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 over the past decade ranged from a low of 30,000 bobcat pelts in 2009 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 (CITES), 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.
State wildlife agencies have opposed the inclusion of bobcats in the CITES treaty, arguing the species is thriving and protections are unnecessary. The animals are about twice as large as house cats and feed primarily on rabbits and hares. They range across the contiguous U.S. and portions of Canada and Mexico, according to the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.
Between 2.3 million and 3.6 million bobcats lived in the U.S., with populations that were stable or increasing in at least 40 states, according to a 2010 study from researchers at Cornell University and the University of Montana.
Cotton said her organization became aware of the scale of bobcat fur exports when it sued state game officials in Montana over the accidental capture of another wild cat, Canada lynx, by trappers pursuing bobcats.
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 Trappers Association President Chris McAllister says the 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.