The animal advocate

The animal advocate
© Greg Nash

To hear Dan Ashe tell it, he has one of the easier jobs in Washington: advocating for cute — and sometimes rare — animals.

“Who doesn’t love animals?” asks the newly minted head of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). “For a politician, it’s probably the next best thing to kissing a baby, right?”

Ashe, who directed the Interior Department’s Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) for six years under former President Obama, says the 232 zoos, aquariums and other nature centers under the AZA’s umbrella are important resources for local residents.

“It’s not just the animals, but it’s what the zoos and aquariums represent,” he said. “They’re cornerstones in their communities. It’s quite an asset.”

Ashe’s group, based in Silver Spring, Md., represents the most elite of the nation’s zoos and aquariums, such as the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, the San Diego Zoo and the Georgia Aquarium.

“The well-being of the individual members, as well as the well-being of the proposition as a whole, is built upon the notion that these people take exceptional care of the animals that are resident in our zoos and aquariums,” Ashe said.

The AZA serves both in an advocacy role and as an accrediting body, holding its members to high standards in areas such as how they treat animals, how they protect visitors and staff, how they educate the community, and how they promote conservation around the country and the world.

“We’re trying to grow a bigger culture, where we don’t just care for the animals that we house; we care for animals everywhere. And that we’re leaders in expanding the notion of animal welfare,” Ashe said.

Out of that mission grows the AZA’s top lobbying area: pushing to preserve and enforce the Endangered Species Act, the landmark 1973 law meant to protect imperiled species from extinction. The main enforcement agency for the law is the FWS, which Ashe led until Jan. 20.

Ashe started in his new job at an important time for the Endangered Species Act. The Republican Party, which has historically pushed for changes that would give states, landowners, energy companies and other land users more say over how species are protected, now has control over both chambers of Congress and the White House — and has its eyes on reforming the law.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee started the process in February with a hearing during which Ashe testified.

“The Endangered Species Act is not working today,” Sen. John BarrassoJohn Anthony BarrassoGOP senators introduce bill to prevent family separations at border Overnight Energy: Senate panel sets Pruitt hearing | Colorado joins California with tougher emissions rules | Court sides with Trump on coal leasing program Pruitt to testify before Senate panel in August MORE (R-Wyo.) said at the time, noting that only 3 percent of species listed as endangered or threatened are successfully taken off the lists. “States, counties, wildlife managers, homebuilders, construction companies, farmers, ranchers and other stakeholders are all making it clear that the Endangered Species Act is not working today.”

Ashe said that kind of talk is worrying.

“I think it’s completely unfair to say the Endangered Species Act is broken,” he said. “And to say that the law needs to be ‘modernized’ — I don’t know what that means.”

He concedes that, like anything, the law could be made better, and he has hope that Barrasso and Sen. Tom CarperThomas (Tom) Richard CarperOvernight Energy: Inhofe defends Pruitt after criticisms | Agency releases study on water contaminant | Trump rescinds Obama ocean policy Dems press EPA nominees on ethics, climate Overnight Energy: Senate panel sets Pruitt hearing | Colorado joins California with tougher emissions rules | Court sides with Trump on coal leasing program MORE (Del.), the panel’s top Democrat, could come up with some good ideas.

For example, agencies need more money and staffing to cooperate with states and other stakeholders on conservation, Ashe said.

And the process for determining endangered or threatened listings could be organized and managed better to the benefit of all the parties involved.

“There’s a way to make that more workable, both for the Fish and Wildlife Service and for the public, certainly for the regulated community,” he said.

Protecting endangered species has largely dominated Ashe’s career.

Ashe, 61, grew up in the South, with a father who worked for the FWS’s realty operations. That brought Ashe close to wildlife refuges around the country.

“When I was a kid growing up, that was a lot like vacation, because we would follow him to great places,” he said.

Those experiences pushed Ashe into marine biology in college and graduate school, and then to government. He came to Capitol Hill in the 1980s and stayed there for 13 years, working for the House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee, which has since been merged into the Natural Resources Committee.

He moved to the FWS in 1995, working his way up the ranks until Obama nominated him to lead the agency in 2011.

His proudest achievement of the Obama administration was how the FWS in 2011 settled numerous lawsuits in more than a dozen federal courts, in which conservation groups — mainly the Center for Biological Diversity and WildEarth Guardians — sued the agency for not formally reviewing whether certain species should be protected.

Under Ashe’s leadership, the FWS came to a consolidated mega-settlement in which it laid out deadlines for considerations going out years into the future.

Republicans blasted the agreement as a “sue-and-settle” tactic, accusing the Obama administration of settling as an excuse to list more species.

But Ashe defends the settlement as a workable arrangement for the federal government. The law sets deadlines that the government may not have been able to reach or successfully defend when it misses them.

“It was very favorable to the government. It was helpful to our partners, in the end, because we were on a logical, predictable, doable schedule,” he said. “We weren’t just constantly going back to courts and negotiating and renegotiating deadlines. We had a good, defined schedule that we were held accountable to.”

A Government Accountability Office report last month at least somewhat backed Ashe up, finding that the settlements “did not affect the substantive basis or procedural rule-making requirements,” though they did largely dominate the agency’s agenda.

Ashe strikes an optimistic tone regarding how the Trump administration will handle conservation.

“It’s too early to tell, from the standpoint of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,” he said.

But one of the actions that new Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke took on his first day was disappointing, Ashe said.

Zinke repealed Ashe’s ban on using lead ammunition for hunting in national wildlife refuges. Lead-free ammunition is more expensive, creating a hurdle for hunters, though experts say lead ammunition is harmful for the environment.

“That’s a big disappointment. Because the evidence is clear,” Ashe said, adding that lead ammunition unnecessarily kills “millions of birds a year” due to poisoning from bullet fragments and bullets that stay on the ground.

Ashe, a longtime hunter himself, said that being a responsible sportsman necessitates choices like avoiding lead ammunition and fishing tackle.

“If I know that I can make a responsible choice that can do less collateral damage on the animal and on other animals, then I would choose it.”