19 (0.996), both sexes aged 10.5-14.5 (0.992), both sexes aged 3.5-5.5 (0.991), females aged 25-29 (0.990), both sexes aged 6.5-9.5 (0.989), females aged 20-24 (0.987), and even males aged 15-19 (0.986). It is higher than all other age classes (mixed and single sex) in Alaska. The Matkin et al. paper did not calculate an overall ASR, so none of these comparisons (a mixed age/mixed sex group vs. a specific age/sex class) is actually valid. Regardless, they are not similar. (Note: the MMIR ASR for the decade 1995-2004 was 0.968, lower than most of the Alaskan values.)
Meanwhile, as she notes, the average life expectancy for wild orcas is “around 50-90 years for females and 30-70 years for males."

So what does it look like for SeaWorld orcas?

I've compiled a database of SeaWorld orcas, living and dead, wild- and captive-born. I've specifically left out other marine parks' orcas from the database, given that the record there is downright horrific, particularly during the 1960s and '70s, and granting SeaWorld's argument that its superior care should not be tainted by what occurs in other parks. Nor does it include the many calves who died stillborn.

Here's the final tally:
-- Over the years (since 1965, beginning with the first Shamu), SeaWorld has possessed a total of 66 live killer whales. Of those, 29 are still alive. Shamu died after six years in captivity, a victim of SeaWorld's dubious breeding program.

    -- Wild-born captives have both fared the worst and lived the longest. Of the 32 wild-born orcas in their collection, only six remain alive. Those six, as noted above, are also SeaWorld's longest-lived orcas. The average age of death for wild whales at the park is 14.5 years.
    -- The average length of captivity of all of SeaWorld's wild whales, including those still alive, is 15.375 years. And the average longevity for all 66 of SeaWorld's whales tallies out at 14.03 years. For males, the average longevity of all orcas living and dead is 14.78 years; for females, it is even lower, at 13.92 years (the reverse of what occurs in the wild, where females enjoy much longer average lifespans).

-- Captive-born orcas have been a mixed bag. Of the 37 who have survived infancy, 11 have died. Those deceased orcas have averaged 9.8 years alive. Of the 26 remaining in SeaWorld's collection, the oldest -- Orkid and Kayla -- are 27 years old. The average age of all their current captive-born orcas is 14.1 years (the number drops to 12.76 if deceased captive-born orcas are factored in).
In other words, it should be obvious that captive wild killer whales have not fared well historically at SeaWorld, especially when compared to the wild. There, the Southern Resident killer whale population that founded SeaWorld has, while officially endangered as one of the effects of that capture period, at least maintained relatively stable numbers. In contrast, 81 percent of SeaWorld's wild population has died, all at ages well below what is considered a normal lifespan in the wild.

And while SeaWorld loves to tout its now-increased standards of veterinary care and husbandry as the reason for arguing "Hey, we've done lots better in the last eight years!", there really is no guarantee that these short-term gains of the recent past will translate into actual longevity for the orcas, including those born in captivity.

They still are subject to the extreme stresses caused by their sterile and extremely limited environment and the obliteration of orca-society norms that they have been wired for over millions of years. They still lead the lives of slaves. There's no doubt the company has light years to go before it can even come close to replicating the complexity of environment and surroundings, as well as the multiple layers of orca social organization, that they can experience in wild waters, even if (in the case of the captive-born whales and damaged goods like Tilikum) that only means life in a seapen similar to Keiko's.

I've always felt the real bottom line for orca captivity lies in the complete history of the affair, and as I note in Of Orcas and Men: What Killer Whales Can Teach Us
Study after study has demonstrated that whales in captivity are more than two and a half times more likely to die than whales in the wild. All the care in the world cannot compensate for the stress brought on by placing a large, highly mobile, highly intelligent, and highly social animal with a complex life into a small concrete tank.

Of the 136 orcas taken in captivity from the wild over the years, only 13 still survive. The average lifespan in captivity so far is about eight and a half years. In the wild, the average rises to thirty-one years for males and forty-six for females. Then there is the upper end of the spectrum. In the wild, males will live up to sixty years, and in the Puget Sound, there is a matriarchal female named Granny who is believed to be a hundred years old.
And let's remember one last stark number: Of the 55 whales the SeaWorld and other marine parks removed from the Southern and Northern Resident populations from 1964-1976, exactly two remain alive. One is at SeaWorld: Corky. And the only surviving Southern Resident is Lolita. She's not even in SeaWorld's collection.

Full database here.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Did SeaWorld Send Out 'Social Communism' Trolls With Signs at Protest?

Anyone know what 'Social Communism' is? From Ric O'Barry's Dolphin Project.
They held a nice protest out in front of SeaWorld Florida in Orlando on Saturday, and some uninvited guests showed up. Actually, they apparently were invited -- by someone associated with SeaWorld.

"Support Social Communism" the signs read. They featured both a Russian hammer and sickle and a Chinese star. Or something like that.

The invitations came with paychecks to go stand among the protesters with signs that would at once make the protesters look bad and simultaneously express the company's opinion of the dirty hippies marching out front.

Soooo .... does anyone know exactly what "Social Communism" is? Ever hear of it? Me neither.

And neither, apparently, had the people carrying the signs. Lincoln O'Barry, writing over at his dad's Dolphin Project website, and one of the people protesting, asked the guy carrying the sign if he actually knew of any communists:
When Dolphin Project spoke with one of them, the unnamed Communist admitted to “just doing this as a job to make so extra money.” When we asked him to actually name a communist, he “couldn’t.”
We also noted that the pre-made sign he was holding was manufactured in Texas. When we suggested that this might, ” not look good to some,” should he try to get a job or decide to run for office in 10 years, he began to hide.
Hey, if I had worn black socks with shorts in public, I would try to hide too.
Via Facebook.

Mind you, the sign carriers never openly admitted to being paid by SeaWorld to stand there with those signs. But who else would do that -- with prefabricated signs made in Texas, no less? Certainly the other protesters had their opinion about whose work the "Social Communists" were engaging.

So, let's check the scoreboard on SeaWorld's continuing attempts to push back against the "Blackfish Effect," the rising tide of anger over the clearing understanding that orca and dolphin captivity constitutes animal cruelty.

-- The response website, "The Truth About Blackfish": Epic fail.

-- The proposal to make their sterile pools bigger: Epic fail.

-- The "Ask SeaWorld" Twitter campaign to change their image. Epic, hilarious, profoundly embarrassing fail.

-- Their attempts to push back against ex-trainer John Hargrove with a cheap video smear: Epic and disgusting fail that makes them appear stupidly evil.

I think I'm detecting a pattern here.

Now SeaWorld and its defenders are making clear that the fight over orca and dolphin captivity is becoming your classic Culture War battleground. They're casting their critics into the same basket as LGBT and civil-rights defenders and themselves upon the same pedestal as the geniuses who run Indiana.

Yeah, that should do wonders for their stock price.