Judge Won’t Fast-Track Permits for Importing Elephant Trophies

Elephants drink water in the Chobe National Park in Botswana in March 2013. (AP Photo/Charmaine Noronha, File)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Pointing to the strain on government resources during the coronavirus outbreak, a federal judge refused Thursday to expedite the issuance of permits that would allow hunters to import the body parts of African elephants shot for sport into the U.S.

Pro-trophy hunting and tourism groups are challenging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s delay in acting on pending elephant trophy import permit applications as the Covid-19 pandemic stresses the agency’s resources. 

The Dallas Safari Club, Namibian Ministry of the Environment and Tourism, Namibian Association of Community Based Natural Resource Management Support Organizations and a group of individual elephant sport hunters had urged the federal court in Washington to force the Fish and Wildlife Service to speed up the processing of the pending permits. 

But U.S. District Judge Amit P. Mehta, appointed by Barack Obama in 2014, rejected the plaintiffs’ request for a preliminary injunction Thursday. 

“Because plaintiffs have failed to show that defendant’s inaction has irreparably harmed the organizational plaintiffs, their members, or the individual hunter plaintiffs, the court denies the motion for a preliminary injunction,” Mehta wrote in an 18-page opinion.  

The African elephant is listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act and is protected by strict hunting and international trade rules. 

The Fish and Wildlife Service, however, allows a sport-hunted African elephant trophy to be imported into the United States if various conditions are met. 

One of these conditions is that the agency has determined “that the killing of the trophy animal will enhance the survival of the species,” which allows hunters to be granted a so-called threatened species permit based on the idea that tourism revenue to African countries can help with conservation efforts. This, according to court records, is known as an “enhancement finding.”

The agency also sometimes made countrywide enhancement findings that applied to all sport-hunted elephant trophies in a particular country, but it announced in March 2018 that it would approve the importation of elephant trophies on a case-by-case basis.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has acknowledged that since it made the policy change, it has not issued any final determinations on pending trophy permit applications.

The groups and hunters suing the agency argue the delay has gone on long enough, but Mehta pointed to the current global crisis in denying their request for injunctive relief that would force the government to process all pending applications within 90 days.

“In light of the unprecedented disruptions created by the Covid-19 pandemic and the service’s likely diminished capacity to process permit applications during this period… this court finds it particularly unwise and not in the public interest to order the expeditious processing of sport trophy permit applications during this time,” the judge said.

Mehta also pointed to social-distancing guidelines that recommend limiting gatherings to no more than 10 people and working from home whenever possible, which also applies to federal government employees.

“The court cannot ignore the current Covid-19 pandemic and the particular hardship a mandatory injunction would impose in the present situation,” the ruling states.

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