The Fish and Wildlife (FWS) quietly announced via a memo on March 1 that it will begin considering all permits for trophy imports of elephants and other endangered African species on a case by case basis.
What does this mean exactly?
First and foremost, it means President Trump has broken his promise to maintain the ban on elephant trophy imports from Zimbabwe and Zambia. Indeed, following the Department of Interior’s November 2017 announcement that it would resume such imports, Trump reversed course by promising to maintain the ban via Twitter. NRDC and our partners sued out of concern that such statements lacked legitimacy. And, as it turns out, we had reason not to trust him. Indeed, this new decision means that FWS is free to resume elephant trophy imports based on the circumstances which, given its coziness with Safari Club International and other pro-hunting organizations, will likely always mean import is warranted.
It also means that decisions regarding trophy imports of threatened African species will now be made in the dark. In fact, that appears to be the administration’s motivation for this decision, which was made in response to a December DC Circuit Court case holding that Interior must subject its 2014/2015 country-wide enhancement findings for Zimbabwe to public review.
But the Trump administration doesn’t want the public to know about – much less comment on – decisions regarding trophy imports of such species. So it circumvented the ruling by resorting to a case-by-case process without public review. While some of the withdrawn enhancement findings were good (e.g., the Obama administration’s findings banning elephant trophy imports from Zimbabwe and Tanzania), and some were bad (e.g., the finding allowing elephant and lion trophy imports from Zimbabwe on which we sued), the bottom line is that the administration has taken a process already shrouded in secrecy – to the extent that even courts were trying to rectify the lack of transparency – to another level.
Finally, it means FWS is trying to have its cake and eat it too when it comes to trophy import decisions. Indeed, in its memo FWS stated that it “intends to use” the withdrawn [and mostly bad] enhancement findings “to evaluate individual permit applications.” In other words, they’re going to rely on the same information they have been to make trophy import permit decisions—but do it in a way that is less subject to judicial scrutiny and public review.
Endangered species belong to all of us—not just the rare few who possess the desire and the vast sums to kill, stuff, and mount them. The American public deserves to know about and express its opinions on decisions about endangered species policies. And we also deserve a president who will keep his word about his administration’s actions with regards to these species.