A new law has put New Jersey squarely in the crosshairs of national and international debates over how to protect threatened and endangered species that are also the traditional quarry of big-game hunters.
A prominent hunting group sued the state after Gov. Chris Christie signed a pair of bills on June 1 broadly aimed at curtailing the killing of endangered species and limiting the possession, transport, import or export, sale or offer for sale, and shipment of their carcasses or parts in New Jersey.
The suit by Conservation Force of Metairie, La., argues that this would interfere with federally permitted hunting, related business, and even the possession of legally obtained animal trophies. In a legal brief defending the new law, the state Attorney General's Office argues that the suit is premature and that enforcement may be less sweeping than opponents fear and supporters hope.
As outlined, the state's legal approach might irritate some hunting interests while leaving leopard skins, rhino heads, and stuffed Cape buffalo adorning dens and family rooms around New Jersey.
The legislation earned the nickname the "Cecil the Lion Act" after an iconic Zimbabwe lion, the subject of scientific study, who was killed last year by an American trophy hunter under questionable circumstances.
It is actually two bills. One, S977, strengthened state regulation of the trophy animal trade to allow it to bar trophies of species "threatened with extinction due to the trafficking of their parts and products." That applies to a growing list of creatures, from big cats and black rhinos to pangolins, those "scaly anteaters," and markhor, mountain goats prized for their corkscrew horns. Proponents argue drastically declining wildlife populations require stronger protection, like the United States' almost complete ban on commercial trade in African elephant ivory that took effect last month.
The companion bill, S978, would extend the same provisions to facilities of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, but does not take effect unless also approved by New York legislators.
John Jackson, president of Conservation Force, said his group sued because the new law contradicts a system established under federal law and regulations and international treaties. Under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regulates trophy hunting and has issued many permits for it, he noted.
Several New Jersey hunters and a prominent taxidermist joined as plaintiffs, arguing the state action will cause hardship by disrupting their permitted recreational activity and business. They argue their enthusiasm for hunting, and the sizeable permit fees they pay to pursue it, has provided the most reliable protection for wildlife habitats.
"Yet your Legislature approved these bills unanimously," Jackson marveled. "It's unbelievable that they would interfere in that way."
The lawsuit said the principal sponsor and author of the bills, state Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-Union), "openly admits that the bills are intended to 'end trophy hunting,' and posted a petition and website to advance this goal."
"They're right about that," Lesniak said. "That's exactly my intent."
As for their argument that the federal law supersedes any state law, Lesniak pointed to environmental claims. In the 1980s, chemical companies challenged New Jersey fines for pollution, Lesniak noted, saying they were preempted by the federal Superfund law, "and this is no different from that. We're saying that as public policy of the state, we don't want to contribute to the extinction of endangered species."
Across the state and nation, more people have become concerned about the major participation of Americans in trophy hunting and the animal parts trade, Lesniak said. In February, the Humane Society International estimated that more than 1.26 million trophies were brought into the United States in the decade 2005-2014.
Meanwhile, there are about 3,200 remaining wild tigers, just over 5,000 black rhinoceroses, 7,500 snow leopards, and perhaps 30,000 or fewer lions, according to Gary Knell, president and CEO of the National Geographic Society. All those numbers are down sharply, some more than 90 percent, from a century ago.
In their answer to the suit, Jason Stypinski and David Frankel, deputy attorneys general, provided some comfort for both sides in the dispute. They conceded the federal regulatory power that is the crux of Conservation Force's complaint.
"In this case, the State represents that it will not enforce the Act against any person who has a valid permit or exemption under the ESA or its implementing regulations, for the activity they have received express federal authorization to perform," they wrote.
But the language of the state law matters, said Regina Lennox, assistant director of legal programs at Conservation Force. The group did not sue Washington state after last year's successful referendum to bar trophy imports there, because its wording more specifically acknowledged federal permits and exemptions, she said.
"We wouldn't be suing New Jersey if the two bills allowed the acquisition of trophies that are authorized by federal law," Lennox said.
The bills had been tweaked to fit objections Christie outlined in a conditional veto in May. Sponsors agreed to drop a requirement that owners of hunting trophies register with the state Department of Environmental Protection and to clarify that federally permitted trophies can pass through New Jersey in transit. With those changes, "we can be confident that the body parts of endangered animals will no longer be welcome in New Jersey," Christie wrote.
With the changes suggested by Christie, New Jerseyans should not fear the confiscation of their previously obtained trophies, or new ones authorized by federal permits, according to the deputy attorneys general.
But Stypinski and Frankel also pointed to Congress' intent to limit the preemption of state statutes by the Endangered Species Act. The state has some leeway to restrict future trophy trading not specifically covered by federal law or regulation, they wrote.
For example, they noted differences in the way some animals are classified, or not, under the Endangered Species Act and the international treaty addressing the same issues, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna.
While the United States is a signatory to the 1973 treaty, referred to as CITES, its enforcement here depends on American law. The Endangered Species Act gives states power to write tougher rules for hunts or other trophy activity taking place without specific federal permits. So New Jersey could restrict sales or imports of animal trophies covered by CITES but not by the ESA, according to the state brief.
The dispute represents a collision in worldviews between those who see hunting as part of an American and global heritage, and those increasingly concerned about human impacts on the planet.
"New Jersey’s Legislature and governor do not understand that without licensed, regulated hunting to give value to dangerous game, species like leopard are considered dangerous vermin," plaintiff Richard Nordling said in court papers.
While he was on safari in Namibia in June, a manager at the cattle ranch where he stayed shot a leopard, without repercussions, because it had killed two calves, Nordling said. In contrast, he paid $8,000 for a permit, a fee intended to support anti-poaching efforts in the country's Waterberg National Park. His other spending also boosted the local economy, he added.
Nordling's hunt was unsuccessful, but he wanted the court to know that was "no fault of mine." A helicopter that was not supposed to be in the area spooked the animal he was tracking, he said. Because of that, Nordling hopes Namibian authorities will allow him to mount another safari, as his USWFS permit is good for a year, he said.
"These are horrible animals," Jackson said of Africa's "Big Five" game species: lions, leopards, elephants, rhinos, and Cape buffalo. "They destroy crops and kill livestock, they even kill people."
And there are more people all the time. The global human population has almost quadrupled since 1920. In sub-Saharan Africa, which had been sparsely populated, it has almost quadrupled since 1965, according to World Bank figures.
If anything, public policy should encourage more safari hunters because many African conservation programs remain seriously underfunded, said Jackson, a former criminal lawyer who converted his firm into Conservation Force to promote hunting interests.
"We pump tens of millions of dollars into Africa," through safari tourism and permit fees, Jackson said. "But it's never enough" to protect threatened habitat, he lamented, adding that governments should encourage more legal hunting to raise conservation revenue.
To Lesniak, effective conservation includes stopping the trade in animal parts, whether from safaris, poaching, or the demand for fetish items such as rhino horns and tiger penises in Asia. The killing of Cecil raised public awareness, he said.
The 13-year-old lion was the face of Zimbabwe's Hwange National Park, not only a tourist attraction but a subject of a long-term scientific study. Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer and two guides lured the lion out of the park onto land where wildlife is not protected. Palmer wounded Cecil using a crossbow, tracked him for 40 hours, and then killed him with a high-powered rifle.
Palmer and his guides then beheaded and skinned the lion, which was wearing a GPS collar as part of the study by the Oxford University Wildlife Conservation Research Unit. The researchers said Cecil was accustomed to their presence and to tourists taking photos and often allowed people to approach within 10 meters of him.