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U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Permitting Approach Benefits Hunters

Safari Club International and the National Rifle Association recently celebrated the end of six years of litigation regarding elephant and lion trophy import permits—the result of which was a victory for hunters.  Despite the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in D.C. ruling in SCI/NRA’s favor, some other organizations have criticized the resulting case-by-case permitting approach that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) now uses to process trophy imports.  But hunters can rest assured that the case-by-case process is better than the country-wide approach previously used.

As the name implies, the FWS will make necessary findings for each trophy import application on a case-by-case basis.  This approach replaces the country-wide findings that previously applied for certain species in certain countries.  At first blush, one might think hunters would prefer country-wide findings.  But the scale tips in favor of the case-by-case approach after consideration of all involved factors. 

First, the case-by-case approach prohibits abrupt, country-wide importation bans like those implemented in 2014 for elephant trophies from Zimbabwe and Tanzania.  Now the FWS cannot block imports without justifying denial of each individual permit application.  Preventing the FWS from imposing country-wide bans—without consultation of any kind—was the original objective of SCI/NRA’s litigation.  When SCI/NRA won their case, the FWS switched to a case-by-case permitting process.  Contrary to what some have claimed, Center for Biological Diversity and Friends of Animals were displeased by the adoption of this approach.  They sued the FWS regarding the new approach because they prefer the country-wide findings.  They want to turn the enhancement decision-making into a popularity contest and flood the FWS with unsubstantiated comment letters in opposition to trophy imports.  SCI/NRA fought alongside the FWS to ensure trophy imports can continue with science-based decisions, unencumbered by unsupported and emotional opinions, and the anti-hunting groups lost.        

Second, the case-by-case approach has not directly resulted in fewer permits granted.  There have been delays in permit processing due to FWS staffing shortages.  Largely as a result of staff departures related to last year’s government shutdown, the agency did not have the resources to process all the permit applications leading to a backlog.  They have since hired additional biologists to review permit applications.  With new staff on board as recently as August 2020, hunters should expect shorter waiting periods for importation of some species.  The FWS in fact claims that the new approach will allow it to be “nimble” in its permitting decisions.  The FWS is also able to use a lot of the same information from one permitting decision to the next, so it is not an onerous process for the agency to make individual enhancement findings that are based on the same core information about how hunting benefits the species in the exporting country.  The FWS has always had to process individual permit applications.  Even when country-wide findings applied, the FWS reserved the right to deny an application if that particular import did not satisfy Endangered Species Act and regulatory requirements.

African lion trophy imports are being consistently approved from countries and operators where the FWS has found demonstrated enhancement.  The Obama Administration listed African lion under the Endangered Species Act in late 2015, a move that SCI strongly opposed (and which was completely unrelated to SCI/NRA’s litigation).  Requirements imposed by the listing have caused significant delays for many lion permits, but the FWS is processing permit applications and will become more efficient at doing so as their new biologists become more familiar with the range state hunting programs.

Current circumstances related to elephant imports are unique due to President Trump’s 2017 tweet, but the FWS is not denying elephant import permit applications; they are simply not processing the applications.  President Trump’s tweet and the resulting hold on elephant imports has nothing to do with the recently concluded litigation—indeed, the litigation proceeded as though the FWS can and will issue import permits on a case-by-case basis at some point.

Bontebok trophy import applications are also delayed due to circumstances wholly unrelated to the litigation or the case-by-case approach.  The FWS has been waiting on certain information from South Africa before issuing more permits.  SCI believes that the FWS will soon be able to issue those permits given South Africa’s newly adopted national bontebok biodiversity management plan.

Third, the information that each hunter must provide with import applications to show enhancement or non-detriment creates a valuable databank that demonstrates the conservation benefits of hunting in Africa and elsewhere.  That information will be used by the FWS to justify granting import permits, and it could be used by others—including SCI—for advocacy efforts generally.  Gathering this information should not be a burden on hunters or operators, who often provided similar data in support of import permit applications, even when the FWS made country-wide findings.  Hunters and operators should be proud to show the benefits that their hunting provides.  

The FWS now has the freedom to approve import permits from particular areas or operators under the case-by-case approach.  The FWS had been unwilling to make area-specific enhancement findings under the prior approach; thus, well-managed hunting was, at times, held back by a poor example from another part of the country.  Moreover, the information may be used to defend against legal challenges that anti-hunting groups may bring against permitting decisions.  The case-by-case process will undoubtedly make it more difficult for anti-hunting groups to challenge trophy imports.

Beyond our litigation victories, SCI and SCIF have helped increase communications and build relationships between the FWS and their African counterparts via SCIF’s African Wildlife Consultative Forum.  The FWS permitting team regularly travels to the AWCF annual meeting in Africa to work directly with their government peers and professional hunting leaders.  These meetings have led to progress on imports for African lion, leopard, black and white rhino, and bontebok for example.

Some will always fight back against change.  They prefer to do things “the old way.”  But that is not always the best way.  Making the FWS nimbler, allowing individual operator contributions to shine, and encouraging better conservation practices to satisfy the enhancement standard are all benefits of the case-by-case approach.  These should be recognized and celebrated, as SCI and NRA have done.

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