A ban on the sale of endangered species parts appears headed for final approval by lawmakers this week despite strong objections from those who say it unfairly renders some Vermonters' antiques worthless.
The Senate on Thursday advanced the bill, H.99, on a vote of 25-5, virtually ensuring that it would receive final passage on Friday before heading to the governor's desk. The House passed the bill last week.
The vote followed a vigorous debate that pitted lawmakers who want Vermont to join 11 other states with bans against senators who feel the bill is an overreach that would do little to save the species it seeks to protect.
“This bill is about supply and demand,” Sen. Alison Clarkson (D-Windsor) told her colleagues. “By reducing demand for items made of endangered species parts, Vermont will play a small but significant part in helping many endangered species survive.”
Clarkson explained that there is a federal ban on the importation of illegal animal parts, but trade within certain states, including Vermont, is still legal, making those places “complicit” in the damage done by poachers.
Banning the sales would reduce the incentive to import such products and, in turn, reduce the incentive to kill endangered species in the first place, she said.
Opponents said they supported the bill’s intent but felt the ban’s impacts on the illegal trade were too speculative to justify the state blocking people from selling private property they or their families might have owned for generations.
"This bill, by government fiat, expropriates the value of antiques and other property owned by Vermonters — from heirloom chess sets to scrimshaw collections,” said Sen. Randy Brock (R-Franklin).
The animal parts covered by the bill include those from cheetahs, elephants, giraffes, hippopotamuses, jaguars, leopards, lions and pangolins. Parts of extinct mammoths and mastodons are also covered because conservationists say such ancient tusks are similar enough to those of modern elephants to make enforcement difficult.
“To me, that’s like outlawing baking soda because it may appear to be cocaine,” Brock quipped.
The bill does provide an exemption for some antiques, but Brock said it was so narrow that it amounted to a “draconian” law that makes most such items unsellable. The bill would not affect a person’s right to own any such products.
The law would exempt antiques from the ban, but only if they were documented to be more than 100 years old and the parts in question were “a fixed component” of the antique weighing less than 200 grams.
Other exemptions include when the parts are integrated into a firearm, knife or musical instrument, or when they are in the possession of educational or scientific institutions or government agents.
Brock wasn’t the only lawmaker concerned about the impact of the law on the value of people's property.
Sen. Jeanette White (D-Windham) said she had a friend with “a couple of magnificent pieces of ivory” that were older than 100 years but heavy — far more than the 200-gram limit. She said it concerned her that such pieces would not be able to be sold in the state.
Sen. Ann Cummings (D-Washington) said she’s been buying antiques for years in the hopes of becoming a dealer in retirement. She noted that she owns some antique umbrellas with carved handles and “a couple of African horn cups that I bought at a rummage sale in the bottom of a box.” She said it would be difficult for her to determine whether the items would fall into the antique exemption.
Sen. Joe Benning (R-Caledonia) said he worried his 1973 acoustic guitar would be unsellable because it had ivory pins fastening its 12 strings. Other senators assured him that such pins likely weighed just a few grams.
Because the law wouldn’t go into effect until January 2022, Clarkson noted that anyone who wanted to sell the valuable heirlooms could do so before then.
Some raised questions about whether the bill would somehow harm instead of help conservation efforts in Africa. Clarkson acknowledged that some conservationists in certain African countries oppose the bans because they harm trophy hunting, but she called such positions the exception.
Sen. John Rodgers (D-Essex/Orleans) said he felt it smacked of “white privilege” for Vermonters to impose a ban that might affect an African person’s ability to make a living.
Clarkson turned that around and noted that the demand for such products is not coming from Africans themselves, but largely from Westerners.
“When you talk about privileged white people, who is affording to go on a trophy hunt? A privileged white person, for the most part,” she said.