The Makah Tribe of Washington State sparked controversy in the late 1990s when tribal leaders sought to revive their people's whaling traditions after a 70‐year hiatus. The ensuing political conflict has been shaped by the normative presuppositions of the US National Marine Fisheries Service. The conception of gray whales as countable, harvestable “stocks” enables Makah officials to claim affinities with the authorized discourse of the state. Antiwhaling activists have strategically adapted to this register, mobilizing scientific uncertainty to delay the hunt, but in doing so they tacitly affirm the idea that it is acceptable to kill whales. These findings call into question anthropological expectations regarding who benefits from the exercise of state power in environmental conflicts, showing that moral and ontological differences are not necessarily coterminous.