No Polar Bear Trophy Imports to U.S., Says Federal Court
No means no, a federal appeals court has decided. No pelts. No heads. No claws. No fur rugs. Polar bear trophies may not be imported to the United States from Canada, even if hunted there legally.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit decided on June 18 that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) correctly enforced provisions of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) when it denied hunters the necessary import permits for polar bear trophies from Canada to the U.S.
Polar bear “trophies” are heads, pelts, paws, claws or other body parts taken from legally-hunted bears. Between 60 to 80 percent of the world’s polar bears live in Canada. Odd as it sounds, despite the fact that the polar bear is a protected species under a variety of laws around the world, certain bear populations in Canada have been deemed abundant enough to be hunted.
In fact, Canada is the only country that allows nonresident polar bear trophy hunting. Sadly, approximately 75 percent of the polar bears legally killed in Canada are taken by hunters from the United States. Sportsmen sometimes pay $35,000 or more for the privilege of taking down one of these majestic creatures and turning it into a wall decoration.
See the typical aftermath of a Canadian polar bear hunt in this short video:
The polar bear is the largest land predator in the world, with males weighing in at an average 1,200 lbs. Polar bears are found in the arctic areas of the world, from Russia and northern Europe to Alaska and Canada. About 20,000 to 25,000 are estimated to remain on the planet.
The polar bear is the first species ever to be deemed “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act based upon the effect of climate change on its environment. The USFWS determined that “polar bear habitat – principally sea ice – is declining throughout the species’ range, that this decline is expected to continue for the foreseeable future, and that this loss threatens the species throughout all of its range.”
The Endangered Species Act listing also included USFWS’s determination that the polar bear is a “depleted” species under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Polar bears are classified as marine mammals because they depend on ocean resources for food. The MMPA restricts the “taking” of protected species, meaning they may not be harassed, hunted, captured or killed.
Ever since the polar bear became a “threatened” and “depleted” species in May 2008, the Safari Club International and other plaintiffs, including the State of Alaska, have attempted to overthrow the listing. Environmental groups have also sought to challenge the listing on the basis that it didn’t go far enough. So far, these efforts have failed.
In this case, the hunters argued that the MMPA’s import prohibitions applied only to the polar bears killed after the species was officially designated as “depleted.” Not so, said the court. Its decision, in a sense, turns upon a single word. According to the court, the MMPA prohibition on trophy importation “refers not to mammals taken from species the Secretary had designated as depleted but instead mammals taken from species the Secretary has so designated.”
Use of the word “had” rather than “has” is the legal nuance which, according to the court, triggers the import prohibition even for animals killed before the designation. It didn’t matter that the animals were already dead — the meaning of the law’s wording is clear and trumps other MMPA provisions that permit trophy imports in certain circumstances.
Hunters argue that if they can’t bring their trophies home with them, they will stop hunting in Canada, which will in turn harm the local communities that need this infusion of American dollars to support their economies and conservation efforts.
Animal lovers, however, applaud this decision.
Ralph Henry, deputy director of litigation for the Humane Society of the United States, probably said it best: “We feel that there’s significant writing on the wall to the trophy hunting lobby that taking the most robust and reproductively viable animals out of the species stock because it is a sport and getting a hide to hang on your wall or use as a rug is not something that would benefit that species in the long term.”
Photo credit: Thinkstock