Back in the 1970s, Gens Johnson got really interested in handmade and regional art. She started buying pieces from shops in Portland and across the Northwest.
“I bought two pieces that were scrimshaw, and they were done on whale ivory and walrus tusk,” she said.
Scrimshaw is a kind of carving – typically of boats and sea life. It was popularized by whalers in the 1800s.
“I was concerned when I bought it that it wasn’t elephant ivory, and I really didn’t think there was any problem with it being a sea mammal product,” Johnson said.
Johnson gave these two pieces, which date to the 1960s and '70s, to her parents as a gift. She considers the art a long-term investment. They’re still part of her father’s collection.
“Someday I will inherit those, and I really don’t have… pinned any great gain on selling them, but I’ve always felt that would be one of my options,” she says.
Under Measure 100, the animal trafficking measure, that option would go away. Johnson is actually okay with that.
What’s More Important?
The Nov. 8 election will determine whether to ban the buying and selling of 12 iconic animal species that are being poached internationally at high rates: rhino, cheetah, tiger, sea turtle, lion, elephant, whale, shark, pangolin, jaguar, ray, and leopard. Many on the list are threatened with extinction and protected under international treaty.
There are exceptions, many of which follow federal law that is already in place (more information on federal restrictions here). For example, the items are allowed if the banned animal parts are components of vintage musical instruments or antiques that are at least 100 year old. A piano with ivory-veneered keys would be legal, but you would need to have it certified internationally if you wanted to send it out of the United States.
Johnson’s whale scrimshaw would be subject to a ban on buying and selling because it was made less than 100 years ago. But she could still pass them down to her children.
But her dilemma gets to the measure’s larger question.
“What is more important? Is it more important for that person to gain a nominal profit from the sale of that item, or is it more important to make sure these wild animals are here for generations to come?” asks Scott Beckstead, Oregon Director of the Human Society of the United States.
“Once the smugglers get items into Oregon, there is no state law to prevent those items from being bought and sold,” he says.
Right now, federal agents are the only ones on the lookout for trade in animals like tigers, whales and rhinos in Oregon. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Special Agent Sheila O’Connor is one of four agents assigned to the entire state. She says wildlife trafficking is alive and well in Oregon and more officers would help.
“We can’t be everywhere, we can go into every store, we can’t view every online page offering things for sale here in the state of Oregon,” O’Connor says. “So if a state makes trafficking illegal, then we have a lot more eyes in the marketplace.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service does not have an official position on Measure 100.
The wildlife trade monitoring organization Traffic just released a report showing ivory availability appears to be dropping in states that have banned sales. The study examined six U.S. cities and among them, Portland was flagged as having the second highest amount of ivory on the market.
If the wildlife trafficking measure passes, that stands to change. Oregon will join Washington and California in having similar bans.
“If we can get Measure 100 passed, then the entire west coast of the U.S. suddenly becomes far less hospitable to the smugglers,” Beckstead said.
But how effective that united West Coast front will be in turning away traffickers really depends. Washington’s voter-approved ban, the oldest, passed by a landslide. It went into effect at the beginning of 2016.
Washington Fish and Wildlife Deputy Chief Mike Cenci says his officers have added the banned animals (Washington’s ban includes ten species) to the list of species they’re looking out for.
“But as far as putting together an operation and starting to focus attention on a known trafficker, we’re a long way from doing that in effective way that address species beyond our local critters,” he said.
A big reason? Washington’s measure didn’t include additional funding to enforce the ban. Oregon’s doesn’t either. Officers would be relying on the same staffing and budget they use to enforce the rest of the state’s wildlife laws.
Given this, it’s unclear whether Gens Johnson and her whale tooth scrimshaw would ever come under scrutiny.
“It feels to me like overkill – no pun intended – in terms of making it a law without the ability to increase enforcement,” she says.
There hasn’t been any formal opposition to Oregon’s wildlife trafficking bill. The National Rifle Association and Safari Club International both voiced early concerns about the measure, but neither responded to interview requests for this story.
And even Johnson, whose family art collection would lose value if Measure 100 passes, says she supports the intent of the measure to conserve these iconic animals.