In the waning days of the Bush administration, there is much speculation over whether high-profile convicts -- like former Cheney chief of staff Lewis "Scooter" Libby and former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.) -- will receive presidential pardons. But the lame-duck tradition of granting pardons and commuting prison sentences has already begun, and some of the first beneficiaries are poachers who committed federal wildlife crimes.
Last week, President Bush pardoned Leslie Owen Collier of Charleston, Mo., and Milton Kirk Cordes of Rapid City, S.D. Collier had pleaded guilty to killing federally protected bald eagles and using poisoned bait to kill animals on his farm. In 1995, he set out hamburger meat laced with poison, killing three bald eagles, a red-tailed hawk, a great horned owl, an opossum, a raccoon, and seven coyotes. Cordes was convicted of violating the Lacey Act in 1998, for his part in a private big-game hunting operation called "Dakota Safaris," which illegally obtained mule deer licenses for out-of-state trophy hunters.
Pardons don't require any explanation, so we can only wonder why President Bush granted clemency to Collier and Cordes. The pardons are also absolute and cannot be appealed. What we're left with is a message from an outgoing president that the trafficking in wildlife is on par with a traffic violation. He may as well thumb his nose at the federal law enforcement agents at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who are working hard to protect imperiled species and curb illegal hunting practices.
There's no need to wonder what was behind Collier's full-bore campaign to obtain a pardon. His guns. According to The New York Times, what stung him the most with his conviction was the accompanying prohibition against felons possessing firearms. The newspaper said Collier was out hunting wildlife again 24 hours after receiving Bush's pardon. Cordes, too, lost his hunting privileges for one year as a condition of his probation, according to the Department of Justice press release.
Poaching is a national epidemic, and it's such a serious problem that it has forged alliances between hunting groups and animal advocates who are working together to catch poachers through reward programs and tip lines. Wildlife officials estimate that for every wild animal killed legally another is killed illegally -- tens of millions of animals per year. And with scarce wildlife enforcement resources and countless acres of open land, only a scant few percent of poachers are caught and punished for their crimes.
Police in Britain are now reporting a dramatic increase in organized and armed gangs of poachers, and we may see a similar surge here in the U.S. as economic conditions worsen and food prices soar. Rather than give a reprieve to the handful of poachers who happen to get caught, we need to set an example that such lawlessness will not be tolerated--that wildlife resources belong to all the people, and cannot be exploited for private commercial gain.
During his eight years in office, President Bush has advanced some animal welfare policies, such as his signing of new laws to protect pets in disasters and toughen the penalties for dogfighting and cockfighting. But he failed to exhibit any leadership on animal protection issues, and routinely sided with trophy hunting and other animal exploitation interests, including in his Interior Department's efforts to allow the import of sport-hunted polar bear trophies, his opening of national wildlife refuges to sport hunting and trapping interests, and much more.
As with President Clinton and his pardon of commodities trader Marc Rich, what President Bush decides to do on his way out may be remembered as part of his legacy. His absolution for poachers -- coupled with his host of "midnight regulations" aimed at easing environmental restrictions for the logging, mining, oil and gas, and factory farming industries--demonstrates little more than contempt for animals and the environment.