Wolves, elephants, and the best (or worst) of intentions

The two groups filing the lawsuit have worked to reintroduce Mexican gray wolves to their native habitat in the Southwestern U.S.Two U.S.-based environmental groups have declared their intent to sue the federal government over just that – intent. 

WildEarth Guardians and the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance said last week that they will file a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) for failing to prosecute people who kill or otherwise violate the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

At question is what’s called mens rea in legal circles – the level of intent or awareness that a person has about the crime they are committing.  Some laws require proof that a person knew they were breaking the law when they broke it, while others require only that the law was, in fact, broken, whether the person meant to break it or not. 

The ESA requires the latter, but the DOJ, oddly, has decided on its own that the former should apply when it comes to prosecuting ESA offenders, making it difficult at best for law enforcement to catch those who harm, harass, kill, buy, sell, import, export, eat or otherwise molest endangered species.

The ESA itself requires prosecution of those who “knowingly” violate the law, meaning that they acted purposefully and not, say, by accident, when they killed an endangered wolf, for example, or traded in a tiger pelt.  The DOJ, however, has been applying a different standard for over 13 years now.

The DOJ has decided that it will only prosecute offenders when it can prove that they “willfully” violated the law, meaning, for example, the person not only meant to kill the wolf, but meant to kill the endangered wolf and break the law, and knew as much the whole time. 

Not easy to do, especially since criminals, being criminals, don’t always want to admit that they are criminals.

The two groups filing the lawsuit have worked to reintroduce Mexican gray wolves to their native habitat in the Southwestern U.S. To date, 48 of those wolves, over half the reintroduced population, have been illegally killed, with few prosecutions. The species remains on the brink of extinction, though recent captive births have helped keep hope alive.

But the DOJ policy has implications for other species besides wolves, grizzly bears, or others who are the favorite foes of American ranchers and hunters out west. An ivory trafficker could easily argue that they didn’t know the ivory-colored, tusk shaped carvings they brought home from Africa were made of ivory, or that ivory came from elephant tusks, or that elephants were endangered, in order to get off. 

Nobody really knows why, in 1999, the DOJ decided to ignore Congress and forge its own path when it comes to prosecuting wildlife offenses (or, in this case, not prosecuting offenses). 

Whatever the reason, the DOJ needs to reverse course and do what Congress intended for it to do when it comes to prosecuting wildlife criminals, and maybe save itself and the taxpayers some time and money in the process.

--PT

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