ENDANGERED SPECIES:

Judges uphold import ban on polar bear hides

This story was updated at 2:58 p.m. EDT.

Federal judges today upheld the Interior Department's limits on the importation of hunted polar bears from Canada.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled that Interior properly interpreted a statute barring trophy importation that was triggered when the department listed polar bears as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in May 2008.

Individual hunters and the Safari Club had challenged the Fish and Wildlife Service's denial of import permits for polar bear trophies taken from six approved populations in Canada.

But a unanimous three-judge D.C. Circuit panel said FWS was implementing a provision of the Marine Mammal Protection Act that banned trophy import once a species was listed as "threatened."

Judge David Tatel, a Clinton appointee, refuted the hunters' arguments point by point in the latest of what has been a host of lawsuits challenging the department's listing from all sides.

Tatel noted that the Marine Mammal Protection Act prohibits the "taking," or killing, of a threatened species as well as import of a "depleted" species.

The hunters contended that the bears were never "designated" as depleted.

Tatel, however, said the legislative history clearly indicated that the threatened listing was meant to trigger a depleted designation.

Similarly, the hunters had also sought to prove that the statute permits the import of the polar bear trophies under certain conditions.

Specifically, they said in arguments six Canadian populations met criteria proving that the hunting was scientifically based and sustainable. A provision of the Marine Mammal Protection Act allows the import of bears harvested from such a population.

But Tatel said this provision does not apply to depleted polar bears.

"But Congress included no such exception for trophy importation," Tatel wrote for the panel.

The other members of the panel were Judge Judith Rogers, another Clinton appointee, and Senior Judge Arthur Randolph, who was placed on the bench by President George H.W. Bush.

In addition to their opinion today, the same panel also rejected a second, similar challenge to the trophy provisions regarding bears killed between April 1999 and May 2005 in Canada's Gulf of Boothia in a unanimous judgment.

The judges indicated that they were inclined to back the government at arguments in both cases last month (Greenwire, May 9).

About three-quarters of all polar bear hunting in Canada is done by U.S. residents. The hunters had argued that if they can't bring the trophies home, they'll stop hunting there -- depriving the area of funds needed for conservation.

The 2008 polar bear listing has been challenged from all sides. In the current cases, several conservation groups, including the Humane Society of the United States, had intervened on the government's behalf.

Click here to read the opinion.