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Monday, June 16, 2008

No Longer Roadblocked, Natural Resources Committee Leads

Of all the committees in the U.S. Congress, the House Committee on Natural Resources has perhaps been the most active for animals this year. This important panel handles almost all bills dealing with wildlife and the environment, and under the strong leadership of Chairman Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) and Subcommittee Chairwoman Madeleine Bordallo (D-Guam), it has already advanced several major reforms to protect wild animals during this session.

I wrote last month that the committee had approved the Great Cats and Rare Canids Act by Rep. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and the Crane Conservation Act by Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), which provide important conservation funding to protect wild populations of cats, dogs, and cranes around the world. The cat and dog bill went on to pass the House by a vote of 294 to 119, and the crane measure passed 304 to 118.

The committee had also cleared two resolutions—one by Chairwoman Bordallo calling for the protection of coral reef ecosystems and another by Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) seeking to protect fish populations in the Arctic Ocean—both of which went on to pass the House by voice vote. The fish resolution also passed the Senate, and has been signed into law by President Bush.

Chimpanzee, credit Stephen Meese, iStockphoto Last week, the committee cleared two more wildlife protection bills for House action. The Captive Primate Safety Act, by Reps. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), would bar the interstate and foreign commerce in apes, monkeys, and other primates for the exotic pet trade. There are 15,000 pet primates in the U.S. and it’s not uncommon for them to injure, kill, or spread diseases to people. Additionally, these highly intelligent and social animals are kept in small cages, their teeth are pulled out to make them less dangerous, and they are subject to other abuses.

The primate bill is on the House calendar for Tuesday, and we are pleased that the House is poised to pass this important animal protection and public safety measure. The Senate version of the bill has already cleared the Committee on Environment and Public Works, thanks to the leadership of Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Sen. David Vitter (R-La.). Tell your members of Congress to get the job done and put an end to this dangerous monkey business.

The second bill that received committee action last week was the Shark Conservation Act, introduced by Chairwoman Bordallo. It upgrades the federal law to combat “shark finning”—the practice of cutting the fins off millions of sharks and throwing the mutilated animals overboard into the oceans, just to satisfy the demand for shark fin soup in Asian restaurants. Current U.S. law bans shark finning, but is difficult to enforce because a loophole allows ships to transport fins as long as the sharks were not finned aboard that particular boat.

An important “fins attached” amendment to the bill, by Del. Eni F.H. Faleomavaega (D-Amer. Samoa), also makes it illegal to remove a shark’s fins at sea. Closing these loopholes in federal law will go a long way toward protecting sharks—some species are in danger of imminent extinction and some populations have declined by up to 80 percent in the last two decades—and Congress must act on the bill soon.

Finally, another measure on the House calendar for Wednesday is a resolution introduced by Chairman Rahall, calling on the U.S. delegation to the International Whaling Commission to remain firm in its opposition to all commercial whaling. The commercial killing of whales has been banned since 1986, yet countries such as Norway have ignored the ban, and Japan and Iceland have maintained significant whaling efforts under the guise of “scientific whaling,” resulting in the killing of 11,000 whales over the last two decades.   

Blue whale, credit NOAA As the situation for the world’s greatest mammals becomes more and more urgent, members of Congress have been speaking out. Last year, a group of 76 lawmakers led by Rep. Charles Gonzalez (D-Texas) urged President Bush to publicly condemn Japan’s killing of whales in an internationally protected sanctuary. With the 60th annual IWC meeting taking place this month in Santiago, Chile, the anti-whaling resolution comes at just the right moment. 

The Natural Resources Committee has other important matters pending and we have good reason for hope on these bills, too. The Bear Protection Act would crack down on the illegal poaching of bears for the commercial sale of their gall bladders, and the Protect America’s Wildlife (PAW) Act would stop the shooting of Alaskan wolves and other wildlife from airplanes and helicopters.

But when we look at what the committee has already achieved in the 110th Congress, it’s even more impressive given that the very same committee in the previous session didn’t pass a single wildlife protection measure. Former Chairman Richard Pombo (R-Calif.) had blocked the passage of animal welfare legislation, but thanks to the work of the Humane Society Legislative Fund and animal advocates in his district, he no longer serves in public office and no longer has the power to thwart reforms.

With new leadership has come new opportunities for animals, and the leaders of the Natural Resources Committee are standing up for animals in a very determined way. We are grateful to them for their work, and are eager to see these important new laws on the books.

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