For more than two decades, a troupe of Canadian bagpipers have traveled to Glasgow, Mont., each fall for a string of high school homecoming parades, halftime performances and musical bar crawls. But the Saskatoon Police Bags and Pipes bowed out earlier this month, citing fears that their instruments—which contain ivory components—would be confiscated at the border under a new order from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Daniel Ashe banning commercial import of elephant ivory.
The Saskatoon pipers have reason to worry. Federal inspectors confiscated seven violin bows from the Budapest Festival Orchestra in June after a physical examination in New York revealed they had ivory parts. Last month, two New Hampshire teenagers returning from a bagpipe competition in Canada were forced to surrender the ivory components from their bagpipes to border patrol agents. In both cases the musicians recovered the items after paying a fine. These incidents have only served to bolster opposition to Ashe’s new regulation from organizations like the National Association of Music Makers, Chess Collectors International and the International Society of Cane Collectors.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service special agent Steve Oberholtzer assembles confiscated elephant tusks during an agency ivory crushing event in November 2013. FWS destroyed six tons of illegal ivory it had collected over 25 years.
Enter Montana’s lone U.S. congressman. According to Rep. Steve Daines’ office, Montana musicians were among the first to complain about Ashe’s Feb. 11 order. Antique collectors and gun enthusiasts also contacted the congressman’s office, says spokesperson Alee Lockman via email, with many alleging “the ruling punishes law-abiding Americans instead of addressing the real problem of elephant poaching.” During a U.S. House subcommittee hearing on the matter in late June, Daines acknowledged the order was “well-intended” but questioned whether confiscating violin bows from foreign musicians was “really the best use of taxpayer dollars.”
“One estimate says that 400 million objects will be affected and 20 to 30 million Americans could suffer a significant loss due to the Director’s Order,” Lockman says. “Antique firearms, an instrument or a teapot—often passed down from generation to generation, typically without the type of documentation that the Director’s Order now requires—that up until this order were legal to own and sell would now effectively become worthless, without providing any conservation value to elephants.”
In July, Daines introduced the Lawful Ivory Protection Act, a one-page amendment to the Endangered Species Act designed to override Ashe’s decision. The bill would forbid FWS from enacting regulations that restrict the sale, receipt, shipping or transportation of lawfully imported elephant ivory. It quickly drew support from Safari Club International and the National Rifle Association. Those groups have repeatedly chastised FWS in recent months over a separate administrative action halting the import of sport-hunted elephant trophies into the U.S. through 2014; Daines’ Lawful Ivory Protection Act indirectly challenges that rule as well.
Asked if limits on the import on sport-hunted elephant trophies had factored into Daines’ decision to sponsor the bill, Lockman says “the biggest factor, far and away, was the potential criminalization of Montanans who own legally-obtained ivory.”
While FWS has no official comment on Daines’ Lawful Ivory Protection Act, public affairs chief Gavin Shire defends the importance of strict domestic regulations in combating the escalation of elephant poaching abroad. For starters, a “near total ban” on ivory trade will address the nation’s role as a consumer of illegal ivory. Ashe’s order and any future policies could also put the U.S. in a better position to urge foreign countries like China and Vietnam to implement crackdowns of their own, he adds.
“As with any black market trade, it is difficult to determine the exact market value or rank of the U.S. role in comparison to other nations,” Shire says. “However, we remain a significant ivory market, and we must continue to be vigilant in combating illegal ivory trade.”
Last November, FWS destroyed a six-ton stockpile of confiscated ivory—ornate jewelry, statues, even complete elephant tusks—at a wildlife property repository near Denver, Colo. Several Hollywood actors attended the event, along with a host of representatives from wildlife advocacy groups including the World Wildlife Fund, the International Fund for Animal Welfare and WildlifeDirect. The items, some of which were confiscated at the U.S. border, had been amassed by FWS over a 25-year period.
In response to the latest rash of fear from musicians about border seizures, Gavin points out that instruments with ivory are still allowed to cross into the country for noncommercial purposes provided owners obtain the proper Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species documents. Neither the New Hampshire teens nor the Budapest musicians had the proper documentation for their instruments, which, Gavin explains, is what resulted in the confiscations and fines. But what Daines and other proponents of the Lawful Ivory Protection Act have failed to mention is that the musicians in question would still have been in violation of FWS regulations prior to Ashe’s order—an argument made directly to Daines by FWS Associate Director Robert Dreher during the June oversight hearing.
“These regulations, I think, seem a bit arbitrary and difficult to follow,” Daines responded, “and aren’t going to ultimately get to the bottom of this, which is trying to protect and save these African elephants.”
According to a study published this summer in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, African elephants were subjected to “unsustainable rates of illegal killing” between 2009 and 2012, with roughly 40,000 killed by poachers in 2011 alone.