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Big-game hunters infuriated by Trump elephant trophy debacle

Ten months after President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump renews attacks against Tester over VA nominee on eve of Montana rally Trump submits 2017 federal income tax returns Corker: Trump administration 'clamped down' on Saudi intel, canceled briefing MORE put a hold on a plan to allow imports of elephant parts from trophy hunts in Africa, frustration is beginning to boil over into anger among some of the president’s supporters who want to see decisive action from the administration.

The Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced in March that all new elephant trophy hunting permits would be considered on a case-by-case basis going forward, but permits from hunters hoping to ship home tons of elephant parts and tusks are still pending.

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Of the 21 individual permits submitted to FWS between January 2017 and March 2018 for imports of elephant trophies from the two countries initially banned by the Obama administration — Zimbabwe and Zambia — not one has received a response, according to data released under a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.

Dwight Miloff, a frequent trophy hunter, told The Hill he hasn’t heard anything from FWS regarding the permit he submitted in May 2017 for an elephant he killed that year. Miloff, a resident of Billings, Mont., and a member of Safari Club International (SCI), said he booked his trip to Zimbabwe and submitted his permit in anticipation of the administration overturning the ban on elephant trophy imports.

“The bottom line is they are afraid as shit to get off the fence,” he said of the administration's failure to approve or deny the permits. “They know if they get off the fence the anti-hunting people will be up in arms, and if they don’t grant them the people who put in the money for the permit will be pissed off.”

FWS says the permits remain “under review,” but a number of experts in the sports hunting field, as well as individual hunters awaiting approval to ship back their trophies, say they believe the administration has informally delayed a decision on elephant trophies as a result of Trump’s November tweet.

Applicants for elephant trophy permits in countries like Tanzania and South Africa that weren’t banned by the Obama administration received prompt responses from FWS, with most being accepted, The Hill’s review of the data showed. But the majority of elephants available to hunt are found in the formally banned countries: Zimbabwe and Zambia.

Former FWS acting Director Greg Sheehan first announced the administration’s plan to reverse the Obama-era ban on elephant imports while at a SCI event in Tanzania on Nov. 14.

Following almost instantaneous public backlash, Trump tweeted three days later: “Put big game trophy decision on hold until such time as I review all conservation facts. Under study for years. Will update soon with Secretary Zinke. Thank you!”

Interior Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeOvernight Energy: Political appointee taking over as Interior IG | Change comes amid Zinke probe | White Houses shelves coal, nuke bailout plan | Top Dem warns coal export proposal hurts military Top House Armed Services Dem says Trump coal export plan could hurt military HUD political appointee to replace Interior Department inspector general MORE, a former member of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, was reportedly chosen by Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr.Donald (Don) John TrumpMueller assembles team of cooperators in Russian probe Election Countdown: O'Rourke goes on the attack | Takeaways from fiery second Texas Senate debate | Heitkamp apologizes for ad misidentifying abuse victims | Trump Jr. to rally for Manchin challenger | Rick Scott leaves trail to deal with hurricane damage Senate Dems ask Trump to disclose financial ties to Saudi Arabia MORE, to lead the Interior Department. The president’s son is a member of the Boone and Crockett Club and has been photographed holding both elephant and leopard trophies.

Trump’s tweet stunned members of the big-game hunting community.

“His sons shoot elephants, I don’t know why I can’t,” said Bradley Martin of San Antonio, Texas, who is awaiting a response from FWS on two permits he submitted to hunt elephants in Zimbabwe in 2017 and 2018.

Martin said he was led to believe by those in the industry that the Trump administration would favor trophy hunting. He timed both his trips to make sure they would occur after Trump took office.

"Everybody said that he had agreed,” he said, referring to favorable changes to trophy hunting rules.

Internal emails released through a previous FOIA request additionally show officials issued a hard stop on granting permits after Trump’s tweet.

“Until we get additional clarification on the intent and breadth of the President’s decision to review ‘Big game Trophy decision,’ we have been asked to abstain from issuing any permits for both lions and elephants,” Sheehan told top staff the day after Trump’s tweet.

Bob Oliver, a hunter from Terrebonne, Ore., who submitted a trophy permit application this March to hunt a Zimbabwe elephant at the end of September, said he was told by FWS officials he communicated with that the permits would not be ruled on anytime soon.

“What it really boils down to, and this was after several exchanges I had with them, is that they weren’t going to be issuing any permits under this administration,” he told The Hill. “And that’s where they left it.”

Oliver said he’s now faced with the decision of whether to continue with his plans to fly to Africa for the hunt knowing he might not be able to bring back any trophies. He said that canceling the trip would mean losing thousands of dollars on a deposit.

“I was given the impression from some of the things that was said that they were going to evaluate on a one-by-one basis, and I wanted to get first in line,” he said. “So I made a deposit with an outfitter. When I got that last message that they weren’t going to be issuing any permits because of the situation with the administration, I’m going to forfeit $30,000 if I cancel the hunt.”

“I’m not very happy about it,” he added.

John Jackson, president of Conservation Force — a group that advocates for wildlife conservation through hunting — said Trump’s reversal, and his administration’s subsequent inaction, is having a negative impact on the animals' natural habitat in the banned countries.

“When somebody comes along and impulsively decides he’s going to stop all imports of all elephant trophies, last November, he not only threatens hunters — that’s a small price to pay — he’s threatening habitat,” Jackson said.

“He’s threatening the loss of lions, and prey and most of the habitat that hunting pays for,” Jackson added. “The whole thing is in free fall.”

He noted that trophy hunts can cost about $70,000, with much of that money going toward African communities that rely on revenue from hunting.

Jackson, who is a member of the Interior Department’s controversial International Wildlife Conservation Council, said he’s spent his life trying to help preserve African elephant species. He said that while the concept of hunting as preservation is lost on many people, he thought the president was on board with the approach.

“I voted for him, but I can’t talk to him,” Jackson said. “The FWS is not processing imports from permits. They are sitting there because they have a presidential tweet. It’s not science based.”

But not everyone is pessimistic about the relationship between hunters and the administration.

A representative for SCI said the group has seen signs that the administration is more receptive than previous presidencies to the needs of big game hunters.

“What I am looking at is the bigger picture,” said Anna Seidman, director of litigation at SCI. “This is not what we saw back in 2014 when we saw FWS saying … ’We are ignoring the countries, we are ignoring the hunting community and we are just going to shut it down.’ ”

Seidman said that while individual hunters might not see the changing trends as favorable, the permit approvals will likely follow.

But for many hunters — and Trump voters — waiting years to take home their prizes, the situation looks nothing but bleak.

“Well, I voted for him, I can’t say I’m enthralled with the whole thing,” said Martin, who has two elephant trophies waiting in storage in Africa. “I don’t even know what to expect anymore out of these people.”

Nevertheless, he said he still plans to go on the hunt he has booked for this month in Zimbabwe.

“If I’m successful it will be two or three trophies over there for me,” he said. “Maybe one day I’ll get them, maybe I won’t.”