In mid-April, Earth Island Institute, acting on behalf of the Tibetan Plateau Project (TPP), joined in filing one of the first Endangered Species Act lawsuits against the Bush administration.
The suit, brought against Department of the Interior Secretary Gale Norton and acting US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) Director Marshall Jones, Jr., attempts to protect the argali, the world’s largest species of wild sheep, from American big game hunters. Earth Island’s co-plaintiffs are The Fund for Animals and The Animal Legal Defense Fund. Additional co-plaintiffs include the Argali Wildlife Research Center in Mongolia, former USFWS scientist Ron Nowak, and two Mongolian argali researchers.
The Washington, DC, District Court suit, represented by the law firm of Meyer & Glitzenstein, attempts to reverse a USFWS policy permitting the import of argali “hunting trophies.” The suit also seeks to have the argali listed as an “endangered” species throughout its Asian habitat under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). This designation would prohibit the importation of all sport-hunted argali.
Argali sheep may weigh up to 300 pounds, with massive spiral horns up to 75 inches long and 20 inches in circumference. Populations historically ranged from Afghanistan and the former Soviet Union to Mongolia and China, but in recent decades they have declined significantly. Domestic conservation programs have been unable to adequately protect and restore argali populations. Threats to the argali include poaching and legalized hunting programs, expansion of domestic livestock grazing and habitat destruction due to overgrazing.
The USFWS listed all subspecies of the argali as “endangered” under the ESA in 1992, except in Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, where they were designated as “threatened” and are governed by a “special rule” that permits the import of argali trophies. The agency’s decision to specify “threatened” populations was made only “by a very narrow margin,” according to the USFWS’ final regulation on argali imports.
In 1993, acknowledging the argali’s critical status in Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the USFWS indicated that the “threatened” listing and the special rule appeared “inadequate to provide for the protection of the species” and issued a proposed rule to list the remaining argali populations as “endangered.” Eight years later, the USFWS still has not finalized the recommendation. The plaintiffs allege that this failure to close the importation loophole for “threatened” specimens violates the ESA.
US trophy hunters have significantly impacted argali populations under this special rule. In the past five years, the USFWS has granted more than 550 permits for the importation of argali trophies and more than 100 approved permits remain outstanding. Argali hunters acknowledge that they would not hunt the sheep if it were not for the USFWS permits that allow them to import their trophies.
According to Michael Markarian, executive vice president of The Fund for Animals [200 West 57th St., New York, NY 10019, (212) 246-2096, http://fund.org], “The USFWS has acted illegally and irresponsibly by granting hundreds of import permits, by not soliciting or considering public comment, and by leaving this proposed rule in limbo while the argali population continues to decline.”
Since 1993, the USFWS has been actively facilitating argali hunting and has consistently failed to fulfill its statutory obligations to protect the species. TPP and the other plaintiffs have no other alternative than asking the court to require the agency to improve conservation regulation of the species and to issue a final decision on the “endangered” status of the argali.
The US Department of Justice was expected to reply to the argali lawsuit on behalf of the defendants by late June. Meanwhile, a group of hunters and hunting organizations is seeking the court’s approval to intervene in the case, which would allow them to submit arguments opposing the conservation steps advocated by TPP and other plaintiffs.
The litigation is likely to continue into 2002, but unless the USFWS ultimately acts to protect the argali by listing the entire species as “endangered,” these magnificent creatures may vanish forever in the gunsights of wealthy trophy hunters.
In addition to the argali lawsuit, the Tibetan Antelope Conservation Campaign (another TPP program) is working to protect other endangered Tibetan Plateau wildlife species. In October 1999, TPP and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) filed a joint petition with the USFWS to list the Tibetan antelope as “endangered” under the ESA by advocating the same regulatory process that resulted in ESA protection for the argali.
Tibetan antelope, also known as “chiru”, numbered up to a million at the beginning of the last century, but by the mid-1990’s the total number was estimated to have declined to as low as 65,000, principally due to poaching for shahtoosh, the species’ valuable wool. Shahtoosh shawls are considered the finest and warmest in the world, and may sell for $2,000-10,000 apiece in the US, Europe and Asia. At least three chiru pelts are required to manufacture a single shawl, and China’s State Forestry Administration reports that up to 20,000 Tibetan antelope are killed annually to supply this luxury trade.
Based on the TPP/WCS petition, the USFWS approved an official status review of the species in April 2000. An “endangered” ESA designation would ban the interstate domestic trade of shahtoosh within the US. However, the USFWS is nearly a year overdue in issuing a final decision on whether to list the Tibetan antelope under the ESA ’ a blatant violation of regulations that obligate the agency to respond within 12 months of receiving an ESA petition.
In June, TPP submitted more than 1,100 signatures on letters, petitions and postcards addressed to Director Jones. The submissions requested that the USFWS promptly complete the Tibetan antelope status review and issue a listing decision, as required by the ESA, in order to prevent the chiru petition from being abandoned like the argali listing.
At press time, a response to TPP/WCS Tibetan antelope petition was still pending. Meanwhile, federal investigations continue to expose illegal U.S. shahtoosh trade. On May 29, Maxfield Enterprises of Los Angeles, California, agreed to pay a fine of $175,000, one of the largest ever levied under the ESA and Lacey Act, for importing and selling shatoosh shawls.
What You Can Do: For more information about TPP’s argali lawsuit or to learn how to support the Tibetan antelope ESA petition, visit the TPP website: http://www.earthisland.org/tpp. A description of the shahtoosh trade, a chiru factsheet and links to articles dating back to 1998 are available online.
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