There are radical maneuvers among some Republicans in the House to eviscerate the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and to cherry-pick species from the list to enable trophy hunting or wildlife trafficking targeting the rarest of species. If any or all of these anti-wildlife provisions were to be adopted, animal species already at great risk will see the dangers to them compounded in life-threatening ways. Republicans and Democrats not aligned with these maneuverings need to stand against these efforts to enable the exploitation of rare species and defend one of the nation’s most popular and important animal protection laws.
I’ve written multiple times about a raft of efforts to eliminate federal protections for gray wolves in the Great Lakes region. A U.S. District Court said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s plan to remove federal protections was illegal, and a unanimous panel of judges on the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia affirmed that ruling. Some lawmakers want to circumvent the federal courts and enable an illegal plan to proceed. If they succeed, what would stop lawmakers from a region from plucking other species off the list to serve parochial interests? The listing and delisting process is to be conducted by professionals at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and it’s subject to judicial review. The process is not supposed to be micromanaged by Congress.
One of the most outrageous efforts comes from U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, who has introduced a bill, H.R. 2603, the misnamed Saving America’s Endangered Species Act, that would eliminate protections for foreign species held as captives in the United States. His bill would also enable the free flow of parts of some endangered species to be sold or carried into the United States. It would have immediate and devastating consequences for chimpanzees, elephants, and African lions in the United States, and it would put these species at risk in their native lands as well.
Though we made great progress with the National Institutes of Health in phasing out the use of chimpanzees in invasive experiments, the legal protection for the chimpanzees is derived from the listing of the species as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The HSUS led the effort to petition the agency to class all chimps as endangered, including the captive animals held in the United States. In 2015, the Service categorized all chimpanzees as protected. If the Gohmert bill is enacted, federal protections for chimps for invasive experiments would be ended overnight. Unfortunately, laboratories that once experimented on chimps are still holding on to hundreds of them, and some labs might resume experiments if they had the legal authority to do so.
For other species coveted by trophy hunting interests, the legal strictures of the Endangered Species Act are critical to protecting captive animals in the United States. African elephants, lions, leopards, and a number of other species could be legally hunted in the United States, on canned hunting operations, if lawmakers passed the Gohmert legislation. There are more than 1,000 captive hunting facilities that offer up exotic species already in the United States; these businesses could just add a few species to the list of huntable targets, and many of them could be obtained through exotic animal dealers.
The ESA also restricts the trade to the United States in endangered animal parts. Last year, The HSUS and HSI succeed in getting the African lion listed as threatened or endangered across its range in Africa. Prior to that, American trophy hunters killed and imported the heads and hides of about 700 lions a year, most of them killed in captive hunts in South Africa. With the federal listing of lions as threatened or endangered, those imports have stopped, and American trophy hunters now can’t bring the heads back, so most of them won’t kill them in the first place. If Gohmert’s bill passes, American trophy hunters will rush over to range nations with lions and renew their killing in earnest.
Gohmert’s bill has passed the House Natural Resources Committee, but Speaker Paul Ryan would be well advised not to bring up this terrible bill.
Some lawmakers are taking a different tack to weaken the ESA. Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Rand Paul, R-Ky., recently introduced the also-misnamed Native Species Protection Act, S. 1863. Contrary to its title, this bill would strip ESA protection from species found entirely within the borders of a single state. Examples of such species include the polar bear, the Puerto Rican parrot, and the Sonoran pronghorn. This legislation has implications for trafficking too, since rare and declining species can have economic value in illegal trade markets, and can generate harmful interstate commerce beyond a range state’s borders. The good news is, when Sen. Lee offered an amendment to this effect in last week’s budget resolution vote, the Senate rejected it by a vote of 51 to 49, with Tennessee Sens. Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander and Maine Sen. Susan Collins joining all Democrats in opposing it.
Endangered and threatened species, whether native to the United States or not, desperately need all the protections they can get. Removing ESA protections for these imperiled animals is a sop to American and foreign trophy hunters, wildlife traffickers, pet traders, and even laboratory researchers. Our hard-earned gains for animals, achieved through years of campaigning, would be unraveled overnight for species that deserve better.