Make polar bear hunting a true sport: Arm the bears

March 28, 1994|By ROGER SIMON

WASHINGTON -- Just when you thought your lawmakers really did not care about the quality of life in this country, they have proved you wrong:

It may soon be legal for American citizens to bring polar bear heads into the United States.

For more than two decades, this has been illegal under something called the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Some in Congress had assumed the purpose of the Marine Mammal Protection Act was to protect marine mammals.

But it turned out they were being naive.

That's because the hunting lobby last week rammed through Congress a change in the law to allow wealthy Americans to travel to Canada -- the only country where the trophy hunting of polar bears is legal -- and bring back the heads and hides.

Because the Senate cave-in to hunters and the House cave-in to hunters did not agree in every detail, the bill is now in a conference committee, where there is still a faint hope it might be changed.

But most likely you soon will be able to shoot a polar bear and stick its head on your wall. (Though I have always thought that for most hunters the other end of the bear would be a more appropriate trophy.)

Arthur Ravenel Jr., R-S.C., was one congressman who was very much opposed to the polar bear provision. I talked to him by phone from South Carolina, where he was campaigning for governor.

"For the last 22 years, a federal law has prohibited the bringing of polar bear hides and heads into the United States," he said. "But because the Inuit of Canada have hunted polar bears for thousands of years, the Canadian government grants permits to the Inuit for subsistence hunting."

Polar bears exist in only five countries: the United States (Alaska), Canada, Norway, Greenland and Russia.

Only Canada allows the trophy hunting of polar bears and it grants permits, as Ravenel said, only to the Inuit people. But it turns out that the Inuit are allowed to sell their permits, for which they can make around $15,000 apiece.

And since outfitting a hunt can cost another $15,000, you can see that Congress is about to pass a law for the sole benefit of a tiny special- interest group: wealthy Americans who hunt large animals.

Last year, the Inuit were allowed 500 permits by the Canadian government and resold 37 to hunters, only five of whom were Americans. The number of Americans was low because our hunters were not allowed to bring the heads back with them. (Bragging about killing a large beautiful animal is one thing, but actually having a head on the wall is quite another.)

Under the new law, however, Americans would be able to bring the heads back, and so the number should increase dramatically.

"The polar bear is the largest carnivore that lives on this earth," Ravenel said, "and it offends me that our country would pass a law to encourage wealthy Americans to go and kill polar bears strictly for sport.

"I hunt. I have hunted for years. But I eat that which I hunt: deer, doves, quail, turkey. Man, there's a ton of deer in South Carolina, and I'd rather eat venison than any other meat. But most of us in South Carolina, we don't go out and kill just to kill."

Ravenel then suggested something that I have long endorsed: Making hunting a true sport.

"Wouldn't it be more fair to go face to face with a polar bear with just a spear," Ravenel said. "A spear against their fangs and claws? It would kind of level the playing field. But I don't think there would be many takers."

Then Ravenel had another idea: Instead of bearing arms, arm the bears.

"It is a shame polar bears can't hunt so we could have a reciprocal agreement to have them come to America and shoot at wealthy Americans just for sport," Ravenel said.

Rep. Jack Fields Jr., R-Texas, a leader of Congress' pro-hunting Sportsmen's Caucus, was a big backer of the polar bear head provision and calls critics "radical extremists."

He also says that most of the polar bears that will be shot will be "mature animals that are past their biological and reproductive prime."

Maybe.

But that could also describe most members of Congress.

And if polar bears went after their heads, how would they like it?

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