Africa's elephants are at risk of going extinct in large part because of poaching for the ivory, and advocates are hopeful that the U.S. government can stop the crisis with new rules at home.
But there's a diverse and fierce lobbying coalition against the proposed rules barring the trade of ivory, and a House vote this week shows that it's going to be an uphill battle to protect them.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is expected this summer to propose rules banning the commercial trade of elephant ivory in the U.S. unless a product is shown to be in compliance with the Endangered Species Act.
The rules wouldn't directly affect elephant poaching in Africa, but supporters say they will help turn the market against illegal ivory and put a dent in poaching, which has doubled since 2007. The U.S. is the second-largest market for illegal wildlife products, trailing only China.
As many as 35,000 elephants were killed by poachers in 2012, according to the Interior Department, and their numbers are now below a half million in Africa. The Obama administration has made a crackdown on illegal wildlife trade a priority, highlighted by a spectacular crushing of a ton of illegal ivory in Times Square last month.
"The U.S. is a stunningly large black market for illegal wildlife products and most Americans don't realize it," said Don Barry, senior vice president of conservation programs for Defenders of Wildlife. "A huge amount of illegal ivory is pouring in here that's smuggled, and then it's very difficult to keep it away from the ivory that's here legally. And trying to regulate it is like wrapping your lips around a fire hose."
But the rule has found an unusual set of opponents. There's not a collaborative effort, but several parties are raising their own concerns. Hunting groups have said the rule is an overreach, while antiques dealers claim it would hurt their dealings. The National Rifle Association has said it would trample gun owners' rights to have guns with ivory handles.
Even musicians, including the League of American Orchestras, have raised concerns with the rules, saying they would make it impossible to move pianos with ivory keys across international borders (FWS says there will be flexibilities in the proposed rule to address those concerns and last year built in allowances for musical instruments and museum specimens). Although the LAO has raised concerns about international travel, in a statement the group said it did not have a position on the broader Interior bill and was awaiting the rules on interstate commerce before taking a policy stance.
Republicans, thus, have vowed to fight the rules, saying there are less-intrusive ways to protect the endangered elephant population.
Their first strike came Tuesday over the debate on the Interior Department's fiscal 2016 appropriations bill, which contained a rider that would scrap the rules. Democrats, led by Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona, offered up an amendment to remove the rider, which was seen as a trial balloon to gauge congressional support for protecting the FWS rules.
In a sign of its importance, the NRA even scored the vote, putting pressure on the Republican base to stick together.
Explaining its decision, the NRA said the regulations would be "disastrous" for sportsmen and gun owners, making "American owners of legal ivory potential criminals overnight."
The end result? It failed 183-244 largely along party lines. (The underlying spending bill was pulled Thursday due to controversy over the Confederate flag.)
But it won't be the last attempt to attack the ivory rules, and it's possible that future vehicles will be tougher for Democrats to turn down. Chip Burkhalter, director of government relations for Safari Club International, said he was encouraged to see the Republican majority block the rules, saying it was an "effective" message.
Similar language ditching the rules is included in a package from Republican Rep. Robert Wittman of Virginia that wraps up several measures to open up land for hunters and sportsmen. Traditionally the sportsmen's packages have attracted bipartisan support, and Wittman's bill has three Democratic cosponsors.
A similar package in the Senate from Alaska GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski and New Mexico Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich does not include the ivory language, although in previous sessions, lawmakers included it as an amendment. Montana Republican Sen. Steve Daines said he's planning to introduce legislation soon that would address the interstate regulations, adding that a sportsmen's package could be a possible vehicle.
To be sure, nobody's trying to reopen illegal ivory trading and put elephants back at risk. The opponents just see the FWS rules as too heavy-handed and harmful for Americans.
"We want to promote conservation and protection in Africa, but ensure we protect the rights of those who have antique musical instruments and antique firearms," Daines said, adding that he'd like to see closer work with legal hunting groups. "Hunters are the best conservationists, because they believe in the conservation of the species."
Conservation groups, however, say the regulations are a necessary step that shifts the burden of proof away from the overtaxed Fish and Wildlife Service and onto owners and dealers. Beyond addressing the import and export of ivory, the FWS has also clarified the definition of "antique," requiring an owner to certify that an item is more than 100 years old to qualify.
Before the amendment vote, Grijalva had said he'd feel good if he was able to get just 140 members to vote for it, a target he cleared. Still, he said, there's been "intense" lobbying that has targeted Democrats, and nine members did cross over to vote in favor of the rider.
Six Republicans, including Rep. Ed Whitfield of Kentucky, voted for Grijalva's amendment and in favor of the federal rules.
"Overall, getting a rule that works towards a ban while still allowing those legitimate functions to occur is a good idea," Grijalva said. He said the hope was that Democrats could hold off further attacks until the rule is published, which would allow opponents to see what sort of exemptions the government would allow.
Barry said the rider was like "trying to kill a mosquito with a shotgun" because it was using slivers of opposition to try to defeat the entire effort. It is important, he added, to act quickly and convince members that the rule won't be as painful as critics say, before a stronger effort came forth.
"I've seen few issues that had a compelling reason for tougher regulatory control and restriction than to protect elephants," Barry said. "Elephants are the symbol of the Republican Party and they're dying. If this isn't a crisis, I don't know what is."
CORRECTION: The original version of this article said there were concerns about the rules affect transport of instruments across state lines rather than international borders. This article has also been updated to clarify the position of the League of American Orchestras.
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