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High-ranking Trump official attends hunting convention
A high-ranking Trump administration official attended a convention hosted by a group that promotes hunters' rights to kill big game and import the body parts to the United States as trophies.
The annual show, one of the largest in the country dedicated to hunting, came less than a week after President Trump announced he would retain an Obama-era ban on importing African elephant trophies from Zimbabwe and Zambia, because he does not believe that imports promote conservation.
Safari Club International, (SCI) which runs the convention, has been one of the most vocal proponents of overturning the Obama-era ban.
The group tweeted a photo late Friday that showed acting Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) Director Greg Sheehan at the Las Vegas event.
In the tweet, Sheehan is shown surrounded by a group. The tweet said FWS officials were meeting with delegates from Tanzania, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Namibia and South Africa.
Sheehan, the former head of Utah's wildlife agency, came to FWS last June as principal deputy director and is now its highest-ranking official. Trump has not nominated a FWS director, a position that requires Senate confirmation.
As head of the FWS, Sheehan is the main official responsible for hunting trophy import policies.
The weekend-long Las Vegas event includes a legislative lunch and an SCI Foundation happy hour reception, as well as opportunities to bid on big game hunting trips worth thousands of dollars.
One item, highlighted in an email sent to members obtained by The Hill, is a hunting trip with Madubula Safaris, promoted as one of "Africa's premier hunting companies." Photos for the particular hunting trip show hunters standing over dead elephants.
SCI has long advocated for elephant trophy imports. It joined the National Rifle Association to sue the Obama administration for first placing a ban on imports back in 2014.
Trump on Sunday said that the U.S. was formally reinstating the ban on imports of elephant trophies from Zimbabwe and Zambia, two of the main African countries with elephant populations, following heavy criticism after the ban was initially overturned last November.
In an interview with British journalist Piers Morgan that aired Sunday, Trump said that he had decided to officially turn the order around.
"I didn't want elephants killed and stuffed and have the tusks brought back into this [country] and people can talk all they want about preservation and all of the things that they're saying where money goes towards ― well, money was going ― in that case, going to a government which was probably taking the money, OK?" Trump said.
He added that the "terrible" decision was made by "a very high-level government person."
Trump said he never believed in the conservation argument that some hunters make, that money paid toward killing elephants would in turn help grow their populations.
The decision on the trophy ban had been hanging in limbo since the president tweeted twice in November that he was putting the decision on hold. Those tweets came amid fierce backlash against the administration for loosening the restriction.
"Put big game trophy decision on hold until such time as I review all conservation facts. Under study for years. Will update soon with Secretary Zinke. Thank you!" Trump said.
His second tweet said he'd be "hard pressed" to change his mind about putting a hold on the reversal, calling elephant hunting a "horror show."
At the time, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke released a statement in support of the president's hold, saying, "President Trump and I have talked and both believe that conservation and healthy herds are critical. As a result, in a manner compliant with all applicable laws, rules and regulations, the issuing of permits is being put on hold as the decision is being reviewed."
A number of major conservation and animal rights groups slammed the administration for undoing the import ban. They were joined by foreign policy experts and conservative pundits.
When Trump made the announcement about the ban Sunday, Zinke was attending the Shooting, Hunting and Outdoor Trade Show, the world's largest gun trade show, in Las Vegas. Photos he tweeted from the event showed him mingling with representatives from the National Rifle Association and National Shooting Sports Foundation.
Reps. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) and John Curtis (R-Utah) confirmed to The Hill that they were both attending the SCI convention this weekend.
FWS did not respond to multiple requests for comment about Sheehan's attendance or his meeting with representatives from the African nations.
The Center for Biological Diversity criticized Sheehan for attending the convention.
"It's deeply disturbing to see America's top wildlife official palling around with an organization fighting for virtually unlimited trophy hunting," said Noah Greenwald, the group's endangered species director. "This inappropriate behavior raises huge questions about Fish and Wildlife's ability to make impartial, scientific decisions about elephant hunting and other crucial conservation issues."
Zinke spoke at SCI's annual veterans breakfast in 2016, where he "expressed his support of SCI and all the veterans they serve, then [led] the room in the Pledge of Allegiance," according to the SCI blog.
When Sheehan was appointed to his role at FWS last June, SCI hailed the decision and was quick to mention he was a current SCI member.
"He is an avid hunter and has hunted in the U.S. and in Africa. Director Sheehan is very familiar with many of the issues that affect SCI members and their abilities to hunt and participate in sustainable use conservation in the U.S. and abroad," an SCI blog post read.
In July 2017 Zinke and Sheehan received a "wish list" letter from a number of hunting advocacy groups, according to a document obtained by the Huffington Post through a Freedom of Information Act request request. The list included requests to "immediately lift" the elephant trophy ban and reject a petition to put the African leopard on the endangered species list.
Last year SCI leadership wrote a series of posts critical of Trump's decision to put a hold on the trophy ban.
In a statement to The Hill this week, SCI President Paul Babaz said that the group believed the decision should have been based on science, not emotion.
"Unlike the so-called animal rights groups, hunters proudly fund both conservation efforts and anti-poaching efforts," Babaz said. "We believe these decisions should be based on sound science - not emotion - and we will continue to provide decision makers with facts on sustainable-use conservation as employed successfully both in the US and abroad."
- Updated 2:03 p.m.