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Billings, Mont. • Wildlife advocates on Wednesday said they will seek a court order halting a United States government program that allows tens of thousands of pelts from bobcats and a small number of gray wolves to be exported annually for sale on the international fur market.
Representatives of WildEarth Guardians said the little-known program should not continue without a detailed study of its effect on wildlife populations.
Government figures show more than 57,000 bobcat pelts and a handful of wolf pelts were exported from the U.S. in 2014, the most recent year for which data was available. Exports in prior years ranged from 40,000 bobcat pelts in 2010 to almost 68,000 in 2013.
The pelts typically are used to make fur garments and accessories. Russia, China, Canada and Greece are top destinations, according to a trapping industry representative and government reports.
"The government's been allowing this to happen blindly without doing any analysis. When we're talking about such high numbers, it's just preposterous," said Bethany Cotton, director of WildEarth Guardians' wildlife program.
The group filed a lawsuit in federal court in Missoula challenging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service program. The agency regulates trade in animal and plant parts according to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which the U.S. ratified in 1975.
Bobcats are not considered an endangered species, nor are wolves in much of the Northern Rockies including Montana and Idaho. Nevertheless, the international trade in bobcat and wolf pelts is regulated because they are "look-alikes" for other wildlife population that are listed as endangered.
Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman Laury Parramore said the agency would not comment on pending litigation. But she said the government requires exported pelts to be legally acquired and "not detrimental to the survival of the species."
National Trapping Association President Chris McAllister says the WildEarth Guardians lawsuit's targeting of exports marks a new tactic in a long-running campaign by advocacy groups to shut down the industry. Prior lawsuits have focused on the types of traps used and the inadvertent trapping of protected species.
"They're trying to use anything they can," McAllister said. '"If they can shut us down from exporting furs, it would definitely have an impact."
McAllister could not immediately provide figures on how many bobcats are trapped across the U.S. annually. He said prices for pelts from the animals fell drastically over the past several years, from as much as $1,000 for a top-quality pelt to just $200 today.