On Tuesday, November 3rd, Washington State will make history as the first state to hold a vote on a statewide endangered-animal trafficking law. Initiative 1401 adds two new laws to Washington State’s books: anyone caught attempting to deal in endangered animal parts will be subject to either a gross misdemeanor if the value of the animal parts are under $250 in value, or a class-C felony if they are worth more. 1401 would also add two new fines: $2000 for the misdemeanor charge and $4000 for the felony charge. These fines would be deposited into the Fish & Wildlife Enforcement Reward Account, an account reserved for funding investigations and prosecutions of fish and wildlife-related crimes, rewards for reporting said crimes, and hunter education programs.
When I first got my State of Washington Voters’ Pamphlet and read through the initiative, I thought, “How is this not already a law!” As it turns out, it is. Under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species Treaty, it is currently a federal crime in the United States to sell, import, or trade parts or products made from species listed under the convention. But according to the Attorney General, Washington state law does not currently prohibit the purchase, sale, trade, or distribution of parts or products made from endangered species. But if there is a federal law, wouldn’t a state law just be redundant?
Stuart Halsan says it is. Representing the Legal Ivory Rights Coalition, Halsan argues in his statement against the initiative that a single federal law is good enough. To clear up why two seemingly identical laws were needed, I called Aaron Pickus, the communications director for Initiative 1401. Pickus explained to me that federal law covers imports, exports, and interstate commerce. If this jurisdiction cannot be established, the state has no authority to prosecute. For example, if authorities catch someone in Washington state selling pure black rhino tusk to a buyer also based in Washington state, there can be no case unless authorities can establish the seller’s source of the ivory—no small feat considering the notorious cleverness of foreign smugglers. Although it is 100% obvious that the rhino tusk did not originate in Washington state (unless there’s a savanna somewhere that I have never heard of) local authorities’ hands are tied because intrastate commerce of endangered species product is not currently illegal.
Halsan and those who support him also claim that the law unfairly targets the sale of antique ivory. The proposed law allows five exceptions, the first of which allows the sale or trade of antiques in which the percentage of endangered animal product is less than 15% of the total composition. An antique is defined as a product that is at least 100 years old. Paperwork must prove that the item meets the age and composition requirements. Halsan insists that this exemption is too narrow and will unfairly affect those who wish to sell ivory-containing antiques but who lack the paperwork to prove either its age, composition, or both.
This argument is all too common when it comes to environmental protection regulations. In 2004, the Yellowstone Snowmobile Manufacturing Association filed a lawsuit against the National Forest Service. As use of snowmobiles skyrocketed, conditions became terrible in Yellowstone National Park. Park employees were developing headaches from the constant fumes, wildlife was leaving, and visitors were complaining about the constant noise. When park authorities attempted to regulate the amount of snowmobiles that could enter the park on any one day, those in the thriving snowmobile market fought back viciously. Whose rights take priority in this case? The NFS’s right to regulate the use of its parks? The federal employees’ right to a safe working environment? The visitors’ right to a quiet, peaceful experience? Or the snowmobile industry’s right to make money?
When the government tries to protect or restore any animal population, ecosystem, or resource, there will almost always be some market that takes a hit as a consequence. But this is the inherent nature of markets in general. Markets emerge, grow, diminish, and collapse all the time with no government interference whatsoever. As a merchant, the right to protect your market niche should not outweigh the rights of all others. You must adapt to the current situation and the current situation includes more than just profits. It also includes foresight, planning, sustainability, and responsibility.
When it comes to initiatives like this, I try to look at what each side stands to gain and lose. If Initiative 1401 passes, those against it may lose the ability to sell certain items of whose composition and age they are not able to verify. Those who support it gain nothing directly, except peace of mind that trafficking in endangered animal parts has gotten more difficult in Washington state. I tend to give more weight to those who are fighting for a cause in which they stand to gain nothing. Close the loophole. Send a message. Vote yes on 1401.