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Delta Rebuffs Hunter’s Big-Game Trophies Suit

DALLAS (CN) - Delta Airlines is standing by its ban on transporting big-game trophies after the highly publicized killing of Cecil the lion and is asking a federal judge to toss a hunter's lawsuit.

Dallas resident Corey Knowlton sued the airline in October, joined by the Dallas Safari Club, Houston Safari Club, Conservation Force, the Campfire Association and the Tanzania Hunting Operators Association.

Knowlton made headlines in 2014 when his $350,000 bid to kill an endangered black rhino in Namibia was accepted. Knowlton killed the rhino in May. Two months later, Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer grabbed headlines of his own when he killed Cecil with a bow and arrow in Zimbabwe.

Delta banned the shipping of big game trophies days later.

Knowlton accuses Delta of robbing "wildlife habitat of its economic value, encouraging habitat conversion to agriculture, grazing, and industry, and undercutting range states' tried-and-true conservation strategy."

He claims the ban "jeopardizes the benefits of tourist hunting and its centrality to conservation" in Africa.

Delta downplayed Knowlton's concerns in a motion to dismiss filed Monday. The airline says his complaint "reads more like a press release than a pleading."

"Instead of detailing the operative facts or explaining the governing law, plaintiffs make lengthy public-policy arguments about the conservation benefits of trophy hunting," Delta says in the 36-page brief. "Whatever the merits of those arguments might be, they do nothing to establish that Delta is legally obligated to accept and carry as cargo trophies from the killing of big game."

Delta says its ban has not injured Knowlton, that he was able to ship his trophies home anyway with another carrier.

"Nonetheless, Mr. Knowlton alleges that he has been injured by Delta's trophy ban because he suffered 'delay and greater expense' in shipping his black rhino trophy home," the airline says. "The complaint does not specify the length of this alleged delay. Nor does it specify how much it would have cost Mr. Knowlton - who paid $350,000 for the permit that allowed him to kill that black rhino - to ship his trophy home on Delta versus what it cost him on the carrier he actually used.

"Whether plaintiffs will be able to substantiate these vague allegations of insubstantial injury is a question that, if it needed to be answered, could be left for another day. But there is no need to answer that question: it is clear today that the claims plaintiffs have alleged fail as a matter of law."

Delta wants Knowlton's three claims to be tossed: that the ban is a form of "unreasonable discrimination," that it violates state law regarding tortious interference with business relations and that the ban violates the Federal Aviation Act's certificate requirements.

"Plaintiffs devote a good chunk of space in the complaint to articulating various harms they believe have been or will be caused by Delta's refusal to carry trophy kills as cargo, but most of these harms are not legally cognizable," Delta says in the brief. "Plaintiffs anticipate that many hunters will respond to Delta's trophy ban by choosing not to go safari hunting in Africa, and much of the complaint focuses on the harms plaintiffs believe will occur as consequence of that choice. But if the hunters who make that choice are not members of the plaintiff organizations, any harm their choices cause plaintiffs is not actionable in this lawsuit."

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