At Elephants’ Expense, USFWS Sticks to Its Guns

In November 2017, the US Fish and Wildlife Service announced it was reversing a 2014 Obama administration ban on the importation of sport-hunted elephant trophies from Zimbabwe and Zambia. (See AWI Quarterly, spring 2018.)

Days later, President Trump contradicted his own agency’s pronouncement by tweeting “Put big game trophy decision on hold until such time as I review all conservation facts.” and “[I] will be very hard pressed to change my mind that this horror show in any way helps conservation of Elephants or any other animal.” He reiterated this stance during a January interview with British journalist Piers Morgan, stating emphatically “I didn’t want elephants killed and stuffed and have the tusks brought back into this [country].”

Meanwhile, in December, a federal appeals court stirred the pot further by ruling that the Obama-era USFWS had failed to follow proper procedures in issuing the ban in the first place. It should have initiated a formal process of proposing a regulation and inviting public comment. (Had it done so, interestingly enough, the November 2017 counter pronouncement would have been ineffective on similar grounds—as it, too, was made without notice and comment.)

Twitter and talk show statements do not constitute policy, however, and it was very unclear what to make of it all. Would Trump follow through on his expressed sentiments and direct the USFWS to take the procedural steps necessary to make the trophy ban stick?

He would not. On March 1, the USFWS announced it will henceforth consider permits to import elephant trophies from African nations on a “case-by-case basis.” The agency did not elaborate on the criteria; however, Interior Secretary Zinke is an ardent supporter of trophy hunting. One can assume, therefore, that the USFWS fully intends to allow trophies in… and to treat Trump’s tweets as just so much chirping.