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How would you like to make a donation to the anti-hunting movement? You wouldn’t, of course, but like it or not, you already have. In 2007, for example, $280,000 of your tax dollars went directly to the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS)—the nation’s preeminent anti-hunting group—after HSUS successfully stopped the delisting of wolves from the Endangered Species Act in Minnesota.
Yes, your tax money is going straight to anti-hunting groups that file lawsuits to end legal hunting opportunities. If that’s not enough, taxpayers gave more than $436,000 to anti-hunting groups for blocking wolf management in the northern Rockies. All told, 13 environmental and anti-hunting groups, like Defenders of Wildlife, sued the federal government 1,159 times in the last 10 years and were reimbursed an estimated $34 million in legal fees from the federal government. Many of those suits had a direct impact on your freedom to hunt.
“It’s the best-kept secret in the environmental community,” says Boone and Crockett Club president Lowell Baier.
Here’s how it works: Two sources of federal money provide reimbursement for legal fees for any individual or organization that files a lawsuit against the federal government and wins. One, called the Judgment Fund, is a congressional line-item appropriation used solely for cases related to the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act, among others.
Karen Budd-Falen, a property-rights attorney from Wyoming who has tracked the rising tide of enviro-litigation, discovered that over $1 billion in payments from the Judgment Fund went out in just the first half of 2007 alone. Not all of it went to environmental groups, but plenty did.
“It’s hard to tell because the federal government is not required to track individual payments,” she says.
The second method is through the Equal Access to Justice Act, which was aimed at helping individuals and small businesses take on the federal government. The EAJA prohibits reimbursement to for-profit corporations worth more than $7 million; however, non-profit groups are exempt. It’s not as though the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), which filed at least 409 lawsuits and 165 appeals in federal courts in the last 10 years, needs the money. They claimed a net income of $9 million and net assets of more than $6 million in 2008. Defenders of Wildlife raked in $30.7 million from members’ donations, from reimbursed legal fees and from other sources in 2008. HSUS then had about $162 million in net assets; nevertheless, HSUS received nearly $1.5 million from the federal government for 15 legal cases.
Look at the staffs of these various groups and it’s clear that they’ve mastered the system. The CBD has at least 20 attorneys on staff—about a third of their entire employee roster. Defenders also has a lawyer-heavy staff. Moreover, the EAJA limits attorney fees to $250 per hour, but Budd-Falen says some cases are reimbursed at up to $650 per hour per lawyer.
The catch is that many of these suits are based on technicalities, such as the federal government’s failure to meet a strict filing deadline or to follow a specific—and often unnecessary—procedure. Not surprisingly, the suits have little or nothing to do with actually preserving wildlife or habitat.“Environmental litigation is a big, profitable business, pure and simple,” says Budd-Falen. She says these groups block access to public land and prevent sound timber management on public land in the name of protecting endangered species.
Speaking to a reporter for High Country News in 2009, CBD founder Kieran Suckling said, “At its simplest, by obtaining an injunction to shut down logging or prevent the filling of a dam, the power shifts to our hands. The Forest Service needs our agreement to get back to work, and we are in the position of being able to powerfully negotiate the terms of releasing the injunction.
“New injunctions, new species listings and new bad press take a terrible toll on agency morale. When we stop the same timber sale three or four times running, the timber planners want to tear their hair out. They feel like their careers are being mocked and destroyed—and they are. So they become much more willing to play by our rules and at least get something done. Psychological warfare is a very under-appreciated aspect of environmental campaigning.”
Many of the suits center on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (USFWS) failure to respond to an endangered species petition in a “timely manner.” That’s one reason groups like the CBD flood the USFWS with endangered-species-listing petitions. Last April, the CBD filed a bulk petition requesting the USFWS to review 404 species from the southeastern United States. WildEarth Guardians submitted two petitions—one seeking protection for 475 plants and animals and another naming 681 species. The USFWS has 90 days to consider each animal listed in the petition and a year to make a final determination to list the species it deems to be endangered or threatened. It’s all but impossible to make those deadlines when the system is overwhelmed, says Budd-Falen, but that’s exactly why these groups file bulk petitions.
Contrary to popular belief, the federal government doesn’t have unlimited resources to defend against the constant onslaught of enviro-litigation. Nor do they have an army of biologists who can jump at every species request, so the USFWS, Forest Service and other government agencies either give in to demands or go to court, knowing they will lose on a technicality. In many cases, money taken from a specific agency, such as the Forest Service, to pay for these lawsuits could have been spent on other programs that benefit game and non-game species along with hunter access to public land.
The gravy train may at least chug into the public eye. Representative Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) sponsored the Open EAJA Act of 2010, which would shed light on exactly who is receiving legal fees under the original EAJA—currently the government doesn’t have to keep publicly available records of these payouts. So far, it has 25 cosponsors. A companion bill is making its way through the U.S. Senate. It’s a good first step, says Baier, and it’s just the beginning of the end of your tax money going to the groups that want to end your freedom to hunt. We hope.