Why Canada Is Still Stuck With Our Dead Polar Bears

With Rep. Don Young taking the lead, Congress is trying to return dozens of dead polar bears to 41 American hunters.

BERLIN, GERMANY - Two-year-old polar bear Wolodja walks in his enclosure at Tiergarten Berlin zoo on August 23, 2013 in Berlin, Germany.
National Journal
Sarah Mimms
Feb. 4, 2014, midnight

Since 2008, dozens of po­lar bears have been held in frozen, cli­mate-con­trolled con­di­tions in Canada, wait­ing for the U.S. gov­ern­ment to al­low them in­to the coun­try. There’s just one is­sue: These bears are dead.

A com­plic­ated series of con­ser­va­tion laws and dis­agree­ments between the gov­ern­ments of Canada and the U.S. have left 41 Amer­ic­an po­lar bear hunters and their prizes trapped in a bur­eau­crat­ic limbo over the past six years. Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, who claims to be the only mem­ber of Con­gress to have killed one of the massive mam­mals him­self, aims to rem­edy that this week.

While the United States out­lawed po­lar bear hunt­ing in the Mar­ine Mam­mal Pro­tec­tion Act of 1972 (ex­cept among Alaskan nat­ives, who are still al­lowed to hunt the bears), the prac­tice re­mains leg­al in Canada, at­tract­ing dozens of Amer­ic­an big-game hunters every year.

For dec­ades, hunters could then im­port their “trophies” back home — be they heads, pelts, claws, or, yes, penis bones — to dis­play the spoils of their hunt. That ended ab­ruptly in May of 2008, when the United States de­clared po­lar bears a “threatened spe­cies” un­der the En­dangered Spe­cies Act, and pro­hib­ited the im­port of po­lar bear trophies in­to the coun­try.

The law left a group of 41 hunters, who had killed po­lar bears in Canada earli­er in 2008 but were un­able to im­port their game in­to the U.S. by the May dead­line, stuck in a maze of red tape.

At the time of their hunts, both the kills and the im­port­a­tion of their trophies were leg­al. But be­cause they didn’t get the bears (or their parts) trans­por­ted in time, these hunters who paid as much as $50,000 to hunt the an­im­als in the first place are now pay­ing hun­dreds more per year to keep their prizes in cold stor­age while they wait for Con­gress to act.

Young and oth­ers have been work­ing to do just that since 2009. His le­gis­la­tion, which would al­low just those 41 U.S. hunters to re­trieve their car­casses from Canada, is in­cluded in the Sports­men’s Her­it­age and Re­cre­ation­al En­hance­ment Act of 2013, which is slated to pass the House this week.

Pas­sage in the Sen­ate is less as­sured. The SHARE Act of 2012, which also in­cluded Young’s pro­vi­sion, died there last year over con­cerns from con­ser­va­tion­ists and en­vir­on­ment­al act­iv­ists about a num­ber of pro­vi­sions, in­clud­ing the po­lar bear trophy im­port­a­tion fix. The new SHARE Act is thought to be much less re­strict­ive than its 2012 cous­in, however, and ad­voc­ates are hope­ful that it will pass. “Should’ve made it last Con­gress. Should make it this one,” said Sen. Jon Test­er, D-Mont.

The le­gis­la­tion has some bi­par­tis­an sup­port, par­tic­u­larly from West­ern mem­bers, in­clud­ing Young, Test­er, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. “It’s im­port­ant to re­cog­nize that these were taken in a leg­al hunt and yet the hunters wer­en’t able to re­turn with those,” Murkowski said. “So it’s really just a simple mat­ter of ob­serving fair­ness in the law. And I think it’s something that makes sense to try to ad­dress.”

Al­low­ing the trophies to re­turn to the U.S. could be be­ne­fi­cial for con­ser­va­tion ef­forts as well, they ar­gue. Between 1997 and 2008, 969 po­lar bear trophies were im­por­ted from Canada to the United States, bring­ing in $969,000 in fees that went to the U.S.-Rus­sia Po­lar Bear Con­ser­va­tion Fund, ac­cord­ing to the text of Young’s le­gis­la­tion. These 41 hunters would add an ad­di­tion­al $41,000 to those funds for con­ser­va­tion ef­forts.

Even the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion an­nounced its en­dorse­ment of the pro­vi­sion on Monday.

But a group of Sen­ate Demo­crats killed the le­gis­la­tion in 2012 and could do so again, ar­guing that the hunters are at­tempt­ing to cheat the sys­tem. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who co­sponsored the bill in 2012 to kill the trophy pro­vi­sion, ar­gued, “This pro­vi­sion would re­ward hunters who un­eth­ic­ally killed po­lar bears des­pite mul­tiple warn­ings of an im­min­ent ban on im­ports and the im­min­ent list­ing of po­lar bears as an en­dangered spe­cies. If en­acted, this pro­vi­sion could eas­ily lead to out­comes that no one wants — it could in­crease de­mand for po­lar bear trophies and lead to more poach­ing or il­leg­al trade of po­lar bear parts. It could also stim­u­late de­mand for oth­er exot­ic and en­dangered an­im­al parts from around the globe.”

Young ar­gued, “I’m a con­ser­va­tion­ist, but not a stu­pid one. And this has noth­ing to do with fu­ture killing of po­lar bears or any­thing else.”

“There’s no real con­ser­va­tion value — these are dead bears,” a Young staffer said.

In an era in which the ear­mark has been so heav­ily de­rided, le­gis­la­tion af­fect­ing just a few dozen Amer­ic­an hunters, be­ing pushed by a cadre of mem­bers from West­ern states where big-game hunt­ing is king, does stand out.

But Young ar­gues the is­sue is a na­tion­al one. Those 41 hunters are spread out across the coun­try, not just in his home state of Alaska. “I have one case of an Ir­aqi War vet­er­an — dreamed about killing a po­lar bear, went up there, had his po­lar bear hunt. Now he can’t have his po­lar bear trophy,” Young said.

“If there were one [hunter] it’d be the right thing,” Rep. Pete Ses­sions, R-Texas, agreed.

In fact, Young’s fo­cus is broad­er. He hopes to some day al­low all Amer­ic­an hunters to im­port trophies from Canada, and even­tu­ally to re­turn to hunt­ing po­lar bears with­in the U.S. bor­ders as well. “I hope to get the po­lar bear off the threatened spe­cies list, be­cause it is not. And why they did this, I don’t know,” he said.

Young said he spoke with a mem­ber of the Ca­na­dian Par­lia­ment on Monday about po­lar bear pop­u­la­tions in the coun­try, ar­guing that the situ­ation isn’t as dire as some con­ser­va­tion­ists would have Amer­ic­ans be­lieve. “Po­lar bears are really grow­ing in num­bers, con­trary to what people say,” he said.

The World Wild­life Fund agrees that, as of 2013, “most po­lar bear pop­u­la­tions have re­turned to healthy num­bers,” but warns that five of the 19 po­lar bear pop­u­la­tions it has des­ig­nated re­main in de­cline. The group es­tim­ates that 20,000 to 25,000 po­lar bears live throughout the world today.

“Every coun­try in the world al­lows them to be brought in­to their coun­try ex­cept the United States and Mex­ico. The only reas­on that is, is that there are a lot of bleed­ing hearts up there,” said an em­ploy­ee at Canada North Out­fit­ting, a Montreal-based busi­ness that or­gan­izes hunt­ing trips for po­lar bears and oth­er arc­tic wild­life.

The em­ploy­ee, who de­clined to be iden­ti­fied, said that Amer­ic­ans con­tin­ue to travel up to Canada to hunt the bears, where it is leg­al. U.S. hunters can then trans­port their trophies to oth­er coun­tries or “leave them with friends or fam­ily or busi­ness ac­quaint­ances in Canada un­til the one day when someone in the U.S. comes to their senses,” the em­ploy­ee said.

To be clear, Young took down his bear in Alaska in 1964, be­fore hunt­ing the an­im­als was il­leg­al in the United States. “They’re big. They’re scary,” he said.

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