Senate readies bill allowing hunters to import stored polar bear pelts


McClatchy Newspapers

Legislation poised to pass the Senate would allow a small group of hunters who’ve been storing polar bear pelts in Canada to import them to the United States.

The bill, which is described as one of the most sweeping pieces of legislation for sportsmen in a generation, will be among the first to be passed by the Senate in the days following the election. The Senate voted 92-5 Tuesday to move the bill forward to a full vote later this week.

The legislation was also the first bill from Congress to get a post-election nod from President Barack Obama. The White House said Tuesday in a statement of administration policy that it “looks forward to continuing to work with the Congress and with the American people to advance a community-based conservation agenda.”

“This legislation, a compilation of bipartisan bills, would promote our recreational hunting, fishing and shooting heritage and would continue a number of key initiatives and public-private partnerships that support conservation of fish and wildlife populations and vital habitat,” the Office of Management and Budget wrote. “This bill is consistent with the administration’s commitment under the America’s Great Outdoors Initiative to provide opportunities for outdoor recreation, restore critical landscapes and support a robust outdoor economy.”

The legislation is wildly popular in his state, said Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat who narrowly won re-election over Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg, the state’s sole congressional representative.

“One in three Montanans hunt big game,” Tester told the Senate. “More than one-half of us fish.”

Tester’s office is careful to differentiate his bill from one Rehberg championed. The Rehberg bill did allow some hunting on national parks; Tester’s does not. It does, however, allow bow hunters on national parks with their weapons. They are not allowed to use them, but they are allowed to use the parks to access other areas where bowhunting is allowed.

Among the bill’s more obscure provisions: Allowing 41 hunters who killed polar bears in Canada before 2008 to import their pelts to this country. Since polar bears were listed in 2008 as threatened, Americans haven’t been able to import polar bear trophies – generally a tanned skin and claws along with the skull and the penis bone, known scientifically as a "baculum" and in the indigenous languages of the Arctic as an "oosik." Many of the hunters have been keeping their trophies in cold storage in Canada.

The bill applies only to pelts that hunters took before the 2008 ban. It keeps in place the existing ban, which doesn’t allow any new pelts to be imported. That effectively keeps U.S. hunters from participating in Inuit-led hunts in Canada. Such hunts, which require hunters to travel for days by dog sled to the far northern reaches of Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, cost $40,000 to $60,000.

Hunters who have polar bear trophies in Canada must submit an application to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to import them. Those applications, which are charged a $1,000 fee, are published in the Federal Register.

Sport hunting for polar bears has effectively been off limits in the United States for four decades. Alaska Natives can shoot a limited number each year under U.S. subsistence hunting laws. About three dozen are shot each year in Alaska, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The legislation also requires a study of what happens to artificial reefs when oil platforms and related structures are removed in the Gulf of Mexico. It also aims to end billfish overfishing in the Pacific by ending imports of foreign-caught billfish for sale in the United States. Billfish include marlin, sailfish and spearfish; the legislation doesn’t include swordfish. It also doesn’t apply to Hawaii. The U.S. banned the commercial sale and harvest of Atlantic-caught billfish two decades ago, although catch-and-release recreational angling is allowed.

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