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Advocates say a Senate bill designed to help protect elephants and rhinos from poaching is so weak that dropping it might be the better option.
The Senate measure would ban the sale of ivory within Vermont, but it provides an exception: Any ivory registered with the state during the year after the law goes into effect could be sold anytime.
Supporters of a stronger ban said the exception, which they called a loophole, might actually attract illegal sellers because someone registering ivory would simply have to swear it was legally obtained, with no need for confirmation. During testimony, many opponents of the bill said it is sometimes impossible to prove an item’s origin and that illegal sellers sometimes doctor items to look like antiques to get around federal bans.
The idea behind the bill is to take the market and value out of ivory by banning its sale. Supporters say that would stop illegal poaching in Africa, where elephant populations have been seriously diminished. Opponents of the measure said anything done to ban sales in Vermont would have little effect while hurting Vermonters who had done nothing wrong.
After almost an hour of debate Tuesday, the bill was approved on a voice vote, though many senators voted no, and the tally appeared close. Final approval will be debated today.
“We’re very concerned about the language in the bill,” said Barry Londeree, the Vermont representative of the Humane Society of the United States. “I think it was done with the intent to get a good compromise. … In doing so it creates some unintended consequences.”
Senators were concerned that some people, particularly the elderly, would not know about the ban and fail to register. However, Londeree said his concern was that people from other states could come to Vermont and register their items here.
“If you play this out several years, if other states adopted this policy, you have this sort of continuous set of one-year … periods,” so if people missed the previous one they could register their ivory in another state, Londeree said. “It’s very susceptible to being gamed.”
The House passed its own version, which essentially bans sales except for ivory items that weigh less than 200 grams. Londeree said advocates saw problems with that bill too, and he admitted the chance of a more promising bill coming out of a conference committee, with both bills having problems in their view, was unlikely.
The bill came out of the Committee on Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs, where Sen. Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden, is a member. After the Senate debate Tuesday, he explained why the bill was watered down from the House-passed version.
“We could not agree as a committee on the House language. We were divided. There weren’t enough votes to move something out,” Baruth said.
The objection, Baruth said, was that ivory owners who testified felt the Legislature was essentially taking the value away from their property.
Asked about the claims the exemption created a loophole, Baruth said: “It creates an exception, and if you’re an activist who didn’t want an exception, that’s a loophole. If you really didn’t want it, it’s a huge loophole. I would say what we offered the activists was a bill that could get to the Senate floor, which they didn’t have with the House language.”
“To be honest, they were not real easy to work with,” Baruth continued. “They were insistent that any attempt to reach compromise was in effect killing an elephant, and a number of committee members took exception to some of their tactics. That didn’t make my job as maybe the strongest proponent of the bill any easier.”
“This was an attempt to address their heartfelt concern, which we share,” Baruth said.
In a weekend email to senators and other supporters, Ashley Prout McAvey, of the group Ivory Free Vermont, said: “You are trying so hard to please everyone which entirely defeats the purpose of this bill. If my team feels it will do more (harm) than good and you will not listen to us and this is your way or nothing, (then) you have failed us and every Vermonter — and the world and your constituents will know it.”