President Donald Trump tweeted Sunday night that his administration will announce a decision next week on allowing the import of elephant hunting trophies from Zimbabwe and Zambia.
Proponents "will be very hard pressed to change my mind that this horror show in any way helps conservation of Elephants or any other animal," the President tweeted.
The statement directly contradicts the finding of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which announced last week that it had decided to lift the restrictions on elephant trophy imports.
"Legal, well-regulated sport hunting as part of a sound management program can benefit the conservation of certain species by providing incentives to local communities to conserve the species and by putting much-needed revenue back into conservation," the agency said in its Federal Register notice. "The US Fish and Wildlife Service has determined that the hunting and management programs for African elephants in Zimbabwe will enhance the survival of the species in the wild."
Trump's tweet comes after he surprised Fish and Wildlife Service employees, as well as hunting advocates and opponents, by tweeting Friday that he was halting the administration's decision, saying he needed to review the "conservation facts."
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke tweeted a statement Friday night after Trump's tweet: "President Trump and I have talked and both believe that conservation and healthy herds are critical," he said. "As a result, in a manner compliant with all applicable laws, rules and regulations, this issuing of permits is being put on hold as the decision is being reviewed."
Wayne Pacelle, CEO of the Humane Society, a national animal protection group, viewed Trump's pause in implementing the policy as a tentative victory.
"I am tremendously heartened that President Trump has doubled down on his intervention on the issue of the trophy hunting of threatened elephants," Pacelle said in a statement Sunday night. "He's right to recognize that trophy hunting is 'a horror,' because it leaves unoffending animals injured and dead for no good reason. Trophy hunters killing an elephant from a herd or a lion from a pride disrupts families and leaves the survivors in disarray and distress, and it reduces the chance that these glorious creatures will survive in the wild into the next generation."
Before Trump's latest tweet, sportsmen's groups said they viewed Trump's reversal as only temporary.
"The way we see it, the President hasn't reversed anything. He's taking his time to make sure the decision that [Zinke] made is right," said Paul Babaz, president of Safari Club International. "We're sure the President will move ahead with the decision."
Babaz added that he believed the halt was a response to public outrage over the initial plan to lift the import restrictions, something he called "a publicity stunt."
"Honestly, we have the science on our side," Babaz said. "The money generated from hunting is in the millions and millions of dollars, and that supports programs worldwide."
Others said they see the President's decision as a stall tactic in the face of bad optics, in that the Fish and Wildlife Service finding came within hours of the start of political turmoil in Zimbabwe.
Trump's move doesn't mean the administration is backing off its push to expand hunting rights nationally and internationally, sources said.
According to one source involved in the hunting conservation community who spoke to the President's son, Donald Trump Jr., during the 2016 campaign, members of the Trump family wanted to change Fish and Wildlife Service regulations on big-game hunting.
"I know it was a priority for Don Jr. early on, during the campaign," the source said. "I remember him mentioning it. They were frustrated."
Donald Trump Jr. and his younger brother, Eric, are both big-game hunters. Photos posted in 2012 by the website Gothamist show Trump Jr. holding an elephant tail. The website said the photos were from a 2011 hunt in Zimbabwe. Trump Jr. is also an active member of the Boone and Crockett Club, and helped with the search for interior secretary.