Favorable action Monday by the Senate on a wide-ranging hunting-fishing bill means it could be enacted before Christmas if the House goes along. The White House has already indicated its support.
The bill combines 19 measures favorable to outdoorsmen and women. In addition to dealing with the polar bear hides and increasing access to public lands, the legislation would exclude ammunition and tackle from federal environmental laws that regulate lead, allow bow hunters to cross federal land where hunting isn't allowed, encourage federal land agencies to help states maintain shooting ranges, boost fish populations and protect animal habitat.
Though a majority of senators are expected to support the bill, some environmental groups and their Democratic supporters in the Senate have objected to allowing the polar bear imports and exclusions from lead standards. Some members had hoped to offer amendments to the bill, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., used a procedural tactic to prevent them and speed the bill forward.
The lead provision threatens public health and the measures "could set back wildlife conservation efforts," said California Sen. Barbara Boxer, the Democratic chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, while acknowledging she supports other provisions in the bill.
Ammunition and tackle that contain lead are now unregulated under federal toxic substance laws, and the EPA has so far declined to regulate them. The Tester bill would make it law that the Environmental Protection Agency could never regulate ammunition and tackle, leaving those decisions to states. Environmental groups opposing the exemption say that birds on land and water are killed by lead poisoning after eating the spent ammunition and fishing tackle.
The polar bear provision would allow the 41 hunters — two from the home state of Montana Sen. Jon Tester, the Democratic sponsor of the bill — who killed polar bears in Canada just before a 2008 ban on polar bear trophy imports took effect to bring the bears' bodies across the border. The hunters involved were not able to bring the trophies home before the Fish and Wildlife Services listed them as a threatened species.
Some animal welfare groups, including of The Humane Society of the United States, say that allowing the polar bears across the border could set a bad precedent and embolden other hunters to try and circumvent threatened or endangered species laws.
Tester said it would just allow a few people who have polar bear trophies stored in Canada to finally bring them home. "These polar bears are dead, they are in cold storage and we know exactly who they are," he said when the bill first came to the floor in September.
A similar sportsmen's bill passed in the House earlier this year, co-sponsored by Tester's Republican opponent, Rep. Denny Rehberg. But that legislation is not as broad as Tester's bill, and it is unlikely that the two chambers would have time to resolve the differences before the session of Congress ends in December.
The House could send the legislation to President Obama by passing the Senate version, but Republican leaders have not indicated whether they will put the bill on the floor in the few weeks before Congress adjourns.