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Angry About Cecil the Lion’s Death? Take It Out on the Republican Congress.

The GOP is waging a war on the Endangered Species Act, and on the agency charged with enforcing it

Adam Bettcher / Getty Images

As outrage spread online over a Minnesota dentist’s alleged poaching of a beloved lion in Zimbabwe, Democratic Representative Raul Grijalva saw a convenient political opportunity. “This sort of incident is why we have endangered species laws and why Republicans need to start taking their enforcement seriously,” the Arizona congressman said in a statement released Tuesday. This may seem like typical Washington politicking, but he's right: Americans who worry about the fate of African lions ought to point fingers at the Republican-controlled Congress.

Most of the fury thus far has targeted Walter Palmer, and for good reason: He and two Zimbabweans allegedly used bait to lure the 13-year-old lion out of a national park, where Cecil was protected, and into territory where lion hunting is legal. There, Palmer reportedly wounded Cecil with a bow, then stalked him for nearly two days before finally killing him with a rifle, decapitating and skinning him, and leaving the corpse to “rot in the sun.” The two Zimbabweans he hired, to the reported tune of $50,000, have been arrested and arraigned.

If the kill is deemed illegal by Zimbabwean authorities and Palmer brought back Cecil’s head and pelt as a trophy, he could be subject to criminal and civil penalties in the U.S. under the Lacey Act, the century-old statute that regulates the trafficking of controlled plant and animal substances. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) confirmed Thursday that “it is investigating the circumstances surrounding the killing of ‘Cecil the lion.’” Edward Grace, the FWS’ deputy chief of law enforcement, said in an emailed statement, “Multiple efforts to contact Dr. Walter Palmer have been unsuccessful. We ask that Dr. Palmer or his representative contact us immediately.”

If Cecil were, say, an African elephant, the FWS would be able to take action regardless of the kill’s legality in Zimbabwe. But African lions are not protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), even though, according to the law’s criteria, they should be: A species need face only one of five existential threats, of which the lion meets several, including the “destruction, modification, or curtailment” of its natural habitat and “the inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms.” Seventy years ago, there were as many as 450,000 wild African lions. Today, there may be as few as 20,000. Those that remain live on an estimated 17 percent of their historic territory.

That’s why animal rights groups like the Humane Society have been petitioning the FWS to list the African lion under the ESA since 2011. Last fall, the FWS began studying the possibility of designating the lion a “threatened” species, one level below endangered. Such a listing would have no bearing on Zimbabwe or any other country’s domestic big-game statutes, but it would restrict the shipment of trophy lion heads and pelts back into the U.S. ESA regulation requires hunters and collectors to prove that killing the animal in some way contributed to the long-term survival of the species, and in the case of lions, it’s not at all clear they’d be able to do so. At the time of his slaying, Cecil was being studied by Oxford University researchers who have challenged the notion that consumer demand for trophy hunting incentives conservation. ESA listing would also force importers to account for corruption and mismanagement of hunting revenues in countries like Zimbabwe. The FWS, for instance, has already suspended permitting for African elephant parts originating from Zimbabwe, due to the local government’s lack of compliance with its own conservation plan.

It’s tempting to think that, had the FWS simply acted more quickly, Cecil would never have ended up on a Midwestern dentist’s mantle. But the bureaucratic backlog of the endangered species listing process cannot be understood outside of the context of a deliberate, years-long Republican campaign to prevent the FWS from doing its job. According to a study published Tuesday by the Center for Biological Diversity, the last four years have seen an “unprecedented Republican attack on endangered species,” a coordinated rollback strategy fueled by special-interest lobbying and the right-wing’s broader war on environmental science. Compared to the previous 15 years, the study found a sixfold increase since 2011 in the number of legislative attempts to gut the ESA and hamper the FWS’ ability to apply its protections.

Much of the legislation has failed, but Republicans have succeeded in “intimidating the agencies charged with implementing” the ESA, according to the report; a “chilling effect” accounts for the withdrawal and downgrade of endangered species listings, and the exclusion of public input from the listing process. It may be a coincidence that the Republican fixation with the ESA began the same year the African lion petition was submitted, but even if Republican bullying didn’t contribute to the FWS’ delay in issuing a ruling, it will hinder other preventative action going forward. A GOP House appropriations bill submitted last month would cut more than 50 percent of the requested budget for the FWS’ overworked, undermanned foreign conservation division.

Back in June, Grijalva introduced the Rare Cats and Candids Act, which would fund foreign big-cat conservation projects. The bill’s unlikely to make it out of the Republican-led committee—despite the furor over Cecil’s death and the American public’s overwhelming support for protecting such species. One recent poll even found that 82 percent of self-identifying conservatives support the Endangered Species Act. As Grijalva says, “This country passionately supports endangered species conservation, and it deserves a Congress that feels the same.”