Judges allow hunters to sue over elephant trophy ban
A federal court has revived a lawsuit brought by big game hunters who challenged the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s ban on the import of elephant hunting trophies from Tanzania.
A legal challenge of the ban brought by the Safari Club and the National Rifle Association was dismissed in 2014 on grounds that no member of either group actually had applied for and been denied a permit to import elephant trophies and therefore lacked standing to bring a case.
But the hunters’ advocacy groups appealed, arguing that the Fish and Wildlife Service’s ban was final and that their members had no obligation to exhaust administrative remedies.
In a 15-page opinion issued Tuesday, a three-judge panel from the U.S. District Court for the D.C. Circuit agreed and remanded the case to the lower court.
“For its part, Safari Club insists that seeking a permit would have been futile given that the Service had determined and publicly announced that no permits would issue for Tanzanian elephants killed in 2014,” Judge David S. Tatel wrote in the opinion. “According to the Service, however, futility can never excuse a nonapplicant’s failure to seek a permit, adding that even were there a futility exception, Safari Club has failed to show futility here. We disagree with the Service on both counts.”
The Fish and Wildlife Service previously has allowed trophy imports after making determinations that repatriation of such items “would not be detrimental to the survival of the species.” The agency says that legal, well-regulated sport hunting can benefit conservation efforts “by providing incentives to local communities to conserve the species and by putting much-needed revenue back into conservation.”
But in April 2014, the agency reversed its stance and announced a ban on the import of sporthunted African elephant trophies in Zimbabwe and Tanzania.
“Questionable management practices, a lack of effective law enforcement and weak governance have resulted in uncontrolled poaching and catastrophic population declines of African elephants in Tanzania,” states a press release announcing the ban. “In Zimbabwe, available data, though limited, indicate a significant decline in the elephant population.”
The prohibition remains in place in the two countries, though elephant trophy imports are still allowed in others.
Safari Club International President Larry Higgins said Tuesday’s ruling will allow the group to return to court “to fully argue our claims in support of the sustainable use of elephants as beneficial to elephant conservation in Tanzania.”
“SCI will vigorously pursue our arguments that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service violated the law when it abruptly terminated its long-standing practice of allowing imports of elephants harvested in well-regulated hunts in Tanzania,” Mr. Higgins said in a statement. “The court’s ruling also will help us challenge arbitrary decisions involving the importation of other wildlife species.”
A Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman said the agency is reviewing the court’s decision.
Tens of thousands of hunting trophies are imported into the United States each year.
A study released by the Humane Society International in February found that between 2005 and 2014, more than 1.26 million wildlife trophies were imported to the United States, including 4,600 African elephant trophies. An average of 126,000 trophies were imported every year.
The Safari Club and the NRA originally challenged the wildlife service’s 2014 import ban on elephant trophies from Tanzania and Zimbabwe. District Judge Royce Lamberth dismissed the Tanzania claims, so the groups moved forward with claims related to the Zimbabwe ban while appealing the Tanzania ban. In that case, they argued that the agency improperly analyzed the data used in making its determination.
Judge Lamberth in October upheld the Zimbabwe ban, finding the agency had used the proper criteria to make its determination that sport hunting in Zimbabwe would not enhance the survival of elephants.
“Plaintiffs would have the agency focus only on whether sport-hunting generates revenue for species conservation and whether the presence of hunters deters poaching,” Judge Lamberth wrote, referring the to hunting groups. “Generating hunting fees and deterring poaching in specific instances do not show enhancement, without a showing that a government is properly using funds and protecting the species more broadly.”
The ruling wasn’t a total loss for the Safari Club: Judge Lamberth found the wildlife service did not properly inform hunters of its decision.
The wildlife service published an April 4, 2014, press release announcing the ban, but it did not publish a notice in the Federal Register until May 12, 2014. As a result, the judge retroactively pushed back the date the ban became effective to May 12, 2014, ensuring hunters who killed elephants before that date were able to import trophies. Hunters who killed elephants since then remain barred from obtaining permits to import trophies.
The Safari Club has appealed the ruling.