House Votes to Lift Curbs on Imports of Ivory Products

  • Musicians, gun owners could benefit from easing of ban
  • U.S. already moving to relax ban on small amounts of ivory

U.S. import restrictions put in place to curb demand for the tusks of endangered elephants could be rolled back after orchestra musicians and gun collectors complained that the ban went too far.

The House voted 242-161 for legislation that would reverse the ban on the sale or import of ivory products, undoing U.S. Fish and Wildlife rules that were intended to halt a decline in wild elephant populations.

The provision -- part of H.R. 2406, a larger sportsmen’s bill -- would allow ivory that was lawfully imported to the U.S. or worked in the country to be sold, re-imported or exported, regardless of when it was acquired.

The ban has prompted lobbying from groups representing owners of ivory products, including musicians who had been prevented from bringing instruments with ivory inlays into the U.S. if they were acquired after Feb. 2014.

“It is not uncommon for professional orchestra musicians, particularly string players, to perform with instruments that contain small amounts of ivory, most frequently found in the tips of bows," according to a statement on the rule from the League of American Orchestras. The statement, on the group’s website, also said that African elephant ivory is found in older wind and percussion instruments.

The Obama administration proposed a new rule in July 2015 that would remove the ban on travel with musical instruments purchased after Feb. 25, 2014 that contain African elephant ivory. That proposed change, says the League of American Orchestras statement, “would be a significant improvement."

The Fish and Wildlife Service said changes were drafted after meeting with groups affected by the rule, including professional musicians, antiques dealers and museum curators.

“The proposed rule prohibits interstate commerce in ivory, with specific, limited exceptions for certain pre-existing manufactured items such as musical instruments, furniture pieces, and firearms that contain less than 200 grams of ivory,” according to a  July 25, 2015 statement by the Fish and Wildlife Service.

The National Rifle Association has sought to do away with the ban saying it unfairly targets owners of antique ivory inlaid guns. The group also opposes the administration’s limit of two elephant-hunting trophies per year.

“Hunting has, in fact, been hailed as a valuable tool of wildlife conservation in Africa because it contributes hundreds of thousands of dollars to the economic well-being of local communities, as well as provides resources to combat poaching,” the NRA wrote on its website.

During floor debate, foes of the ban such as Republican Tom McClintock of California framed the issue as protection for people who’ve bought or inherited items made with ivory. The bill “protects the property rights of those who acquired ivory,” he said.

Lawmakers disagreed about whether the bill would thwart or encourage poaching.

“There’s no reason for a civilized society to continue to trade in ivory,” Oregon Democrat Earl Blumenauer said on the House floor. “We should not be restricting what the federal government is doing, we should tighten it further.”

“We really don’t want to address heirlooms that have been in families for generations. We’re looking at preventing trafficking,” added Virginia Democrat Don Beyer.

Virginia Republican Rob Wittman countered that African nations gain revenue from hunters that can be used to fight poaching as long as there’s a “legal process to harvest an elephant where there is overpopulation.”

Conservation and animal welfare organizations have been critical of the ivory language in the House bill, saying it would thwart efforts to shut down the market for illegal ivory.

“An elephant is killed every 15 minutes for its ivory tusks, fueling black markets, funding organized criminal networks and pushing this iconic species to the brink of extinction,” the environmental group Defenders of Wildlife said in a sample e-mail to Congress provided to their members.

The administration hasn’t weighed in on the ivory language.

The White House has opposed other aspects of the bill, including language that would bar the Army Corps of Engineers from restricting firearms at federal water project sites and would exempt hunting and recreational land use planning from environmental reviews.

The administration also opposes a provision that would add trapping to the definition of hunting activities that would be allowed on almost all federal lands under the bill.

The multi-topic measure contains elements that the administration previously supported, such as allowing hunters who killed polar bears before they were listed under the Endangered Species Act to import their trophies and provisions exempting lead ammunition and fishing gear from toxic substance classifications.

The bill’s backers said they expect the measure to end up in a conference committee with the Senate, where there is competing legislation: S. 659 was approved by the Environment and Public Works Committee on March 4, 2015, and S. 556 was approved by the Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Nov. 19, 2015.

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