House Republicans on Tuesday rode to the rescue of 41 hunters who shot polar bears in Canada at least four years ago but have been unable to bring their trophies back into the U.S. because the bears were subsequently declared an endangered species.
Powered by gun-rights and hunting advocates, the House voted 262-155 in favor of letting the dead bears into the U.S. — with backers citing everything from Second Amendment priorities to the fact that two of the hunters caught up in the situation were wounded American troops.
“They were in Iraq, in that heated area. The one dream they had when they got back was to be able to go and hunt a polar bear. And I can understand that,” said Rep. Don Young, Alaska Republican who said he is probably the only member of the House who has ever actually hunted polar bears and who angrily denounced those who tried to block importation of the bears.
“They’re anti-gun and anti-hunting. Yes, step up to the plate — that’s what you are. I know that,” he said. “But to take that right away from an American citizen — especially a wounded veteran, two of them — to take that right away from them is wrong.”
The polar bear fight capped off a bill House Republicans and some gun-rights Democrats pushed through the chamber to try to push hunting rights on federal lands.
Minutes after the polar bear vote, the House also took a swipe at President Obama’s presidential powers, passing an amendment that would give states a veto over his ability to carve protected national monuments out of federal lands.
That 223-198 vote was closer than the polar bear debate, as Democrats argued presidents of both parties regularly have used their authority under a 1906 law to preserve threatened lands such as the Grand Canyon and Grand Tetons — both later declared national parks by Congress.
But Republicans said some presidents have abused the authority, including President Clinton, who designated millions of acres of Utah land as the Escalante-Grand Staircase National Monument in 1996, despite the strenuous objections of state officials.
Mr. Clinton gave Utah officials only a day’s notice and made the announcement from the Grand Canyon in Arizona rather than travel to Utah.
Since then, President George W. Bush and President Obama both have used their powers to declare other regions as national monuments with the blessings of local officials. But documents uncovered by House Republicans earlier in the Obama administration suggest he had contemplated much broader use of his powers.
The polar bear and monument fights happened as part of a debate on a bill to pressure the Interior Department and the U.S. Forest Service to provide access to federal lands for hunters and fishers. It passed on a bipartisan vote of 274-146.
It’s unclear whether the bill has a future past the House. Democrats who control the Senate are unlikely to embrace the restrictions on Mr. Obama’s national monument authority or the polar bear language.
Of those nations where polar bears live, only Canada still allows hunting, but under strict management conditions.
The U.S. listed polar bears as an endangered species in 2008, and that means their remains cannot be imported into the country.
Democrats said that the 41 hunters in question rushed to Canada to hunt bears in the months before they were designated endangered, and that they were warned by federal agencies at the time that they might not be able to bring them back.