What senators should ask Interior nominee David Bernhardt

This week David Bernhardt will have his Senate confirmation hearing to become the next Interior secretary. He would follow Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeTrump extends Florida offshore drilling pause, expands it to Georgia, South Carolina Conspicuous by their absence from the Republican Convention Trump flails as audience dwindles and ratings plummet MORE, who resigned amid ethics investigations in 2018.

Long before he served as deputy secretary of the Interior Department for the past 18 months, he was the agency’s head political lawyer for President George W. Bush. He also worked as a lobbyist for the oil and gas industry, mining companies and big agriculture.


Here are some questions members of the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources should ask him at his March 28 hearing: How does he feel when he learns that a wildlife species has been declared extinct? Does he feel sorrow when an American Indian petroglyph is bulldozed for access to a coal mine? Does a clearcut forest bring him happiness? Do the profit margins of large corporations matter more than the environment?

Monarch butterflies are at serious risk of extinction, and protection under the Endangered Species Act, the country’s most important wildlife-conservation law, remains the best way to save them. In just the past year, their wintering population in California crashed by 86 percent.

Monarchs now number fewer than 30,000 individuals, compared with several million in the 1980s. U.S. Geological Survey research has concluded that the larger, eastern monarch butterfly population is likely to go extinct within 20 years.   

In the past year and a half, Bernhardt has spearheaded an effort to gut the regulations that implement the act. The result of Bernhardt’s changes will be to make listing under the act as toothless as possible.  

Even if monarch butterflies are ultimately protected under the act, after the changes that Bernhardt has pushed are finalized, this bedrock law may not be able to save these incredible migrating creatures from extinction.

Will critical habitat be designated to protect monarchs? Not likely, because the new regulations have enormous loopholes to avoid such designations. Will the effects of climate change on monarchs be considered? No — that’s “too speculative” under the new regulations.

Will restrictions be placed on pesticide use (a key threat to monarchs)? No — all protections under Section 4(d) of the Act, which establishes if and when anyone can harm or kill endangered wildlife, will become optional. 


In short, nothing will change on the ground to help save monarchs from extinction. 

But the American people should know how he would feel if his children — and one day his grandchildren — never have the opportunity to watch a caterpillar turn into a monarch butterfly in their backyard.

Is the loss of one of the world’s most magnificent creatures really worth slightly larger quarterly profits for a few large corporations?

That’s the question senators should ask Bernhardt.

Brett Hartl is government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity. He is based in Washington, D.C.