(CN) – Four hunters should have been allowed to import trophy heads of wood bison they killed in Canada, a federal judge ruled.
Wildlife authorities allow limited hunting of wood bison to control herd populations in Canada, where the species has been listed as threatened since 1988.
In the United States last year, the Fish and Wild Service down-listed the species to same rank, finding that it was no longer endangered.
In a 2009 lawsuit with Conservation Force, the four hunters said they successfully hunted wood bison between 2000 and 2004 but could not import their trophies into the United States.
The complaint argued that Fish and Wildlife failed to make a timely decision on their import permits, and that it had failed to properly reassess the U.S. listing status of the species.
U.S. District Judge John Bates granted summary judgment to the hunters’ claim that the agency acted arbitrarily and capriciously.
“If FWS reasonably arrived at the conclusion that a specific policy reason prevented it from issuing the permits despite possible enhancement for the wood bison, and explained that conclusion, the court might be able to affirm such a decision,” he wrote. “But FWS’s denial letters and its non-enhancement determination do not, in fact, give such a policy reason; instead, they offer quasi-scientific rationales that the court finds unconvincing. Moreover, the evidence currently in the record does not suggest any policy objective other than a desire to avoid controversy.”
Canadian wildlife authorities sent FWS officials several letters explaining how controlled hunting of the wood bison helps the species. They also said trophy imports would not likely harm the species because the hunts were strictly regulated.
Indeed internal documents show that lower-level agency officials agreed with their Canadian counterparts. They said that licensed U.S. hunters actively support the territorial and national Canadian government recovery plans, and reduce the threat of bison extinction “by giving the species a greater economic value … to local communities.”
But the Endangered Species Act requires such permits to enhance the conservation status of a given species.
With Canada’s position that the hunts raised the economic value of conserving the species in local communities and the need for population control, the FWS nearly concluded that bison trophies would enhance species survival.
But policy considerations played an increasingly important role as the permit requests moved up the chain of agency command.
Acting Assistant Director of International Affairs Teiko Saito said in an internal memo, for example, that the wood bison might present “the best case for issuing such permits.” He concluded, however, that the permits would probably draw criticism from the public, Congress and various conservation groups.
Saito explained that the agency took nearly 10 years to rule on the permits partly because “the service has never authorized the import of a sport-hunted trophy of a wild specimen of an endangered species.”
FWS finally, finally denied the permits in October 2009, saying that it had insufficient evidence to determine that approving the permits would help wood bison recovery. The rejection letters also said that the permits could increase lethal take of wood bison in Canada by U.S. hunters.
Judge Bates called these arguments “unconvincing,” in light of the Canadian government’s arguments. He also rejected claims about Canada’s national recovery goal. for the bison.
“The court is troubled by FWS’s reliance on the fact that Canada’s recovery goal had not been met at the time of the hunts,” Bates wrote. “In the first place, FWS did not explain why it focused on the time of the hunt, rather than the time of the permit decisions; indeed, its draft enhancement finding had done precisely the opposite. Second, several Canadian officials had attempted to explain to FWS staff that the herds were managed separately, by different territorial governments, and that only the status of the hunted herd was relevant. FWS completely ignored these explanations and gave no explanation for focusing on the national population of wood bison. In general, FWS showed a remarkable disregard for what it at one time described as a ‘well managed’ recovery program.”
The government did persuade Bates to award it summary judgment on the hunters’ remaining claims.
FWS must reconsider the permit applications on remand.