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Russia's Otter Mistake in California

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Good morning. It’s February 2. And sometimes as I write this morning missive before the sun is up, I confess it feels a little like “Groundhog Day.”

That iconic 1993 motion picture starring Bill Murray features a cynical television weatherman in Pittsburgh named Phil Connors. Phil is assigned, not happily, to cover the small-town festival built around the annual antics of “Punxsutawney Phil,” a groundhog who, according to local lore, emerges from his hole in the ground each February 2 to predict the length of winter.

It’s a dumb superstition, but it’s not Hollywood’s invention. The hitch in the plot is that Bill Murray’s character is doomed to repeat Groundhog’s Day into eternity until he finds true love – that is to say, until he finds that his true love (played by Andie MacDowell) is right in front of him the whole the time. It’s an old theme with a clever new wrinkle. It also seemed to have breathed life into the actual Pennsylvania burg of Punxsutawney, and given a new meaning to the phrase “groundhog day” – it now signifies repeating something over and over again.

Let's move away from groundhogs to another furry animal, the California sea otter. If Russian explorers had managed them better as a resource two centuries ago, U.S. history might have turned out differently. 

The otters thrive in great colonies around Fort Ross, and were the main attraction for Russian settlers who came down the Pacific coast from Alaska. On February 2, 1812, Russian fur traders established a fortified town only 90 miles north of the sleepy Spanish settlement of San Francisco.

The newcomers named their redoubt “Fort Rossiya,” a variation of Russia in tsarist times, a name that was soon shortened. But the Russians made sure their own stay on these shores was short by not practicing what we now call sustainable ecological practices; i.e. they wiped out the local otter populations for their pelts. They also never properly learned how to fish the local waters, and found the growing season along the damp Northern California coast not much better than Alaska’s.

The Russian-American Co. hung on for nearly 30 years, but in 1841 the Russian traders sold Fort Ross and other inland farms and properties to John Sutter, a Swiss-born pioneer who had established himself in Sacramento. At the end of that decade, gold was discovered in California – ironically on land of Sutter’s in the Sierra foothills -- but by then the Russians had quit the territory and headed home.

The tsar’s people could neither profit from the discovery of gold nor make any claim to it, and nine years after the Russians left, California was admitted as the 31st state in the Union. The Russians should have treated those cute little sea otters with more care.

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