In a total departure from the position taken by President Trump in November when he called trophy hunting a “horror show,” the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has lifted existing bans on the import of elephant and lion trophies from certain African countries, and has signaled it will approve such imports on a case by case basis.
In a document filed in federal court late Friday, the U.S. Department of Justice said the FWS has withdrawn, effective March 1, Obama-era findings on the trophy hunting of elephants in Zimbabwe and Tanzania — findings that led to a ban on all imports of elephant trophies from these countries. Instead, the FWS will evaluate the import applications for elephant trophies from Zimbabwe and Tanzania, as well as those from South Africa, Namibia, and Zambia, and other African countries on an individual basis. The agency has similarly withdrawn its findings for lion imports from Zimbabwe, Zambia, and South Africa, but signaled that it will review individual trophy import permits from those countries.
By this subterfuge, the FWS is attempting to do an end run around a U.S. court of appeals order from December that requires the agency to solicit public comment before making decisions about whether trophy hunting in a particular country promotes the conservation of a species threatened with extinction.
As you would expect, we’re hard at work on a legal response.
The FWS move will dramatically reduce transparency and undermine efforts to protect elephants and lions in Africa, whose populations are already under threat due to poaching and unsustainable levels of trophy hunting. The United States has listed African elephants and lions under the federal Endangered Species Act, and hunting trophies can only be imported if the federal government finds that killing them positively enhances the survival of the species. Under the previous administration, FWS made the decision that Zimbabwe – one of the most corrupt countries on earth – was not managing its elephant population in a sustainable manner. But in November 2017, under pressure from Safari Club International and the National Rifle Association, FWS said it was reversing those critical protections. Immediately following President Trump’s tweet, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke backtracked, saying that the decision would come under review.
Friday’s brief from the Department of Justice is the latest twist in a long-running court battle that has pitted conservation organizations and trophy hunters against the agency tasked with protecting species from extinction. In 2014, the Safari Club and NRA teamed up to file lawsuits to overturn the Obama administration’s decision to prohibit the import of elephant trophies from Tanzania and Zimbabwe. HSUS and HSI intervened in the court case to assist the federal government in defending those protections. After the November 2017 decision by the FWS to reverse Obama era protections for elephants, The HSUS and HSI joined with other conservation organizations to file a lawsuit challenging the agency’s decision. This time, the SCI and the NRA intervened to protect their members’ financial interests and senseless desire to slaughter elephants and lions, and to import their tusks and hides for trophies and bragging rights.
In December, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit issued an order upholding the merits of FWS’s decision to prohibit trophy imports when hunting is unsustainable, but ruling that FWS must comply with procedural requirements that allow public participation during the decision-making process. Seeking to extend this ruling, HSUS attorneys asked the federal district court in D.C. to overturn the November 2017 authorization of elephant and lion imports from Zimbabwe.
There is no doubt that the FWS, under its current leadership, is kowtowing to the interests of wealthy trophy hunters, a distinct and undeserving minority. Continuing to show support for the hunting and gun lobby, the FWS recently established an International Wildlife Conservation Council to promote trophy hunting by Americans abroad. The council is loaded with representatives of the trophy hunting industry, including SCI and NRA officials, the proverbial foxes in the henhouse.
It is probably no coincidence that SCI recently relocated its headquarters to Washington, D.C., and we’ll be ready to confront them in the courts and in the halls of Congress. But with men like Greg Sheehan, principal deputy director of FWS, doing SCI’s bidding in the government, things have gone too far. It amounts to this: the swamp just got deeper, darker, and dirtier. The president said it was a terrible decision last year, and nothing has changed. It’s still a terrible decision. Our legal team is assessing its next steps and you can rest assured that we will be out there, fighting this decision until there is a better path forward for these beleaguered animals.