A federal court ruled Tuesday that hunters who shot polar bears in the Canadian Arctic prior to their designation as a threatened species cannot import the animals to the U.S.

Polar bears were listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act in 2008 and are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Hunters led by the Safari Club International argued that polar bears taken prior to the ban (and legally) should be able to be imported to the states. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit agreed with a lower court in siding with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, prohibiting these trophies from being imported.

SCI argued that the USFWS had not properly activated additional protection for the arctic species under the MMPA by appropriately designating that their numbers were sufficiently depleted. The court disagreed. Judge David Tatel wrote in the court’s decision that Congress intended to grant the law’s protections “to all depleted species, regardless of how they achieve their depleted status.”

Tatel also wrote that the exact wording of the law prohibits importing polar bear trophies. “The provision refers not to mammals taken from species the Secretary had designated as depleted but instead mammals taken from species the Secretary has so designated,” Tatel wrote. The slight difference in the wording – “had” to “has” – protects animals taken before the designation (yeah, even though those animals are already dead).

This distinction pleased Ralph Henry, deputy director of litigation with the Humane Society of the United States who said, “In the view of the law and in the view of good conservation measures, we should never allow someone who knows that an animal is in trouble to rush to kill a member of that species just in time to beat out the final sort of legal ruling deadline.” Henry added (Or gloated) “We feel that there’s significant writing on the wall to the trophy hunting lobby that taking the most robust and reproductively viable animals out of the species stock because it is a sport and getting a hide to hang on your wall or use as a rug is not something that would benefit that species in the long term.”

While Executive Director of the Dallas Safari Club Ben Carter certainly isn’t pleased, with the court’s decision he points out the US listing of polar bears as threatened has actually increased the number of animals taken per year. “Before the listing, a certain number of permits were issued to communities that provided hunting opportunities. The success rate of those hunts was far from 100%. So unsuccessful hunts equated to no polar bear harvested for those unsuccessful permitted hunts. Since the listing, the same number of tags are available yet many more bears are taken by the indigenous people because there is a market for the hides in Europe and Asia. So actually the harvest is much higher than when American sport hunters were the primary hunter.”