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Federal Court Upholds Ban on Polar Bear Trophy Imports

WASHINGTON — The Humane Society of the United States hailed a ruling today by a federal court in Washington, D.C., upholding the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to prohibit the importation of sport-hunted polar bear trophies following the listing of polar bears as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. Safari Club International and other U.S. trophy hunting groups had sought permission to continue importing trophies from imperiled polar bears sport-hunted in Canada, contrary to U.S. conservation law and despite the species’ recent threatened listing.

“We commend the court for refusing to embrace the Orwellian claim that killing polar bears is somehow good for polar bears,” said Jonathan Lovvorn, senior vice president and chief counsel for animal protection litigation for The HSUS. “Just as we don’t allow the import of tiger skins and baby seal fur, American conservation law prevents American hunters from bringing home the heads and hides of imperiled polar bears shot in other countries.”

The HSUS and other groups intervened in the case to defend the government’s decision to reject hunters’ attempts to import polar bear trophies from Canada, based on the theory that sport hunting actually benefits the species. In reaching its decision, the court upheld the Service’s determination that money paid by U.S. hunters to native communities in Canada for the right to kill polar bears “would not achieve the significant conservation benefits required” by law.

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. In its ruling today, the court rejected SCI’s arguments that the 2008 decision to list the polar bear as threatened under the ESA still allows the import of trophy-hunted polar bears into the United States under the 1994 loophole.

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 high-priced trophy hunting. 

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


  • 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.