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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

I-1401 would add state protection for some endangered animals

Initiative 1401 is a ballot measure that attempts to turn the axiom that “all politics is local” on its head.

The targets of this measure are criminals half a world away who poach elephants and other fast-disappearing animals for ivory, horns or other trophies. Washington law can’t touch them in Africa, Asia or other foreign locations, but I-1401 attempts to give state law enforcement officials a new tool when those products show up in state ports, shops or restaurants.

“The slaughter of animals for their parts – ivory from an elephant, the hide of a tiger, the horn of a rhinoceros – has devastated these populations,” Guy Palmer, the founding director of the Paul G. Allen School for Global Animal Health at Washington State University, said in a recent op-ed column.

Protecting endangered animals is a noble goal, say opponents who have formed the Legal Ivory Rights Coalition Committee, but I-1401 would create problems for anyone with jewelry or other items made of ivory they might want to sell. Meanwhile, the initiative would do nothing to stop poachers in Africa or the market in illegal ivory products in China.

I-1401 lists a series of animals it seeks to protect – elephants, rhinoceroses, tigers, lions, leopards, cheetahs, pangolins (a type of anteater), marine turtles, sharks and rays – by banning the sale of any products made from those animals in Washington.

If passed, the initiative would create the broadest protections for the most species in any state, said Aaron Pickus, a spokesman for Save Animals Facing Extinction, the campaign backing the proposal. Success on I-1401 would set a new precedent, and other states could follow suit, Pickus said.

There are some exceptions to the ban on sales of those products, but critics say they are unworkable when it comes to ivory, the chief goal of elephant poaching. The law exempts “bona fide” antiques, but only if the seller has historical documentation proving the item is at least 100 years old, and the ivory or other banned animal product makes up less than 15 percent of the item. An exemption allows an owner to give ivory or other products from a listed animal to a museum, or will them to a relative, but it would be illegal to just give them away in Washington. But an owner could take them to another state that doesn’t have a similar ban.

Also exempted would be musical instruments whose volume is less than 15 percent ivory. That would allow for the sale of an old piano with ivory keys. But forget about selling great-grandma’s ivory jewelry, opponents say, even if you can prove great-grandpa bought it for her more than a century ago. It’s likely more than 15 percent of the total volume.

Selling a banned product would be a gross misdemeanor if it’s worth $250 or less, and a felony if worth more.

The initiative isn’t just about ivory, Pickus added. It would also cover the practice of shark “finning” – catching a shark, cutting off that appendage and throwing it back into the water to die. Fins are prized as a delicacy for soups in some Asian cuisines.

Finning was outlawed in Washington in 2011, but Pickus said restaurants can claim they bought fins before the law took effect and kept them in the freezer or had them dried.

But state law was changed in 2013 to close that loophole, said Mike Cenci, deputy chief of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife police, the agency that would be tasked with enforcing much of the law if I-1401 passes.

State law already allows the department or other law enforcement officials to arrest people who have items “knowingly taken in the violation of another state or country’s laws,” Cenci said. Arrests have been made for animals poached in other states and brought to Washington, and possession of endangered sea turtle shells. But the agency primarily enforces laws on wildlife and marine species native to Washington. Its officers routinely check documentation on seafood, from commercial fishers to wholesalers to restaurants.

They have no authority, however, to go into a store to search for ivory, Cenci said, adding he doesn’t know what sort of documentation they would accept to prove an item was more than 100 years old or less than 15 percent of the total volume. The officers are stretched pretty thin already and the initiative also doesn’t specify funding for increased enforcement, except for fines of up to $4,000 for selling illegal parts from the listed animals.

The cost of five officers and a detective to enforce the initiative could total $815,000 per year, the state estimates.

“I would hope the Legislature would take care of us if we take on this additional responsibility,” Cenci said.

Todd Myers of the Washington Policy Center’s Center for the Environment said he expects to vote yes on I-1401 because he worries that some of the species listed are approaching a “tipping point” toward extinction. But he wonders if the penalties are the best way to save them. He said the two big drivers for poaching are demand for ivory and other products in Asia, and poverty in countries where the animals live that leads residents to risk the laws that already exist. Creating market-based incentives for conservation may do more to protect the animals, he said.

“What you may be doing (with additional penalties) if demand doesn’t go away is increase the price,” he said.

Through its campaign committee, I-1401 has deep pockets, having raised more than $2.7 million and spent nearly $2.2 million to gather signatures and hire campaign consultants. That’s thanks largely to Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who has contributed more than $1.5 million in cash and another $186,000 through in-kind contributions for things like research, legal fees and donated staff time.

By comparison, the Legal Ivory Rights Coalition Committee, which registered with the state Public Disclosure Commission just a month ago, had raised and spent nothing as of last week.