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June 30, 2011

Federal Court Upholds Endangered Species Listing for Polar Bears

Ban on importation of polar bear hunting trophies still intact

With the future of the polar bear hanging in the balance, a federal court denied a challenge to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's recent decision to list polar bears as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. The ruling keeps in place the current ban on the importation of trophies of sport-hunted polar bears from Canada, although several other legal challenges to the Service’s decision on imports are still pending.

“The Humane Society of the United States is delighted the Court has upheld the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to try and pull polar bears back from the brink of extinction,” said Jonathan Lovvorn, vice president and chief counsel for animal protection litigation for The HSUS. “Extremist trophy hunting groups like Safari Club International should see the writing on the wall, and drop their misguided efforts to undermine the Service’s decision to stop the trade in polar bear trophies.”

The HSUS and other groups intervened in the case to defend the government’s decision to list polar bears and close down the trade in polar bear hunting trophies against a multitude of legal attacks filed by the State of Alaska, oil and gas interests, and the extremist trophy-hunting groups Conservation Force and Safari Club International. In reaching its decision, the court rejected the plaintiffs’ Orwellian claim that the Service somehow failed to “take into account” the alleged benefits of sport hunting polar bears to the conservation of the species.

Although the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 prohibits trophy hunting of polar bears in Alaska and bars the killing or import of all other marine mammals, SCI and other trophy hunting groups convinced Congress to push a loophole through the law in 1994, allowing American hunters to import polar bear trophies from Canada. Since then, more than 900 polar bear heads and hides have been imported into the United States by wealthy trophy hunters. The 2008 decision to list the polar bear as threatened under the ESA once again prohibited the import of trophy-hunted polar bears into the United States.

A decline in polar bear numbers in recent years has been linked to the retreat of sea ice and its formation later in the year. Ice is also breaking up earlier and this trend is likely to continue. Bears have been forced ashore before they have time to build sufficient fat stores, resulting in thinner, stressed bears, fewer cubs and lower survival rates. Faced with habitat loss and population decline, polar bears should not also have to contend with high-priced trophy hunting.

The HSUS, International Fund for Animal Welfare and Defenders of Wildlife are represented in the case by Meyer Glitzenstein & Crystal, a public interest law firm in Washington, D.C.

Facts:

  • Trophy hunting of polar bears is currently banned in the United States, and only Alaskan natives are allowed to hunt small numbers of bears for subsistence.
  • Scientists estimate there are 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears in the Arctic — more than half are in Canada and most of these are in Nunavut. Throughout their range, polar bears face unprecedented threats from global climate change, environmental degradation and hunting.
  • Of the five "polar bear nations" (Canada, Denmark for Greenland, Norway, the Russian Federation and the United States), only Canada allows polar bear trophy hunting.
  • A recent analysis by the United States Geological Survey predicted that two of the six polar bear populations from which Americans imported polar bear trophies would be gone by the year 2050, with the remaining four disappearing by the end of this century.
  • Trophy hunters target the largest and most fit bears, which are the animals critical to ensuring the survival of polar bear populations.

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The Humane Society of the United States is the nation's largest animal protection organization — backed by 11 million Americans, or one of every 28. For more than a half-century, The HSUS has been fighting for the protection of all animals through advocacy, education and hands-on programs. Celebrating animals and confronting cruelty — On the Web at humanesociety.org.

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