Most people don’t know it, but polar bears are officially classified as marine mammals, and as such are included under the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act. They are also listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, affording the iconic animals further protection against hunting, trapping and capturing.
But over the past few years, those laws did not stop a handful of wealthy individuals from flying up to Canada to bag a “trophy” polar bear for their collection back home, even though they were warned that U.S. law would prohibit the importation of skins, heads and other products from the bears they were hunting.
Those trophy hunters have in the past managed to secure an exemption from Congress, allowing some of the trophy bears to enter the United States.
Now the trophy hunters and their friends in D.C. are at it again. Last week, Rep. Don Young (R-AK) introduced a new bill in the house, “To amend the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 to allow the importation of polar bear trophies taken in sport hunts in Canada.”
On the Senate side, Mike Crapo (R-ID) offered a similar though slightly more restrictive bill, the “Polar Bear Conservation and Fairness Act of 2013.”
The Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 outlawed the sport hunting of all polar bears in the United States and banned the import of any marine mammal product into the country.
But in 1994, well-funded hunting interests convinced Congress to amend the act, allowing in a limited number of bears from trophy hunts, but only if the animal came from a designated population that could withstand the loss.
Then, in January 2007, the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) issued a proposed rule to list the polar bear as “threatened” on the endangered species list, which meant no bears from any populations could be imported.
FWS had until January 2008 to issue its final ruling. But the deadline came and went and there was still no listing of the bears. A federal court intervened, ordering the agency to publish the rule by May 15, 2008, adding that the new rule would take effect immediately.
By law, then, no polar bear killed from any population could be imported after May 15, 2008, into the U.S., regardless of when the permit had been issued.
Trophy hunters were given repeated warnings from hunting organizations and government agencies that trophy bears killed in 2008 would not be allowed into the United States: They were hunting at their own risk.
Even pro-trophy-hunting groups such as Conservation Force issued repeated and dire warnings to its members, including one in a December 2007 newsletter that stated, “American hunters are asking us whether they should even look at polar bear hunts in light of the current effort by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to list this species as threatened; [t]he bottom line is, no American hunter should be putting hard, non-returnable money down on a polar bear hunt at this point.”
And, the newsletter continued, “We feel compelled to tell you that American trophy hunters are likely to be barred from importing bears they take this season. Moreover, there is a chance that bears taken previous to this season may be barred as well. American clients with polar bear trophies still in Canada or Nunavut need to get those bears home.”
The warning was not heeded by everyone. At least 40 Canadian polar bears were killed by U.S. trophy hunters from March until May of 2008—when they were cautioned that the Endangered Species Act would be in effect, disallowing any imports of trophy polar bears.
Now, those polar bear carcasses are collecting dust in refrigerated storage in Canada at great cost to the hunters, who desperately want to bring their trophies back stateside.
“We are disheartened to see this type of legislation introduced in Congress. We have seen it time and time again,” says Lena Spadacene, policy manager for wildlife protection at the Humane Society of the United States, which has spearheaded the fight against importing polar bear products.
A similar bill was introduced in the last session of Congress, Spadacene said, but was defeated by a coalition of conservation groups. “We worked diligently on that issue and pulled together one of the most comprehensive reports on trophy hunting and exemptions,” she says.
That report, On Thin Ice: The Dangerous Impact of Allowing Polar Bear Trophy Imports, excoriated lawmakers who wanted to bend the rules to accommodate moneyed hunters.
“The law should be consistently applied, and we should not have a special carve-out for a few trophy hunters who shot polar bears in Canada, knowing full well that they may not be able to import the trophies under U.S. law,” the report stated.
“While some argue this is just a small number of trophies, it encourages hunters to continue killing protected species in other countries, store the trophies in warehouses, and simply wait for their allies in Congress to get them a waiver on the imports,” the report said. “It sets a dangerous precedent, and encourages more killing of threatened species and protected marine mammals, which flies in the face of the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act.”
“We don’t want to reward bad behavior.” Spadacene says. When the trophy hunters learned that polar bears would be listed as threatened, “they rushed to Canada to bag themselves a trophy, but some of them did not make it in time. Now they are paying money every month for refrigeration until they can lobby their friends in Congress.”
It’s a worrying pattern, Spadacene says, and it could easily affect other species in the future.
Once it becomes known that a species is about to be put on the endangered list, it motivates some hunters to go out and kill while they still can. And if they miss the deadline, then they hope they can just win an exemption from Washington.
“Passing this legislation now is only going to entice and incentivize the bad behavior even more,” Spadacene says.
She adds, “Whenever our elected officials grant special exemptions for trophy hunting, it undermines conservation policy. Shooting an iconic species for display or bragging rights and then crying to Congress for a bailout is simply bad form and should not be tolerated.”
Spadacene explains the trophy hunters “were warned of the law and they shot polar bears anyway. If we allow this exemption to happen, we can predict it will happen again with other species, or potentially with polar bears again.”
Then there is the question of priorities in Congress. With so many problems vexing the country, is the fate of 40 dead bears really so important that Capitol Hill should vote on this bill?
“The last session was what many considered to be the most ineffective and incompetent legislature in the history of democracy, exactly because they were working on legislation like this,” Spadacene says. “It’s this kind of special-interest legislation that makes Americans frustrated with Congress. It’s so self-serving for a small group of wealthy trophy hunters, and does nothing for the American people or conservation.”
Judd Deere, a spokesman for Senator Crapo, has the opposite take on the matter.
“There is nothing more frustrating for the American people than regulations that make no sense,” Deere says. “It’s frustrating for these hunters, and it’s unfortunately requiring Congress to act. This legislation was a commitment that my boss made in the last Congress. We got really close last time. I hope we can get it done this time.”
It is sure to be a bitter battle.
The polar bear legislation “is being cast as a private relief measure to help a few hunters bring in a handful of personal trophies,” the HSUS report said. “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.”
What do you think of proposed legislation that would allow the import of polar bear trophy parts? Let us know in the Comments.