The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has quietly begun allowing more trophy hunting of African elephants, despite President Donald Trump’s pledge last year to uphold a ban on importing parts of animals killed by big-game hunters.
The agency issued a formal memo Thursday saying it would consider issuing permits to import elephant trophies from African nations on a “case-by-case” basis, effective immediately. The new guidelines, first reported by E&E News and later by The Hill, end U.S. bans on the import of such trophies from Zimbabwe and Zambia.
The decision comes nearly four months after Trump stepped in to halt his own administration’s decision to begin allowing hunters to import elephants killed in the two African countries. The president called such trophy hunting a “horror show.” He drew rare accolades from environmentalists at the time, who said they were surprised that Trump would move to uphold environmental protections.
“What the agency just did with this memo is completely contrary to everything Trump has been saying,” Tanya Sanerib, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, said in an interview.
Environmental advocates say it’s unclear if the new move will result in additional elephant trophy imports, but the guidelines give more leeway to hunters to apply for permits. The Fish and Wildlife Service has already updated its webpages on the import of sport hunted trophies for both elephants and lions.
In November, the agency reversed an Obama-era ban on the importation of elephant trophies from Zimbabwe and Zambia, determining that sport hunting in those countries would “enhance the survival of the species in the wild,” a spokesperson said at the time.
The decision was first revealed publicly by Safari Club International, a trophy hunting advocacy group with close ties to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. The group, along with the National Rifle Association, sued to block the 2014 ban on elephant trophies from Zimbabwe. Late last year, a federal appeals court ruled that the Obama administration did not follow proper procedures when it instituted the ban. Among other things, it failed to invite public comment, the court said.
The Trump administration based its decision allowing case-by-case permits on the court’s opinion, writing in the memo that so-called enhancement findings are “no longer effective for making individual permit determinations for imports of sport-hunted African elephant trophies.”
Some wildlife experts said the memo complicates the administration’s stance on conservation at the expense of animals desperately needing protection. The memo also withdrew findings related to the Endangered Species Act for trophies taken from bontebok, a species of antelope, elephants and lions hunted in several other countries.
“Our biggest concern is there’s been too much back and forth by the U.S. government to the point of really confusing the public,” Jimmiel Mandima, the director of program design at the African Wildlife Foundation, said. “Why does the decision keep flopping, are we hunting or are we not hunting?”
Mandima, who noted that his group has long opposed the hunting of threatened, vulnerable or endangered species, said such confusion makes it difficult for the public to voice opinions about the issue, and harder for environmental groups to craft conservation recommendations.
Several environmentalists on Monday pointed out that the new import guidelines haven’t been made public, and Freedom of Information Act requests to determine what “case-by-case” actually means will likely take months. In that time, an unknown number of applications could be approved.
“We saw the public outcry last fall when [the trophy decision] was announced … not just from people who are traditionally Democrats,” Sanerib said. “The agency is really playing hide the ball. It’s incredibly disappointing.”
It’s unclear if Trump supports the new Fish and Wildlife Service guidelines. The White House did not immediately responded to HuffPost’s requests for comment.
A Fish and Wildlife spokesperson said in an emailed statement that Trump “has been very clear in the direction that his administration will go.”
“Unfortunately, since aspects of the import permitting program for trophies are the focus of ongoing litigation, the Department is unable to comment about specific next steps at this time,” the spokesperson added.
This article has been updated to include comment from the Fish and Wildlife Service spokesperson.