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Whitewashing the Polar Bear Trophy Imports

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The House of Representatives passed a major climate change bill last week by an ice-thin margin, and it may be the first definitive step by the United States to do its fair share to stem the tide of global warming and shrinking ice floes. One animal who has become an iconic species for the climate change debate is the polar bear, who is now facing an additional threat in Congress. Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) -- who has never been a friend of polar bears, and who in fact displays a Kodiak bear hide as a trophy in his Capitol Hill office -- has introduced a pair of bills to allow American trophy hunters to bring their sport-hunted polar bear trophies back from Canada.

Polar bear
Polar bears are listed as a threatened species under the
Endangered Species Act.

The polar bear had been listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act for just nine days last year, when the Safari Club International and other trophy hunting groups filed a federal lawsuit aiming to reopen American borders to the commercial trade in sport-hunted polar bear trophies. But after the Bush Administration and a federal court in California shot down their arguments in a related case, the Safari Club has reloaded for bear and set its sights on Congress.

The trophy hunters, in fact, have gone back to their playbook with the same formation that worked for them fifteen years ago. The Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 originally barred the imports of all marine mammal parts, including polar bears -- the same law that prohibits you from bringing whale meat back from Japan or seal fur back from Canada. But the Safari Club and its congressional allies successfully punched a gaping loophole through the law in 1994, and opened the door to polar bear heads and hides.

And they made the same arguments back then that they're making now. Law-abiding hunters shot their polar bears legally in Canada, they said, and the trophies were just sitting in storage, so it wouldn't hurt just to let them transport those already-dead bears across the border. The problem was that this policy change opened the floodgates to more and more American trophy hunters trekking north to get the prized bear -- many of them competing for the Safari Club's "Bears of the World" award -- and in that decade and a half, more than 900 polar bear trophies were imported from Canada.

Now that the polar bear has been listed as a threatened species, the ban on imports has been restored. But Young is making the same tired argument that trophy hunters made in 1994, claiming now "there are between 38 and 41 hunters that legally hunted a polar bear that now cannot import their trophy due to the ESA listing...These dead bears provide no conservation value sitting in a cold-storage warehouse in Canada." His bills are being cast as private relief measures to help a few hunters bring in a handful of personal trophies, but in reality they would roll back a federal policy and provide even more incentive for the American trophy hunters to stream into Canada and shoot more bears and make the same personal appeal over and over again.

In fact, the Safari Club already made this argument last year during the litigation over the ESA listing, and requested that the court allow hunters to import trophies of bears killed prior to the date of their threatened status. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, under the Bush Administration, responded that allowing importation would severely undermine current MMPA provisions. The MMPA specifically prohibits the importation of any "depleted" animal, regardless of when the animal was taken.

Further, although the MMPA generally prohibits the importation of depleted species, the law provides specific procedures for importing these animals. A depleted species may be imported if the importation is likely to "enhance" the species' survival by "contribut[ing] significantly to...increasing distribution" of animals. Congress crafted only this narrow exception to ensure that only importations that actually benefit species are permitted. If trophy hunters are allowed to circumvent this process, Congress's carefully limited exceptions are rendered meaningless. And the Orwellian argument that we must kill polar bears to save them just doesn't fly.

The trophy hunters who claim they were harmed by the threatened listing also had sufficient warning that

Polar bear hide
Two bills are pending in Congress that would allow for the
importation of sport-hunted polar bear trophies from Canada.

The polar bear might be listed and that their trophies import applications might be denied. The agency proposed to list the polar bear in January 2007 and was under court order to finalize the listing by January 2008 -- and the entire process was highly publicized. During the case, Judge Claudia Wilken of the federal court in northern California specifically found that hunters had fair warning and "assumed the risk... they would be unable to import their trophies" by continuing with their hunts.

Judge Wilken refused to order importation of trophies taken before the listing, and the issue has now been appealed to the Ninth Circuit. A second Safari Club case arguing for the legalization of polar bear trophies is now pending in Washington, D.C. Congress should resist the temptation to interfere with the ongoing legal cases the trophy hunters themselves chose to initiate, and should reject this same pattern of behavior that was used to amend the MMPA in 1994 and allow the slaughter of hundreds of polar bears for trophies. Allowing imports, driven by personal stories, has always been the tack of the trophy hunting groups and it's precisely what has allowed all of this killing by Americans to occur.

We wouldn't allow the import of walrus tusks or dolphin meat, just because it's stockpiled in a warehouse and the animals have already been killed. And we shouldn't allow the import of polar bear trophies either. For the threatened listing to have any meaning, it's the Young bills -- not the polar bears -- that should be stuffed and mounted.