For years, a small band of lawmakers in Congress – every one of them aligned with Safari Club International – has remained obsessed with securing a rider to allow 41 Americans to import the heads of polar bears they shot some years ago in Canada. Unable to import the heads because of federal animal protection laws – since the bears were listed as threatened with extinction in 2008 – the trophy hunters have been obligated to pay bargain-basement warehouse fees in Nunavut or in the Yukon Territory while they wait for Congress to create a dispensation for their still-life bears.
With a new President whose two adult sons are enthusiasts of trophy-hunting rare species, the polar bear hunters stand a better chance than ever of getting those heads back into the United States – something we’ve tried to thwart for a long time and for good reason. A move like that would establish a precedent: it would encourage trophy hunters to rush to slaughter animals whenever a species is on the cusp of attaining federal protections, and then lobby for a “one time” import allowance. If these 41 hunters get what they want from Congress, it would undermine the very purpose of establishing import prohibitions for rare species in the first place.
Yesterday, the New York Times published a detailed story about the loss of sea ice in the Arctic and how polar bears have turned to scavenging whale carcasses in the town of Kaktovik as a default option to nourish themselves – just the latest in-depth piece to document the plight of the bears in a region of the globe that has seen the most accelerated and dramatic effects of climate change. Another study published last week says there is a 71 percent chance that the global polar bear population will fall by over 30 percent in three polar bear generations — or 35 to 41 years. Polar bears survived for thousands of years by using the sea ice as floating platforms to hunt seals, but now there’s no ice for many of them in their warming habitats.
There is scientific consensus that human activities, mainly the burning of fossil fuels and the wasteful system of animal-based agriculture, are driving the warming.
What does it say about Congress – more specifically about the set of lawmakers obsessed with securing this provision for the sake of these polar bear hunters? You could call it constituent service, but most of the trophy hunters seeking congressional relief don’t vote in the districts represented by the lawmakers who are most fervently supporting the rider. There’s something else at work – namely, ideology and money.
Just about all of the lawmakers pushing for these import allowances are dismissive of the major threats to habitat and environment that are putting polar bears, as a species, at risk. Where are their riders and floor speeches and arm-twisting efforts when the question surrounds protecting these vulnerable creatures or stemming the effects of climate change?
One might say, Orion fiddled while the Arctic burned.
The first explanation is that money talks. Just about all of these trophy hunters – who paid as much as $72,000 for the opportunity to kill a polar bear in Canada – are millionaires. Many are donors to the Safari Club. These kind of folks get special access. In fact, the annual Safari Club International convention, to be held in 2017 in Las Vegas, is auctioning off a polar bear hunt from Canada North Outfitting. They throw around rhetoric about the money supporting conservation, but a Nunavut newspaper concluded that “most of the spoils never reach Inuit hands, and when they do, those earnings vary substantially from community to community.”
As environmental threats to the bears come into sharper focus, there is either silence or active resistance to efforts to address the root causes of the problems – so we’re seeing, for example, a reluctance to support U.S.commitments to participate in global climate change agreements or to support U.S. policies to promote more efficient energy production. At this point, I’m afraid to say, almost nobody in Congress is seeking to promote more environmentally sustainable diets or compel U.S. agriculture to minimize its methane emissions or other greenhouse gas emissions.
But for the mass of lawmakers, and the public, if concerns about the polar bears are not enough to stimulate action, what about the consequences for the people in the high Arctic? Some of Alaska’s northern communities will face the most immediate perils of climate change. Their voices must also be heard in Congress.
More often than not, what we see among those who deny that the environment is warming is either willful disregard for the larger imperatives of keeping our environment safe for animals and people, or some sort of fealty to fossil fuel industries and big agribusiness. Even as Exxon Mobil and other corporations say that fossil fuels are contributing to climate change, there are lawmakers who hold hard and fast to the view that climate change is a hoax.
While Congress has been willful in not taking action on climate change – and has instead been doing silly things like demanding that the polar bear heads come into the United States – the Obama Administration has acted with resolve. But now we face the prospect of key Trump appointees who want to make things worse by deregulating these industries.
Scott Pruitt, the nominee for EPA administrator, has publicly claimed that the climate change debate “is far from settled” – a blatant misstatement considering 97 percent of scientists agree that climate warming trends are human-caused. As Oklahoma’s attorney general, he attacked the EPA for its rules to place limits on pollution released into the atmosphere and into waterways. He also was a leader of the effort in Oklahoma to create a “right to farm” – pushing a constitutional amendment to deregulate agriculture (and its environmental impacts) on a go-forward basis. Fortunately, the people of Oklahoma rejected that “right to farm” maneuver. In fact, voters in all five Congressional districts in the state voted against State Question 777.
The planet, including its people and animals, face very real threats when people like Pruitt control the levers of power. Throughout the world, billions of people live near coastal communities. It’s not a matter of an abstract concern for the environment. It’s about living in a safe place. It’s about having a job.
As for the skeptics and those critical of environmental and animal protection, they’ve too often presented a false choice between “jobs” and “the environment.” Now that false polarity is more evident than ever. To have jobs, we need a safe environment, for the people and the animals. When the polar bears are gone, there’s no ecotourism and no hunting-related tourism. There’s just emptiness.