Energy & Environment

Wildlife groups fear what comes next on elephant trophies

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Wildlife conservation and animal rights groups are slamming the Trump administration’s move to permit some imports of African elephant trophies, fearing the new system will allow decisions to be made in secret.

“The direction that the government is going is not a good one and it’s not being good stewards of the animals that they are supposed to be caring for,” said Kitty Block, acting CEO and president of The Humane Society of the United States.

The Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced on Thursday that it will make determinations about whether to allow the trophy imports on a case-by-case basis, using scientific risk assessments and other available data.

{mosads}Animal rights groups say the new policy, which casts aside years of Endangered Species Act findings, will come at a heavy price. They fear that, under the new system, it will be difficult to track what imports are approved.

“At least before we could get one of these countrywide findings, and then you would know, ‘OK, this is what the agency decided for the country. Does it check all of the boxes in terms of the regulatory requirements?’ ” said Tanya Sanerib, the international legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity’s International Program.

“Now they say they are going to do it on a permit by permit basis and now it’s going to be impossible to track — our only recourse now will be the Freedom of Information Act. Given this administration, it doesn’t shock me at all.”

The Interior Department said the FWS had no choice but to change its policy after a D.C. Circuit Court ruling in December struck down an Obama-era policy that banned importing elephant hunting trophies from Zimbabwe.

The court said that regulation was invalid because the Obama administration did not follow the required steps under the Administrative Procedure Act.

“In response to a recent D.C. Circuit Court’s opinion, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is revising its procedure for assessing applications to import certain hunted species. We are withdrawing our countrywide enhancement findings for a range of species across several countries,” a spokesperson for the FWS said in a statement. “In their place, the Service intends to make findings for trophy imports on an application-by-application basis.”

But animal conservation groups are calling the policy change an obvious workaround to the federal court’s ruling, which said the FWS should go through an extensive public notice and comment process when proposing a regulation on the trophy imports.

“The greatest travesty for all of this imperiled wildlife is the fact that we just had a court rule that when FWS is making these decisions they need to involve the public, they need to see the light of day,” said Sanerib. “And then we get a memo from the Trump administration saying, ‘Not only are we going to do this behind closed doors, but we are going to take it to the windowless basement, and you’ll have no idea what we are doing.’ ”

Block said the new policy was no better than if the administration had decided to overturn the ban on elephant trophy imports entirely.

“This case-by-case approach is no better than listing it completely because it allows these decisions to be made in secret,” she said. “People aren’t going to know about it and why they made the decision. In many ways, I see this being even more problematic.”

Block said the Humane Society’s legal team was looking into the legality of what she called such a clear avoidance of a court ruling.

“When it said you had to have this public comment period — [the FWS] circumvented that by going case by case. We have a legal team and were certainly going to pursue any legal action that is available to us,” she said.

Annecoos Wiersema, an international law professor at the University of Denver, said the decision is also potentially harmful to the wildlife species the FWS is tasked with guarding. She said it could even pose a threat to the conservation model supported by many pro-hunting groups, which believe that big-game hunting benefits endangered herds through the revenue it generates.

“It removes a lot of accountability and the ability to think about trade/trophy-hunting in a systematic way,” Wiersema said of the new FWS policy. “That in turn makes it less likely to benefit conservation.”

President Trump had signaled a different approach earlier this year, telling Piers Morgan in an interview that a move by the FWS to lift the ban on importing the trophies was “terrible.”

Interior Department spokeswoman Heather Swift said Tuesday that the positions of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Trump have not changed.

Many groups said while they are concerned by the new policy, they are not surprised by it.

“Despite Trump’s statements, NRDC and our partners never believed that they would maintain this ban on elephant imports and that turned out to be correct,” said Elly Pepper, deputy director of the wildlife trade initiative at the National Resources Defense Council. “Trophy hunting is one of Zinke’s priorities.”

Nine days before the Interior Department first announced in November it would be reversing the ban on elephant trophy imports, Zinke announced that he would create a wildlife group to “advise the Secretary of the Interior on the benefits that international recreational hunting has on foreign wildlife and habitat conservation.”

The International Wildlife Conservation Council has 16 members, including professional hunters, hunting tourism guides, Indiana coal executive and Trump donor Steven Chancellor, Safari Club International President Paul Babaz and a National Rifle Association (NRA) director.

Last Friday, just a day after the administration announced its new guidance that left the door open to imports of African elephant trophies, Interior announced the same committee would be meeting for the first time publicly to discuss “conservation programs.”

“It is really fascinating right after we have the court decision, we have this March deadline, then we get this memo from FWS saying they are pulling all of these findings and now next Friday they are having this meeting to talk about the way forward now,” Sanerib said. “There are no conservation groups in the room — it’s incredibly disheartening to see.”

Pepper agreed the timing is no coincidence.

“You have to look at the whole context — this is a Department of Interior that … has created a council solely to advise the president on the benefits of trophy hunting and has brought the NRA into that council, and completely excluded real conservation groups,” she said.

“When you look at this picture, you will see that this is not an administration that is friendly to endangered species.”

Timothy Cama contributed.

Tags African elephants Animal rights Donald Trump elephant trophies Ryan Zinke Wildlife conservation

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