The polar bear has emerged as the iconic species for the effects of climate change, which is being felt acutely in the Arctic.
Just two weeks after the polar bear was listed by the Bush administration in 2008 as a species threatened with extinction under the Endangered Species Act, Safari Club International and other trophy hunting groups filed a federal lawsuit aiming to reopen American borders to the import of sport-hunted polar bear trophies. The basis for the lawsuit was the bizarre claim that killing polar bears is somehow good for polar bears.
In a ruling issued yesterday, a federal court soundly rejected this argument and refused to allow U.S.-based sport hunters to import dead bears they killed in Canada as trophies. The court upheld the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s determination that money paid by U.S. hunters to native communities in Canada for the right to kill polar bears “would not achieve the significant conservation benefits required” by law.
Polar bears are also protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which generally prohibits the killing or import of polar bears and all other marine mammals, such as seals, whales, and dolphins. However, in 1994, Safari Club and other trophy hunting groups convinced Congress to punch a loophole in the law that specifically allowed American hunters to import polar bear trophies from certain parts of Canada. They’ve gone back to Congress time and again, requesting permission to import trophies of polar bears they legally killed in Canada because they just want to enjoy the trophies at home.
In all, more than 900 polar bear heads and hides have been imported into the United States since 1994—with many of the trophy hunters competing for Safari Club’s “Bears of the World” award. But in its ruling yesterday, the court rejected Safari Club’s arguments that import of sport-hunted polar bear trophies should still be allowed under the 1994 loophole, and held that no more imports of polar bear heads and hides may be allowed now that polar bears are recognized as a threatened species.
A decline in polar bear numbers in recent years has been linked to the retreat of sea ice and its formation later in the year. Ice is also breaking up earlier, and this trend is likely to continue. Bears have been forced ashore before they have time to build sufficient fat stores, resulting in thinner, stressed bears, fewer cubs, and lower survival rates. Faced with habitat loss and population decline, polar bears should not fall victim to trophy hunters. A recent analysis by the United States Geological Survey predicted that two of the six populations from which U.S. hunters have imported polar bear trophies would be gone by the year 2050, with the remaining four disappearing by the end of this century, absent intervention to protect the species.
But the trophy hunters seem to ignore or not accept the bears’ perilous and deteriorating circumstance, relying on their hollow bromide that hunting licenses pay for conservation. Returning to the 1994 playbook, they have appealed to Congress for another round of trophies imports—from polar bears killed prior to the date that the species was listed under the Endangered Species Act. Congressman Don Young has introduced a bill for that purpose. His bill is being cast as a private relief measure to help a few hunters bring in a handful of personal trophies, but in reality it would provide incentive for still more killing of polar bears in Canada, by providing more hope to would-be- bear slayers they can convince Congress to amend the law just one more time. The cumulative effect of all of these serial amendments for “one-off” imports is to allow an almost steady stream of sport-hunted polar bear trophies into our country.
The HSUS has taken aggressive action in defense of the bears, both by opposing Congressional efforts to weaken the MMPA and by intervening in the Safari Club lawsuit and helping to secure a favorable ruling for the bear. This was the fifth courtroom loss for trophy hunting groups in less than three months, and that’s good news given that this crowd is promoting sport hunting of some of the world’s most imperiled animals.