A coalition of environmental and animal-welfare groups are challenging the Trump administration’s moves to allow the importation of the heads, hides and tusks of African elephants as hunting trophies.
Four groups filed an amended lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Washington against Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke over this month’s announcement that USFWS will begin considering permit applications for importing body parts from sport-hunted elephants on a case-by-case basis.
The agency said its March 1 decision was in response to a legal ruling that found procedural flaws with how the Obama administration imposed an earlier ban which was challenged by pro-hunting groups.
The lawsuit contends that USFWS went far beyond the earlier legal ruling on the issue, wiping the slate clean of long-standing decisions pertaining to trophy imports. The groups say the Trump administration is failing to comprehensively consider the ecological impacts of trophy hunting and operating with a lack of transparency and public input.
The new challenge to the agency’s March 1 decision is being added to a pending court case contesting the administration’s decision to lift the Obama-era import bans on elephant and lion trophies.
“Elephants shouldn’t be killed for cheap thrills, and the Trump administration shouldn’t make crucial trophy hunting decisions behind closed doors,” said Tanya Saneriba, spokeswoman for the Center for Biological Diversity. “Federal wildlife officials seem to be thumbing their nose at Trump after he called for an end to the horror show of trophy hunting.”
A spokeswoman for the Interior Department deferred comment to the Justice Department, which is defending the government. Justice Department spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle said that lawyers are reviewing the amended complaint.
Meanwhile, The Associated Press reported last week that Zinke recently appointed a board stuffed with trophy hunters to advise him on conserving threatened and endangered wildlife. The International Wildlife Conservation Council held its first meeting on March 16, 2018.
The 16 board members include celebrity hunting guides, representatives from rifle and bow manufacturers, and well-heeled trophy collectors. One appointee co-owns a private New York hunting preserve with Trump’s adult sons.
In a letter this week, a coalition of more than 20 environmental and animal welfare groups objected that the one-sided makeup of the council could violate the Federal Advisory Committee Act which requires government boards to be balanced in terms of points of view and not improperly influenced by special interests. The groups said they nominated a qualified representative, but Zinke didn’t select him.
“If Trump really wants to stop the slaughter of elephants for trophies, he should shut down this biased, thrill-kill council,” said Saneriba. “The administration can’t make wise decisions on trophy imports if it only listens to gun-makers and people who want to kill wildlife.”
Interior Department spokeswoman Heather Swift said the makeup of the council fully complies with the law.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture continues to seek feedback on its idea to use inspections from private, third-party organizations to determine if zoos, research labs and animal breeding facilities are complying with the federal Animal Welfare Act.
Opponents spoke out against the idea at a “listening session” in Tampa on Thursday, March 15, 2018, fearing it would endanger animals.
The response from the majority of those who showed up to the meeting: Don’t do it.
A parade of speakers stepped up to the lectern and said using information from private, third-party groups to confirm facilities are complying with federal law would effectively allow foxes to guard the henhouses.
“This misguided proposal is not the answer,” said Michigan State University College of Law professor Carney Anne Nasser, and Executive Director of the WildCat Conservation Legal Aid Society.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s inspectors currently conduct routine, announced inspections at least once a year to make sure licensed and registered facilities are complying with the federal Animal Welfare Act. Some facilities also work with private membership groups and accrediting organizations, and federal officials are considering whether to recognize inspections by those groups as evidence of compliance with the law.
The goal of the proposal is to free up inspectors who work in the agency’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), to spend more time in facilities that have more checkered histories when it comes to complying with the law, said Bernadette Juarez, deputy administrator of the USDA’s Animal Care Program.
“USDA is not looking to abdicate its inspection responsibilities under the Animal Welfare Act in any way,” Juarez said at the start of one of five “listening sessions” being held across the country.
“What we’re looking to do through this program, if we were to go forward, is use it as a way to determine how often we should visit facilities that are in relative good standing so that we can focus our inspection resources on facilities that would benefit from more frequent visits from the USDA.”
But most of the two dozen who spoke said the agency would be shirking its duties.
They fear the system would allow industry groups to submit favorable inspection reports instead of those from government inspectors. Critics also worry that inspection reports which the USDA has already made more difficult for the public to access, would be impossible to obtain from private groups.
“Allowing licensees to effectively self-police because APHIS does not have the resources to do its job of upholding the Animal Welfare Act is unfortunately an abdication of the agency’s responsibilities,” said Jennifer Leon, director of outreach for Big Cat Rescue, a Tampa sanctuary accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries. “Conflicts of interest and problems transparency are inevitable.”
Nasser said the USDA’s Office of Inspector General has already found the agency is failing to do an adequate job of enforcing federal law in commercial dog breeding facilities, zoos and research labs, yet recommendations for changes from the inspector and proposals for tighter rules have gone unaddressed.
“There a number of opportunities the USDA has ignored or dragged its feet on that would actually serve as a meaningful effort to better ensure AWA compliance and that would also greatly reduce agency burden,” said Nasser.
Instead, she said, “the agency is becoming less transparent and more tolerant of bad actors and bad behavior that endangered animals and the viewing public. That is the perfect storm for more animals to suffer.”
Some speakers who could be on the receiving end of private inspections also voiced concerns. They worry that biased private inspectors could try to undermine their operations.
Endangered Species Act
Join WildCat Conservation Legal Aid Society’s call to action to protect and defend the Endangered Species Act. Tell Congress to protect the ESA not destroy it! Contact your representatives in Congress via the web at www.house.gov and www.senate.gov
And “Let your voice be heard!”