Uncategorized

Rosalie Edge & Her Pioneering Environmental Activism

Socialite, suffragette and fearless environmental activist Rosalie Edge was born today in 1877. Learn more about the fascinating woman who made it her mission to protect the animals and our environment.

Rosalie Edge, who was born into New York City’s mannered upper echelons in 1877, knew how to make waves to get the results she wanted. After first joining the fight for women’s suffrage (which was achieved in the U.S. in 1920), she turned her attentions to the environment while in her 50s. Her two best-known feats are: 1) creating a protected environment for hawks and other raptors at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, and 2) forcing the National Association of Audubon Societies to stop putting hunting interests ahead of animal protection. However, Edge didn’t stop there — she gave her all in many environmental battles, including the following:

Stolen documents? No problem! 

In 1931, Edge’s Emergency Conservation Committee produced a four-page pamphlet, “Last of the White Pelican,” to draw attention to the fact that pelican numbers were dropping at refuges nationwide. After this pamphlet came out, an anonymous source sent Edge documentation — which had been appropriated without permission — about a policy of destruction for pelicans in Yellowstone National Park.

Starting in 1923, employees of the U.S. Fish Commission and National Park Service had been clubbing pelicans and destroying their eggs on the park’s Molly Island. An internal report also revealed the hope that getting rid of pelican eggs would force the birds to switch breeding grounds. (Why the attack on pelicans? Basically, to help fishermen who didn’t like competition for the trout they wanted to catch themselves.)

In September 1932, “Slaughter of Yellowstone Pelicans” revealed this pelican destruction policy. Some protection measures had already been underway before this pamphlet was released, but after it came out Washington ordered the park to fully protect its pelicans. Given this result, Edge had zero qualms about using pilfered material. As she told The New Yorker in 1948, “Yes, the letters were purloined, but the end justified the means. Needs must when the devil drives!”

Unimpressed by government policy

The U.S. Biological Survey had an ongoing animal control program that was dubbed the Division of Predatory Animal and Rodent Control in 1924. As the name suggests, the goal was to control (i.e. reduce) populations of animals that included wolves, mountain lions, coyotes, grizzly bears and prairie dogs. Most farmers and ranchers were happy to have these the animals gone from their lands, but Edge felt differently — after all, she’d once noted, “Creatures of the wild belong to themselves alone. . .Man should disturb them as little as possible.”

Given her sentiments, it’s little surprise Edge spoke out against the Survey’s practices; one pamphlet she issued had the expressive title of: “The United States Bureau of Destruction and Extermination: The Misnamed and Perverted Biological Survey” (1934). When the Survey was dismantled in 1939, it must have been a good moment for Edge.

Unfortunately, this dismantling didn’t mean that wild animals were protected — many official eradication policies continued. It wasn’t until the 1960s and ’70s that animal control measures would finally be changed.

Hawk Mountain Sanctuary Photo

Rosalie Edge leased 1,400 acres on Hawk Mountain in 1934 and installed warden and bird enthusiast Maurice Brown and his wife, a bird conservationist. A year later, Edge opened the Sanctuary to the public as “a place to see the beautiful but persecuted birds of prey.” (Photo: Hawk Mountain Sanctuary)

Farsighted about environmental toxins

Just as her worries about wild animals were ahead of their time, Edge was also prescient when it came to seeing the problems that poisons and pesticides could pose to the environment.

One technique the U.S. Biological Survey turned to in its animal control campaigns was mass poisoning (with poisons like thallium and strychnine), which worried Edge. She expressed additional concerns about using insecticides to rid livestock of ticks, fearing the practice could place deer and other animals at risk.

In the biography Rosalie Edge: Hawk of Mercy (2009), author Dyana Z. Furmansky also notes that Edge tried to alert officials about the deadly effects of the insecticide DDT. Edge spoke out more than a decade before Rachel Carson‘s Silent Spring (1962) — a book that woke the nation to DDT’s dangers and changed the environmental movement — was published.

Unfortunately, though history would prove her right, Edge’s warnings about environmental toxins were usually dismissed. In the 1930s, the Wildlife Division’s Washington office even created a parody Edge pamphlet to show how unreasonable they felt she was being. Their (entirely capitalized) mockery contained the line: “WE ARE OPPOSED TO THE USE OF POISONS FOR ANY PURPOSE. LET THE COCKROACH LIVE.”

Fought for trees too

In addition to protecting animals, Edge was happy to take on government and commercial interests to preserve forests and trees. For example, when she learned that a grove of sugar pines on Forest Service land near Yosemite National Park was going to be logged, ECC pamphlets and lobbying by Edge got the Senate to introduce a bill to protect the trees.

Edge also took part in a five-year battle against lumber companies, politicians and the Forest Service in order to preserve old-growth forests around Olympic National Monument. Local support for the project grew, and a bill for the new and expanded Olympic National Park was passed in 1938. Edge was delighted by the achievement, boasting in her 1948 New Yorker profile, “Oh, what a glorious old battle that was! And didn’t we show up the lumber interests? Oh no!”

Yet Edge knew to stay vigilant after victory. In 1947, when the Interior Department okayed bills that would cut forested areas out of Olympic Park, an Edge pamphlet quickly came out: “The Raid on the Nation’s Olympic Forests.” Numerous letters subsequently poured into the department, and the idea was dropped.

Changed public perception

In Edge’s day, wild animals were often viewed as either useless pests or dangerous threats. Some farmers thought snakes could steal milk from their cows. Shooting as many hawks as possible was seen as a nice way to spend an afternoon. And stories about eagles flying away with children regularly appeared in newspapers.

Fortunately, Edge was savvy enough to realize that changing public opinion was just as important as new environmental regulations and laws. She wrote a pamphlet to debunk the tales of eagles abducting children, and Hawk Mountain Sanctuary introduced people to the wonder and enjoyment that could come from viewing birds instead of shooting them.

Edge also embraced opportunities for good publicity. In 1946, she rescued and relocated three peregrine hawk chicks that were nesting outside Olivia de Havilland‘s New York City penthouse. (Sadly, according to biographer Dyana Z. Furmansky, these hawks were all dead in just a few years: two were shot and one got electrocuted by a power line.)

Rosalie Edge Photo

Rosalie Edge in the Emergency Conservation Committee office in 1959. (Photo: Carsten Lien/Audubon Society)

Part of a growing movement

Edge remained committed to environmental causes as she grew older. In the 1950s, she joined other groups — such as the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society — in a fight against a proposed dam for Dinosaur National Monument’s Echo Park. The project was eventually defeated.

For Edge, the participation of so many environmentalists was another triumph. At one point, she declared: “I am amazed at the aroused spirit of conservationists and their greatly increased numbers. Something should be done to unify the thousands who constitute a seething mass opposed to the Echo Park dam.”

Edge passed away in 1962. Today, activists who continue to agitate and fight for animals and the environment likely continue to have her full approval.