The U.S. is opening the door to allowing elephant hunters to bring tusks and other animal parts into the country as trophies, despite President Donald Trump's condemnation of the practice as a "horror show."
The Interior Department says it is revising the way it reviews applications to import hunted animal parts in response to a federal court opinion and withdrawing broad conclusions that applied to African elephants killed in Zimbabwe. The policy move, outlined in a March 1 memo, means that some African elephants taken in Zimbabwe could be imported.
Under the change, import applications will be individually assessed for whether the action enhances the survival of the species in the wild, a standard laid out in law. Previously, the agency applied countrywide determinations on that enhancement question when vetting applications.
The Interior Department's Fish and Wildlife Service had decided last November to allow some elephant carcasses from Zimbabwe to be brought to the U.S. as hunting trophies, a practice previously halted by the Obama administration. The service determined the killing of African elephant trophy animals in Zimbabwe "will enhance the survival of the African elephant."
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After an outcry from both Democrats and Republicans, Trump then put the new import policy on hold and used Twitter to proclaim he was skeptical that "this horror show in any way helps conservation of elephants or any other animal."
Two of the president's sons, Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump, are avid hunters. Photographs published online in 2012 after a safari hunt show both posing with dead animals, including one image in which Trump Jr. stands holding an elephant tail in one hand and a knife in the other.
The president does not appear to share his sons' enthusiasm for the activity; in 2012, he told TMZ that he is "not a believer in hunting."
The Trump administration's new approach appears to represent a middle ground in the heated debate over hunting and conservation. For big-game hunters, the move translates to more uncertainty about whether trophy imports will be authorized, as updated information about species and country conditions is factored into individual reviews.
"The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is revising its procedure for assessing applications to import certain hunted species," the agency said in an emailed statement. "We are withdrawing our countrywide enhancement findings for a range of species across several countries. In their place, the service intends to make findings for trophy imports on an application-by-application basis."
Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift said ongoing litigation over aspects of the import permitting program precluded comment about "specific next steps at this time." But, she added, "The president has been very clear in the direction that his administration will go."
Supporters of big game hunting, including some conservationists, say that when well regulated, the practice helps preserve wildlife by raising money for the efforts, culling aging animals from herds and encouraging local residents to better manage populations.
But the bipartisan outcry that met the Interior Department's earlier, November decision illustrates deep public skepticism of that hunting-for-conservation argument. Prominent conservatives condemned the import plan, with Fox News commentator Laura Ingraham tweeting at the time that she didn't understand how the policy "will not INCREASE the gruesome poaching of elephants." Radio talk show host Michael Savage used Twitter to ask if "brave men hunt elephants."
And Rep. Ed Royce, a Republican from California, called the decision to allow imports "the wrong move at the wrong time," amid political turmoil in Zimbabwe.