Breaking! New Lawsuit Seeks Online Access to Federal Elephant & Lion Trophy-Import Records

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The Humane Society of the United States, Humane Society International, Center for Biological Diversity, and Born Free USA sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service yesterday for violating the law by failing to post online elephant and lion trophy-permitting records on the Internet.

Under 1996 amendments to the Freedom of Information Act, agencies are obligated to post their decisions — including orders, policies, and interpretations — online for public inspection. The same obligation applies to certain types of records that are frequently requested and have been released in the past. The Service’s FOIA log demonstrates that conservationists, journalists and others request elephant and lion trophy-import records often enough that this information should be posted online automatically as soon as the agency receives it.

Despite immense public interest in the government’s decision on whether to allow the import of hunting trophies from imperiled species, and despite repeated attempts by conservation organizations to shed light on this important conservation issue, the Fish and Wildlife Service is covertly conducting this Endangered Species Act permitting program.

“Although it is unlawful for an American to import an elephant or lion trophy without first obtaining a permit, the public has been systemically deprived of contributing relevant scientific information to influence the federal government’s implementation of these critical elephant and lion conservation measures,” Anna Frostic, managing wildlife attorney with the Humane Society of the United States, said in a statement. “FWS is openly flouting its statutory mandate to proactively post frequently requested material online.”

The lawsuit asks a federal district court in Virginia to order the Fish and Wildlife Service to routinely post online elephant and lion trophy-permit applications, the agency’s permitting decisions, and related findings on the sustainability of hunting species threatened with extinction.

“The Fish and Wildlife Service needs to come clean and let the public know how many elephants and lions are killed to decorate rich Americans’ living rooms,” said Tanya Sanerib, legal director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s international program. “With huge threats facing Africa’s imperiled wildlife, the unlawful secrecy about these bloody imports is totally unacceptable.”

For most of the past decade, according to tallies from the CITES trade database, United States trophy hunters killed and imported the parts of approximately 500 African lions and 500 African elephants each year. Both species are now listed as threatened with extinction under the Endangered Species Act.

Since Ryan Zinke became interior secretary, the Service has approved elephant and lion trophy imports from countries such as Zimbabwe, Zambia, Namibia and South Africa. President Trump, meanwhile, recently referred to trophy hunting as a “horror show” despite the fact that his sons participate in the so-called “sport.”

“We have seen an alarming increase of attacks on the Endangered Species Act and the imperiled species it protects from both Congress and this Administration,” said Angela Grimes, Born Free USA Acting CEO. “By conducting this permitting program under the veil of secrecy, the FWS is further attempting to weaken and degrade the effectiveness of the ESA. To fully understand the impacts to threatened African lions and elephants, this information must be accessible to the public. Only then can we effectively protect these animals and the integrity of the ESA.”

The new lawsuit follows a pending court case filed by the same plaintiffs contesting the merits of the administration’s decision last November to lift an import ban on Zimbabwe elephant trophy imports and to allow imports of lion trophies from Zimbabwe to the United States, and its March 1st decision to shift to a “case-by-case” process for making trophy import findings.

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