Menendez, Booker, Dems Fighting Elephant Trophy Decision

Menendez, Booker, Dems Fighting Elephant Trophy Decision

Senators: Tweets alone do not constitute substantive federal policy without commensurate agency action and do not negate the need to file appropriate public notice

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) led a letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke today calling on the Department to officially halt any reversal of the ban on importing sport-hunted African elephant and lion trophies from Zimbabwe and Zambia. U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and 20 other Democratic Senators joined Menendez in demanding answers to 9 specific questions about the decision.  Last week, the United States Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) issued a decision to lift the ban on elephant trophy imports from Zimbabwe and Zambia, stating it would “enhance the survival of the African elephant.” This decision followed a similar one pertaining to sport-hunted lion trophies last month. The original decision to ban the importation came after inadequate domestic conservation programs failed to rely on scientific data and proven conservation practices.

“[W]e find it unconscionable that the USFWS has reversed its finding that the conservation programs in these countries fail to meet its standards without sufficient analysis and evidence to ensure that this plan has led to real changes on the ground,” the senators wrote

After outrage spread on social media over the apparent decision, President Trump tweeted that the decision was on hold, and then tweeted two days later that he “will be very hard pressed to change [his] mind.”

“Additionally, the President has tweeted that the decision is currently on hold, but USFWS had already published its decision in the Federal Register, and no subsequent updates have been made,” the senators wrote. “While we appreciate that additional reviews may be underway, the fact remains that tweets alone do not constitute substantive federal policy without commensurate agency action and do not negate the need to file appropriate public notice.”

In 2015, Senator Menendez introduced the CECIL Animal Trophies Act to disincentivize trophy killings of species proposed for listing under the Endangered Species Act.

Joining Senators Menendez and Booker are: Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Gary Peters (D-Mich.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Edward Markey (D-Mass.), Al Franken (D-Minn.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.),   Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Jack Reed (D-R.I.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), Patric Leahy (D-Vt.), Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio).

The full letter to Secretary Zinke is below.

Secretary Ryan Zinke

Department of the Interior

1849 C Street, N.W.

Washington DC 20240

Dear Secretary Zinke:

We write to you today with serious concerns regarding the misguided decision by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to allow for the importation of sport-hunted African elephant trophies from Zimbabwe and Zambia.  As you know, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) prohibits the importation of any species listed under the ESA, except in cases where such importation would “…enhance the propagation or survival of the affected species...”  As such, USFWS had appropriately suspended the importation of elephant trophies from Zimbabwe and Zambia due to inadequate domestic conservation programs that failed to rely on scientific data and proven conservation practices.

We understand that on January 21, 2016, Zimbabwe adopted the Zimbabwe National Elephant Management Plan with the aim of better managing the species.  However, we find it unconscionable that the USFWS has reversed its finding that the conservation programs in these countries fail to meet its standards without sufficient analysis and evidence to ensure that this plan has led to real changes on the ground. 

Additionally, the President has tweeted that the decision is currently on hold, but USFWS had already published its decision in the Federal Register, and no subsequent updates have been made.  While we appreciate that additional reviews may be underway, the fact remains that tweets alone do not constitute substantive federal policy without commensurate agency action and do not negate the need to file appropriate public notice.

As such, we request that you provide substantive answers to the following questions regarding the current status of this decision and its contents:

  • While this decision is “on hold” and may be forthcoming, has USFWS taken steps to formally and officially ensure that trophy imports from impacted nations remain suspended?
  • What steps has USFWS taken to independently verify that the Zimbabwe National Elephant Management Plan has been fully implemented and has led to the use of sound, science-based management practices in the country?
  • What evidence does USFWS have that justifies making its decision retroactive to January 21, 2016? Does USFWS believe that simply signing a new management plan is equivalent to fully implementing it, and is signing a new management plan unto itself sufficient justification for retroactivity regardless of its implementation?
  • In its Federal Register notice published November 17, 2017, USFWS notes that in Safari Club International, et al. v. Jewell, et al., the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that changes to the enhancement finding for Zimbabwe must first be published in the Federal Register.  Given the court’s position, why does USFWS believe that it has the legal authority to make its new finding retroactive to January 21, 2016?
  • In spite of the death of Cecil the lion, which highlighted the inhumane practices often used by trophy hunters, USFWS recently decided to allow for the import of lion trophies from Zimbabwe and Zambia.  Will USFWS reconsider this decision in light of recent developments?
  • Given the political turmoil in Zimbabwe, how does USFWS evaluate that country’s ability to uphold the rule of law and its international commitments pertaining to both elephant and lion conservation?
  • What was the extent of the involvement of special interest groups and political appointees at USFWS, the Department of the Interior, and the White House in making the decision to allow for trophy imports, and was there any interference by these parties in the scientific determinations that generally inform these decisions?

Elephants, lions, and other iconic species should be conserved for generations to come, not hunted into extinction anywhere in their natural range.  It is critical that our conservation decisions be based on sound data and science, not politics or the whims and hobbies of any ultra-rich, politically connected individuals or groups.  We must work with our international partners to prevent poaching, wildlife trafficking, and unnecessary or detrimental trophy hunting, while ensuring that our own practices adhere to the highest conservation standards. 

We urge you to reconsider and formally reverse the recent detrimental decisions that allow for the importation of both elephant and lion trophies.  Thank you for your attention to this important matter, and we would appreciate a written response to the above inquiries by December 5, 2017.

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