LANCASTER, Pennsylvania — When two Lancaster County hunters pulled the triggers on high-powered rifles on successive days in 2008 in the 40-below-zero air of the Arctic Circle, they thought their two polar bear trophies would soon be striking life-size mounts back home.
Little did they know they would be caught up in a bureaucratic web and become standard-bearers in a six-year fight over what is fair. Their cause, so far, has traveled through two federal courts, Congress and even the office of the president of the United States.
The nation's largest hunting and anti-hunting groups have joined the fight along the way.
Hunting the earth's largest land carnivore was to be an expensive but lifetime adventure for Donald C. Hershey of East Hempfield Township and his longtime friend from church, Ron E. Kreider of Manheim.
Hershey, 78, founded Hershey Equipment Co., a manufacturer of agricultural equipment, 50 years ago. Kreider is co-owner of Kreider Farms, at 4,500 acres one of the largest farm operations in Lancaster County.
Both are well-traveled trophy hunters. Hershey has pursued and taken all of North America's big-game animals. Kreider has hunted on six continents.
Neither had ever hunted a polar bear, a magnificent animal now very much a symbol of what could happen with climate change.
In 2007, Hershey and Kreider booked a two-week polar bear hunt with an outfitter in Mechanicsburg.
For some time, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had been studying the dangers to polar bears if the sea ice they depend on to find seals shrank considerably. Under consideration was listing the polar bear as threatened.
But it had been talk and had gone on for several years.
"The outfitter or no one else said, 'You're taking a risk here,'" Hershey says. "Common sense told us that if we shot a polar bear before they passed a law, that it was ours."
In March 2008, the two hunters took tiny bush planes to get to the Inuit village of Ulukhaktok, in Canada's Northwest Territories, about 300 miles north of the Arctic Circle.
With three Inuit guides, they rode in dogsleds pulled by snowmobiles another 250 miles. Once, fierce winds kept them holed up in a tent for two days. They had to anchor the tent to snowmobiles to keep it from blowing away. They slept in sleeping bags on the frozen Beaufort Sea on top of caribou hides.
The hunters marveled at the stories their Inuit companions told them of their ancient nomadic life. Until the 1960s, when the Canadian government encouraged them to live in established villages, they lived in igloos.
The income from polar bear hunts became a major source of sustenance.
They told Kreider and Hershey that hunting polar bears — mostly males — actually helps the overall bear population because male bears often kill bear cubs to bring females into heat again. Male bears are killed by hunters before they get large enough to overpower females protecting their cubs.
After following fresh tracks by dogsled, Hershey shot a female polar bear with a yellowish tint that was 8 feet 6 inches tall, sitting on its haunches. The next day, April 1, Kreider shot a slightly larger male polar bear.
Both had plans for taxidermists to make full-body mounts of their bears and ship them home. Hershey even had a space set aside in his hunting cabin he built in Sullivan County. Kreider's was to go in the family room of his home.
As soon as they got back, they sent $100 and an application for an import permit to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. They received a letter back that the application had been received and was being processed.
Then, on May 15, 2008, the federal agency listed polar bears as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act and "depleted" under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
That put an end to hunting polar bears in the United States — Alaska. But the designation also prohibited the importation of any polar bear trophies into the U.S., regardless if they had been shot legally somewhere else before the ruling was made.
USFWS promptly sent back to Kreider and Hershey their $100 and halted processing of their import permits. Forty other U.S. hunters who had legally taken polar bears under Canada's carefully controlled hunting allotment found themselves in a similar boat.
"All we needed was a few more weeks and we would have been able to bring them back," moans Kreider.
Disbelieving and angry at what they considered the unfairness of it all, Kreider and Hershey decided to fight back. They sued USFWS in federal court in Philadelphia.
Then, a powerful ally joined their cause in the form of Safari Club International, a 55,000-member worldwide group that seeks to protect hunters' rights and promote wildlife conservation. In addition, some states and environmental groups challenged, in other courts, the listing of polar bears as threatened.
That, in turn, prompted such anti-hunting groups as the Defenders of Wildlife and the Humane Society of the United States to intervene on behalf of USFWS. So did Greenpeace, the environmental group.
With such a growing cast of characters, the case was consolidated and moved to U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., in 2011.
Hershey, Kreider and SCI argued that one part of the Marine Mammal Protection Act authorizes import of polar bear populations from approved bear populations in Canada, that the USFWS didn't properly designate the polar bear as depleted and that the import ban shouldn't apply to their bears legally taken before the polar bear listing.
In a separate challenge, SCI maintained that polar bear numbers worldwide are at historically high numbers. Declaring a species as depleted based on what might happen is faulty, attorneys said.
"There's more polar bears today that there were 50 years ago," says Hershey.
Kreider notes that Canada still allows hunts of polar bears because its population is healthy. But with American hunters no longer coming because they can't keep their trophy, the price of hunts has plummeted.
"The Inuit village and their children are the biggest losers in this latest USFWS rule," he says.
"These hunters participated in a sustainable hunt that contributed to the conservation of the species," says Nelson Freeman of Safari Club International.
The court denied the attempt by USFWS to have the case dismissed but later ruled in favor of the agency after testimony was heard.
"The court is sensitive to the fact that plaintiffs Hershey and Kreider expended significant sums (an estimated $65,000 by Hershey and $40,000 by Kreider) to participate in an arduous hunt, that they legally took polar bears from approved Canadian populations, that they applied for import permits before the effective date of the Listing Rule, and that they are now paying to store their trophies in Canada indefinitely," Judge Emmet Sullivan wrote in the decision.
"Nonetheless, this Court can only overturn the Service's disposition of plaintiffs' permit applications where it finds that the agency's decision was arbitrary, capricious, or contrary to law."
Undeterred, the decision was appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals. In June 2013, a three-judge panel again ruled against Hershey and Kreider.
Far from ready to give up, they and SCI took their case to Congress. A number of members of Congress sympathized with what Kreider characterizes as "just another example of too much government and over-regulation."
For years, hunting advocates have been pushing for laws to protect and expand their sport opportunities on federal lands.
The result was the Sportsmen's Act of 2014. A provision was added in the bill, called the Polar Bear Conservation and Fairness Act, to allow the 42 hunters who had legally killed polar bears before the threatened status listing to be able to bring their trophies home.
The bipartisan bill was overwhelmingly passed by the House earlier this year. President Obama sent word he would sign the legislation if approved by the Senate.
Kreider and Hershey thought that common sense would finally prevail and their bears would finally be headed to Pennsylvania.
Then things got complicated. Some 81 amendments were added by both sides of the aisle. The killer appeared to be gun-control measures attached by Democrats.
On Aug. 7, the Senate killed the Sportsmen's Act, 41-56, under the weight of acrimonious finger-pointing. Theoretically, it could still be called up for a vote if things get ironed out.
Hershey remains optimistic, believing that, eventually, fairness will prevail.
"You can get mad but if I never get my polar bear, they can't take the memory away from me," he says in his office in Sycamore Industrial Park. "In all the hunts I ever went on I enjoyed the people and I liked to learn their way of life and all that. And then the hunt topped it off.
"Would I love to have it? Sure. But I'm an eternal optimist so I'll just stay that way. I have an open space up at the cabin and I'm not going to put anything else in that spot."
Kreider, meanwhile, went ahead and had a taxidermist prepare his life-size mount. It now sits in the middle of a Cabela's store in Edmonton, Canada, where Kreider loaned it for free.
"My polar bear in Canada is being enjoyed by many people. That makes me feel good," he says.
"I think those 42 bears — eventually we'll get them back. I'd like to have that much faith in our government."
Information from: Intelligencer Journal/Lancaster New Era , http://lancasteronline.com