Energy & Environment

Five things to know about the elephant trophies controversy


President Trump surprised conservationists and hunting advocates late Friday when he took to Twitter to halt his administration’s decision to allow imports of elephant hunting trophies from Zimbabwe and Zambia.

Since being announced Wednesday by the Fish and Wildlife Service, the policy on animal parts like heads and tusks generated strong pushback from numerous corners.


Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke are now reviewing the decision. But Trump tweeted late Sunday that trophy hunting is a “horror show,” leading activists to predict that he’ll come down against trophy imports.

Here are five things to know about the controversy and what’s ahead.


The policies must be based on improving conservation

Under the federal Endangered Species Act and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, the government must make decisions on trophy hunting imports based primarily on what the impact will be for species conservation.

In some cases, hunting can be beneficial for ecosystems and wildlife. But hunting is also frequently detrimental to species, particularly endangered ones. The African elephant became a threatened species due in part to hunting.

In the Federal Register notice published Friday to allow trophy imports from Zimbabwe, the Fish and Wildlife Service argued that hunting is beneficial to elephants in that country.

The finding was based on meetings with Zimbabwean officials, documentation Fish and Wildlife Service officials demanded from the government and observations from international organizations.

“The service is able to make a determination that the killing of trophy animals in Zimbabwe, on or after January 21, 2016, and on or before December 31, 2018, will enhance the survival of the African elephant,” it wrote.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders argued Friday that those findings were made by career officials in a process started under former President Obama.

Conservation groups say the findings were flawed. The Center for Biological Diversity and the Natural Resources Defense Council picked apart various aspects of the agency’s analysis in a lawsuit they filed Monday.

“The government has failed to rationally explain its 180 degree turn from determining that Zimbabwe is incapable of managing elephant hunting sustainably, to proclaiming open season on elephants and lions in Zimbabwe, a top destination for American trophy hunters due to lax regulations exacerbated by rampant corruption,” they wrote.

Opponents also argue that the information from Zimbabwean officials might be largely moot with the party of President Robert Mugabe trying to remove him from office.


Obama banned elephant trophy imports in 2014

The Obama administration cited the same law as Trump did to ban trophy imports in 2014.

“In Zimbabwe, available data, though limited, indicate a significant decline in the elephant population,” the agency wrote at the time, when it banned imports from both Zimbabwe and Tanzania.

“Additional killing of elephants in these countries, even if legal, is not sustainable and is not currently supporting conservation efforts that contribute towards the recovery of the species.”

The Obama administration faced immediate condemnation and lawsuits from groups like the National Rifle Association and the Safari Club International.

“Without sport-hunted elephant importation, that revenue will dry up. Without the ability to import the most significant symbol of their effort and success, many U.S. hunters will not undertake the huge expense of an elephant hunt,” the Safari Club said.


The Trump administration wants to promote hunting

Allowing trophy imports is part of a wider effort by the Trump administration to promote hunting, including on federal land, private land and internationally.

Zinke, who hunts, believes that hunters and anglers are among the most important conservationists.

“Some of my best memories are hunting and fishing ​with my dad and granddad, and then later teaching my own kids to hunt and fish​. That’s something I want more families to experience,” Zinke said in a September statement.

“Hunting and fishing is a cornerstone of the American tradition and hunters and fishers of America are the backbone of land and wildlife conservation,” he said.

Trump’s sons Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump are avid hunters, and Trump Jr. helped steer Trump toward Zinke as Interior secretary, due largely to Zinke’s hunting credentials.

But Trump himself doesn’t share their enthusiasm. “My sons love hunting,” he wrote on Twitter in 2012. “I don’t.”


A diverse coalition opposes easing the trophy ban

Before Trump’s Friday reversal on trophies, he faced a bipartisan, diverse backlash.

The negative reactions came from lawmakers like Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) and Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.).

Other opponents included conservative media personality Laura Ingraham, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster (R) and retired General Electric CEO Jack Welch.

Their arguments came from many directions and cited different rationales from animal welfare and common decency to concerns about terrorism and security.

“You were just hearing massive numbers of people upset over this,” said Wayne Pacelle, president of The Humane Society of the United States.

“The president really values his intuition when it comes to the pulse of the American public. And I don’t think it’s too difficult to figure out that 90-plus percent of Americans find the idea of shooting elephants for their tusks to be repugnant,” he said.

Lara Trump, the president’s daughter-in-law and Eric Trump’s wife, was also advocating against the trophy policy.

Lara Trump has been an outspoken animal rights activist for the administration. She and Pacelle lobbied numerous Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill on Thursday, and brought up the elephant trophy policy at some of their meetings, Pacelle said.

“Lara has been the animal welfare voice within the first family, and now she’s widely recognized at the White House in having that role,” he said.


Green groups are filing suit as officials review the policy

In reversing the trophy ban, Trump said he and Zinke would review it.

“President Trump and I have talked and both believe that conservation and healthy herds are critical. As a result, in a manner compliant with all applicable laws, rules and regulations, the issuing of permits is being put on hold as the decision is being reviewed,” Zinke said.

Trump tweeted Sunday that the decision would come next week, but he’s hard pressed to reverse his claim that the “horror show” of trophy hunting does nothing to help elephants.

The Interior Department on Monday declined to provide any more details on the review, including the standards Zinke will use or when it will be announced.

Meanwhile, the department is facing a federal lawsuit filed Monday by the Center for Biological Diversity and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Those groups say the administration didn’t follow the Endangered Species Act in its analysis.

“The Trump administration must clearly and permanently halt imports of lion and elephant trophies to protect these amazing animals from extinction,” Tanya Sanerib, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “Trump’s abrupt backpedaling after public outcry, while appreciated, shows how arbitrary this deplorable decision was. These incredibly imperiled creatures need a lot more than vague promises.”

Interior declined to comment on the case.

Tags Dianne Feinstein Donald Trump Ed Royce Ryan Zinke Vern Buchanan

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