Endangered Species Handbook

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Lacey Act - Feather Trade

    The fashion of wearing bird feathers in women’s hats began in the court of Louis XVI of France when Marie Antoinette appeared in a headdress with feather plumes (Doughty 1975).  The fashion gradually spread in Europe and later in the colonies of the United States.  By 1850, the business of killing birds for the millinery trade was practiced on a large scale, involving the deaths of hundreds of thousands of birds in many parts of the world.  Egrets were a prime target, especially birds in breeding plumage when their most elegant plumage was displayed.  Hunters killed adult birds, leaving the chicks to die in the scorching sun.  Sometimes feathers were pulled from wounded birds, which were left to die of exposure or starvation.  Herons and other wading birds along the east coast and in the Everglades were slaughtered in huge numbers. Songbirds were also popular, and entire birds were stuffed and exhibited on the hats of Victorian women.  The plumage of terns and gulls was commonly used, and entire breeding colonies numbering more than 10,000 birds were killed.  One New York woman negotiated in 1884 with a Parisian millinery to deliver 40,000 or more bird skins; she hired gunners to kill as many terns as possible at ten cents a skin (Doughty 1975). 
     In order to stop this disastrous trade, as well as the trafficking in wild deer and other animals for the meat trade, the Lacey Act was passed in 1900.  The Lacey Act enhanced existing laws by prohibiting interstate commerce in wildlife protected by state statute.  Fines of $500 for "knowingly" transporting wildlife or products protected in another state, and $200 for "knowingly" receiving such articles, were at first assessed.  Many states had protected their native birds from the feather slaughters and banned the sale of feathers, but bird hunters would transport the feathers to states where the birds were not native to sell them.  The Lacey Act prohibited this interstate commerce in protected species.  If, for example, egrets protected from killing by Alabama law were shot and their feathers shipped across state lines to New York, a Lacey Act violation would have been committed.  The Act ended most of the commercial plume trade in Native American birds.  The failure of some states to enact laws to protect their wildlife kept the Act from being 100 percent effective.  The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 closed these loopholes by protecting all native migratory birds.
     The Lacey Act prohibits the import, export, transportation, sale, receipt, acquisition or purchase of fish, wildlife or plants that are taken, possessed, transported or sold in violation of any federal, state, tribal or foreign law.  By the turn of the century, the feather trade had nearly eliminated egrets in the United States, and populations of numerous other bird species were approaching extinction.  The National Audubon Society employed guards to protect the few remaining colonies in remote parts of Florida.  Three of the wardens lost their lives protecting the birds, and if the Lacey Act of 1900 and accompanying state laws had not been enacted, many species of birds would almost certainly have become extinct.
     One of the first violations of the Act involved feather merchants.  On Laysan Island in the Pacific, a shocking slaughter occurred.  Hundreds of thousands of Laysan and Black-footed Albatross nested on this 2-mile-long island west of Hawaii.  In 1909, a feather merchant hired 23 Japanese laborers to kill the nesting birds, which are tame and unwilling to leave their nests, even when attacked.  Clumsy on land, the albatross need to run with wings spread, allowing the wind to buoy them before they can take flight.  This makes them helpless in the face of men striking them with sticks and bats.  During several months, 300,000 sea birds were killed, mainly to obtain their wings.  The wings were cut off the living birds, leaving them to bleed to death; others were herded into a dry cistern and kept by the hundreds to starve to death in order to use up the fatty tissue next to the skin so that little or no cleaning was required to prepare the feathered skin (Hornaday 1913).  A zoology professor from the College of Honolulu heard of this slaughter and wired federal authorities in Washington, since the island was part of U.S. territory, and the birds were protected.  The merchants planned to take the bird feathers and wings to the Orient to sell.  The Secretary of the Navy dispatched a cutter to Laysan, finding the carcasses, bones and three carloads of wings, feathers and skins.  The poachers were arrested and taken to Honolulu for trial (Hornaday 1913).  The same year, President Theodore Roosevelt issued an Executive Order creating the Hawaiian Islands Reservation for Birds, including Laysan Island, which is now a national wildlife refuge.  Unfortunately, the same feather merchant who committed the albatross slaughter, introduced rabbits to the island, which stripped the vegetation.  The Laysan Rail later became extinct as a result of the rabbits and predation by rats introduced in the 1940s.  The albatross have slowly recovered but, being long-lived and slow-reproducing, they are extremely vulnerable to any losses in their populations.
     The feather merchants fought state laws banning killing of migratory birds after passage of the Lacey Act, especially in East Coast cities, where the millinery trade was headquartered.  The Millinery Association lobbied for the repeal of a New York law banning sale of native bird feathers and brought many witnesses to Albany to prove that enforcement of the law would cause thousands of people to lose their jobs (Hornaday 1913).  In 1911, the New York State Legislature refused to repeal this law.  The millinery workers did not, in fact, lose their jobs; hat decorations were merely changed from feathers to silk, ribbons and lace (Hornaday 1913). 
     The problem remained, however, as exotic birds continued to be slaughtered for the millinery trade.  Plume hunters combed the marshes of Central America, killed entire rookeries of egrets and herons, netted thousands of tiny hummingbirds in Brazil, and killed rare birds of paradise in New Guinea, and even Andean Condors in South America.  In 1911, the feathers of 129,000 egrets; 13,598 herons; 20,698 birds of paradise; 41,090 hummingbirds; 9,464 eagles, condors and other birds of prey; and 9,472 other birds were sold at auction in London for the millinery trade (Hornaday 1913).  The scope of the Lacey Act was later enlarged to cover foreign species. 
     The Lacey Act applies to all wildlife, and the once rampant trade in deer, elk and other game species killed for the restaurant trade was also severely curtailed.  More recently, the Lacey Act stopped much of the illegal killing of American Alligators for the reptile products trade prior to the passage of the Endangered Species Act.  Sale of alligator skins in the Northeast from alligators killed illegally in the Everglades, for example, was a Lacey Act violation if the source of the skins could be proven.
     Amendments to the Act in 1981, which provided, among other things, the authority for warrantless search and seizure when violations are suspected, were designed to:  1) strengthen federal enforcement of laws to protect wildlife; and 2) improve relevant federal assistance to states and foreign governments. The Act is used to control the smuggling of and trade in illegally taken wildlife.  Amendments raised maximum penalties under the Lacey Act to sentences of up to one year in jail and/or fines of up to $100,000 for misdemeanors, and five years imprisonment and/or fines up to $250,000 for felonies.  Maximum fines for organizations in violation of the Lacey Act are $200,000 for misdemeanor violations and $500,000 for felonies.  In addition, vehicles, aircraft, and equipment used in a violation, as well as illegally obtained fish, wildlife, and plants, may be subject to forfeiture. Persons who provide information on violations of the Lacey Act may be eligible for cash rewards.

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