Pro-hunting Trump officials take ax to wildlife protections

The Trump administration is systematically rolling back protections for endangered wildlife and expanding rights for hunters, winning cheers from sporting associations but worrying environmentalists who fear it will lead to the extinction of protected species.

The National Park Service announced last week it would end an Obama-era protection that prohibited the hunting of bear cubs, as well as wolves and pups in their dens, in Alaska’s national preserves.

Under the proposal, which is not yet final, Alaska could decide whether to allow these hunting practices, in addition to the targeting of animals from boats and the use of bait to lure in animals for hunting.

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Animals rights groups call the hunting practices barbaric, while the administration championed the decision as a win for state’s rights.

That same day, the Interior Department also announced it was expanding hunting access at 30 national wildlife refuges across the country.

The rule would open or expand 248,000 acres to hunting and allow for the first time a number of new activities on the public land, including big game hunting.

Groups worried about the proposals see them as an attack on protections for animals that have broad public support and view the administration as doing the bidding of hunting groups.

“It really feels like this assault on the animals and wildlife,” said Kitty Block, the Humane Society’s acting president. “It’s not a slow drip, drip, it’s a full-on fire hose of decisions coming out that are really scary.”

Environmentalists are also worried about budget cuts for programs meant to help endangered species. The White House budget proposal for fiscal 2019 seeks to cut the species listing budget from $20.5 million to just under $11 million.

“I think it’s all culminating,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “They are getting their feet under them and thinking about different ways to roll back protections for our most imperiled wildlife.”

Groups representing hunters say the measures are simply good policy.

Hunting and gun association representatives and officials within the Interior Department argue it makes sense to revise protections when animal populations rebound and that unyielding regulations place unnecessary burdens on landowners and developers.

They also say expanding hunting is good for the economy.

According to the proposed rule, opening new areas to hunting in the national wildlife refuges alone will raise $711,000 for the department in recreation-related expenditures, with a ripple effect yielding a total economic impact of approximately $1.6 million nationwide.

“As stewards of our public lands, Interior is committed to opening access wherever possible for hunting and fishing so that more families have the opportunity to pass down this American heritage,” Interior Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeOvernight Energy: EPA questioned safety of rolling back fuel efficiency rule | Zinke blames 'environmental terrorist groups' for wildfires | Illinois sues Chicago Trump hotel for violating water rules Zinke blames 'environmental terrorist groups' for scale of California wildfires Overnight Energy: Trump Cabinet officials head west | Zinke says California fires are not 'a debate about climate change' | Perry tours North Dakota coal mine | EPA chief meets industry leaders in Iowa to discuss ethanol mandate MORE said when announcing the rule.

An Interior spokesperson said that hunters and anglers are the primary funders of wildlife and habitat conservation in the United States, pointing to the $1.1 billion in funds given to state wildlife agencies through two sportsmen-focused congressional bills this year.

Zinke made his support for hunting clear from his first day at the department, when he issued two secretarial orders that were designed in part to increase access on public lands for hunters and fishers. 

Last fall, on the heels of news that recreational hunting was dropping in the U.S., Zinke announced that October would be National Hunting and Fishing Month. He also installed a “Big Buck Hunter” shooting game in the lobby of the department’s headquarters.

Interior submitted another rule in November aimed at reversing an Obama-era ban on the importation of elephant trophies from Africa, a measure initially put in place to deter big game hunting of elephants.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpDems make history, and other takeaways from Tuesday's primaries Pawlenty loses comeback bid in Minnesota Establishment-backed Vukmir wins Wisconsin GOP Senate primary MORE publicly criticized the change and put it on hold, but in March the agency silently updated the policy to allow imports in on a “case by case” basis. It has yet to release details on how many have been approved.

Zinke’s relationship with the hunting and gun industries is both political and personal. A Montanan, the secretary routinely hunted in his spare time. During his tenure as a GOP congressman he was a member of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation and reportedly was handpicked to lead Interior by Donald Trump Jr.Donald (Don) John TrumpSan Francisco ethics official sues Secret Service over Trump Jr. trip to India Spicer slams Omarosa on WH recordings: 'She will do anything to further her own being' White House staff offered discounts at Trump's NJ golf club: report MORE, an avid big game hunter.

As Interior secretary, Zinke has met with representatives of the Safari Club, tweeted out photos of him speaking to leaders of the National Rifle Association (NRA), personally attended the world's largest gun trade show in January and keynoted a pro-elk hunting group’s conference in March. Last week the department announced the names of 18 people who would be sitting on its newly established Hunting and Shooting Sports Conservation Council.

“America’s hunters and recreational shooters have a champion in Secretary Ryan Zinke,” said Chris Cox, executive director of the NRA's Institute for Legislative Action and a member of the council, in a statement. “Zinke is fighting for our sportsmen and women to have greater access to our public lands.”

In changing access to lands, the administration is also targeting the Endangered Species Act, a historic cornerstone of species protections in the United States.

Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in April proposed weakening a rule that gives threatened species on private land the same protections as endangered species. The change would effectively strip threatened plants and animals of stronger safeguards they’ve been granted for more than four decades.

FWS is led by Greg Sheehan, a former head of Utah’s wildlife agency who attended The Safari Club’s national conference in Vegas in February. 

Ranchers, builders and the fossil fuel industry have historically challenged such protections, arguing that threatened species should not have the same protections as more vulnerable species on private land.

FWS spokesman Gavin Shire said the proposed revision is consistent with the goal of the Endangered Species Act, which is to purse the “recovery of our most imperiled species to the point they no longer need federal protection.”

Also in April, FWS employees were told they could no longer advise land developers when they would need to apply for a special permit necessary to maintain endangered species' habitats.

An April 26 letter from Sheehan told staff that it should be left up to builders to decide whether they would need to apply for the permit, which is mandated under the law for those who think their actions may affect the habitat of endangered species.

Critics likened the directive to muzzling career experts and say it turns a blind eye to enforcement.

A FWS spokesperson said it would be “premature” to discuss any of the rules, some of which are still undergoing interagency review.

Animal rights groups say the changes to animal protections under the Trump administration are worrisome because they could have long-lasting repercussions to species.

“There are over 500 species waiting for consideration for protection. We’ve already documented that since the [Endangered Species Act] was passed at least 46 species have gone extinct waiting for protection — it’s likely more species will go extinct,” Greenwald warned.

The results of some of Interior’s changes are already coming to light. Last June, the department removed the Yellowstone grizzly bear population from the endangered species list after 42 years. It determined that the delisting was appropriate because the population had grown to more than 700 bears in and around Yellowstone National Park.

Last week, Wyoming announced it would allow recreational hunting of the animal for the first time since 1974 next September. As many as 22 bears could be hunted.

“We really see this as a departure of their mandate. Fish and Wildlife Service, charged with protecting species, is leading the charge of expanding hunting and opening up public lands and making them game parks rather than national parks,” said Block.

“We are not empowered to care for them, citizens are not empowered to care for them. No one else can pick up the slack. And that is what is really frightening about this — all we can do is implore the agencies that have the mandate to protect them to actually do their job. It’s unsettling.”