Controversial Trump hunting group meets for first time

Controversial Trump hunting group meets for first time
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The 16 members of the Interior Department's new Wildlife Conservation Council — the majority of whom have ties to pro-hunting organizations — met for the first time Friday  and found little cause for disagreement. 

Members agreed that hunting is necessary for conserving endangered species and impoverished communities in Africa; that illegal hunting — largely done by organized crime communities — should not to be mistaken with legal paid hunting; and that the council needed to act fast.

“I believe that everyone here today has a shared interest in wildlife conservation, both in America and around the world,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife (FWS) head Greg Sheehan said. “There are many ways to enhance and protect those populations. We believe that hunters and dollars that they bring to foreign nations contribute towards conservation efforts.”

The group, which included a number of heads of hunting conservation groups, a professional bowhunter and a representative of the National Rifle Association, agreed that the committee would advise Interior Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeNew policy at Interior's in-house watchdog clamps down on interactions with press Overnight Energy: EPA proposes scrapping limits on coal plant waste | Appointee overseeing federal lands once advocated selling them | EPA lifts Obama-era block on controversial mine Latest appointee overseeing federal public lands once advocated to sell them MORE and the administration on the importance of conservation and enforcement against poaching. 

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Zinke, who was in Arizona for the conference of a pro-elk hunting group, didn't attend the meeting.

“This committee needs to work on urgency on what we can do,” said Steven Chancellor, the CEO of Indiana’s largest coal energy group and a top Trump campaign donor. “Right now I feel like we’re hunkering and thirsting for more education.”

The five-hour meeting didn't touch on big game hunting trophy imports — a controversial part of incentivizing hunting in foreign countries that has generated criticism for the administration.

On March 1, FWS changed its policy regarding the imports of African elephant trophies from a blanket ban in some regions to a determination on a “case-by-case” basis. 

But the meeting Friday instead focused on highlighting the depleted elephant and rhino populations in various African countries, with the implication that hunting was key for sustaining that wildlife.

At one point, Cameron Hanes, a bowhunter who was pictured in a tweet Wednesday giving Zinke some archery pointers, asked for details on the number of African elephants killed illegally versus legally — a data point Sheehan said the Interior didn’t know, as it only tracked trophy imports. 

Chris Hudson, president of the Dallas Safari Club, pushed for the name of the top country buying poached African animal imports. 

“I think a number of countries in Asia pose a lot of problems,” Sheehan said. “I don’t have the hard numbers, but China is right near the top with other countries in Asia being in second place.”

The council was engulfed with controversy even before its first meeting. Just nine days before FWS first reversed an Obama-era ban on African elephant trophy imports, Interior announced the creation of the council to "advise the Secretary of the Interior on the benefits that international recreational hunting has on foreign wildlife and habitat conservation.”

Now the committee is facing new criticism for what critics say is a blanket pro-hunting stance. Not one member of the committee represents an animal rights or wildlife organization.

“They are reinforcing whatever their message and their agenda is,” said Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee. “That is kind of indicative of how they run it, and indicative of a predetermined decision. A cheerleading group. Then the decision is validated for them.” 

But Ivan Carter, an elephant hunting safari guide and host of a TV show on human wildlife conflict,  said that he considered education to be the council's main goal.

“What I hope to bring to this council is a lot of very first-hand experience from the third world dealing with these issues,” said Carter, who was voted chairman of the council’s subcommittee on enforcement.

“A hunter that tells you the reason he goes hunting is to dig a well, feed a community, or whatever — that’s not the truth. The truth is they go hunting because they like the pursuit. And thank goodness for that, because they are prepared to pay a large amount of money to do that and the resulting benefit of that money are all of these other benefits.”

The committee is set to meet again in May.