Federal Court Reverses USFWS Zimbabwe Elephant Import Ban

Federal Court Reverses USFWS Zimbabwe Elephant Import Ban

Sept. 30 marked a good day for hunters as a federal court overturned portions of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (USFWS) ban on sport-hunted African elephant trophy imports from Zimbabwe. The decision, handed down by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, ends a saga that began on Apr. 4, 2014, when the USFWS announced—via a mere press release on its website—that it was suspending the importation of all sport-hunted African elephant trophies from Zimbabwe and Tanzania. On Apr. 21, 2014, SCI, joined by the NRA, filed a lawsuit challenging the ban, which came without warning or any prior public notification.

Because African elephants in Zimbabwe are listed on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora—commonly referred to as CITES—federal regulations require the USFWS to make an “enhancement finding” before an elephant trophy can be brought into the country. (The enhancement finding authorizes importation of the trophy on the grounds that the taking of the animal will enhance the species' survival in the wild.) In 1997, the USFWS made this enhancement finding and published it as mandated in the Federal Register. In doing so, it made a commitment to hunters ensuring that the enhancement finding would “remain in effect until the Service ... has published a notice of any change in the Federal Register.”

The USFWS failed to live up to its commitment when it announced the ban on Apr. 4, 2014. This was particularly problematic for American hunters who were in the field at the time of the announcement and returned after it was filed. Because the USFWS did not properly inform hunters of its decision until it published the full notification in the Federal Register on May 12, 2014, the court struck down the suspension date of Apr. 4 and pushed it to May 12. As a result, hunters who harvested an elephant in Zimbabwe before May 12, 2014, may import it.

“The Language here appears to be binding on its face," Judge Royce C. Lamberth opened for the court. "It does not leave the [Service] discretion on how it will change the finding.”

It is important to note the original case included claims involving bans on the importation of elephants from Tanzania as well as Zimbabwe. Judge Lamberth, however, dismissed the claims concerning Tanzania so the SCI and NRA filed an appeal with the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals and are now awaiting the appellate court’s ruling.

In the meantime, the Sept. 30 court ruling is relevant for all American hunters. Not only does it prevent the USFWS from arbitrarily shutting down hunters' ability to hunt and import their trophies, it holds the USFWS accountable for the commitments it makes to the hunting community at large.