04/10/2013 05:32 pm ET Updated Jun 10, 2013

Polar Bears Face Pressure From Trophy Hunters

In the waning days of the 2012 Congressional session, leaders promised that a first order of business when they reconvened in the new year would be a bill that was a grab bag for the gun lobby and, specifically, its hunting constituency. Not avoiding the draconian budget cuts now taking effect as the sequester, not taking steps to avoid a government shutdown, but more gifts for the gun lobby.

Among other things, the package of measures introduced by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., would have allowed the imports of 41 polar bear heads and hides from Canada so they can adorn the trophy rooms of wealthy American big-game hunters. It's the kind of special interest legislation that smacks of cronyism and is one more concrete example of the Congress caving in to overreaching and selfish gun-lobby demands.

After the tragedy in Newtown, Conn., lawmakers have delayed but not abandoned this effort, and this legislation is sure to come before the Congress soon. It's a bill that should be rejected.

The polar bear legislation is designed to benefit a small number of wealthy trophy hunters who travel the globe to kill some of the world's most imperiled creatures. It's part of the competitive killing programs administered by Safari Club International, a global trophy hunting group that gives out "hunting achievement" awards and "grand slams" for its members who kill animals listed in these categories. For example, the "North American 29" award requires killing a minimum of 29 species and subspecies of animals, including the polar bear, in North American habitat, and the "Bears of the World" award requires killing five bears, such as the polar bear and Eurasian and Siberian brown bears, on several continents.

A recent report issued by The Humane Society of the United States highlights the threats to polar bear conservation and future protected species. There are 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears remaining in five range states, and overall the species is declining in number, but one of those nations, Canada, continues to allow trophy hunting of polar bears. Only one subpopulation in Canada appears to be increasing in number; it is small and was severely reduced by hunting before the quota was reduced to near zero to allow recovery.

The polar bear is a threatened species that faces extraordinary pressures, including melting ice, trophy hunting and pollution. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) listed the polar bear as "vulnerable" based on a projected population reduction of more than 30 percent within three generations (45 years) due to a decrease in distribution and habitat quality.

Import of polar bear trophies into the U.S. was banned in May 2008, when the Bush administration listed the species as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Yet at a recent international meeting to protect species from international trade, Canada pressured countries to oppose a proposal supported by both the U.S. and Russia to prohibit international trade in polar bear parts and products. The European Union, which casts 27 votes as a block, chose to abstain and the loss of those votes resulted in the proposal's defeat.

The drive for polar bear trophies, and for Safari Club awards, only intensifies these threats against animals already struggling to survive in a changing climate. In 2007, the last full year when polar bear trophy imports were allowed, 112 polar bear trophies were imported to the United States -- more than double the number from the previous year. In 2011, the Nunavut territory of Canada increased the hunting quota for one of its polar bear populations (western Hudson Bay) from eight bears to 21 -- despite concerns expressed by polar bear researchers that the increase could be harmful to the population. Nunavut has plans to increase that quota to 24 bears for the 2013 season.

Now comes the latest congressional import allowance for polar bear trophies as encouragement for hunters to continue killing protected species, store the trophies in warehouses and simply wait for their allies in Congress to get them a waiver on imports. Congress has granted these import allowances previously -- a de facto repeal of the import ban -- sending a message to trophy hunters that they can continue killing imperiled species and eventually they will get approval to bring home their trophies.

Polar bear populations are declining, and we must do everything we can to slow the mortality of these majestic creatures. It's time to give polar bears more protection, not put the species in further jeopardy.