Zinke says order will preserve big-game hunting through habitat conservation

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke talks with Forest Service officials at the Lolo Peak incident command center in Florence last year after unveiling his vision to improve forest health and reduce summer wildfires. This month, Zinke signed an order he says will conserve big-game habitat and hunting opportunities. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Citing a need to better understand the migration of large North American mammals, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke this month directed his agency to work more closely with individual Western states to improve habitat quality and winter range for big-game species.

Signed at the Western Conservation and Hunting Expo in Salt Lake City, the order looks to build collaboration between states and private landowners, and use best science to develop guidelines that ensure the survival of big-game populations.

“American hunters are the backbone of big-game conservation efforts and now, working with state and private landowners, the (Interior) Department will leverage its land management and scientific expertise to both study the migration habits of wildlife as well as identify ways to improve the habitat,” Zinke said. “This can be done by working with ranchers to modify their fences, working with states to collaborate on sagebrush restoration, or working with scientists to better understand migration routes.”

Zinke said the order seeks to improve wildlife management and conservation, as well as big-game hunting opportunities, by improving priority habitats within key migration corridors across the West.

Priority states include Montana, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming – states where residential development has cut into wildlife habitat and threatened migration corridors.

Zinke said several states are already working to prioritize migration initiatives to better understand the habits of mule deer, elk and antelope. However, he added, the federal government can do more to better understand the animals and improve their habitat.

“We need to manage appropriately,” Zinke said. “My goal is healthy herds for American hunters and wildlife watchers, and this order will help establish better migration corridors for some of North America’s most iconic big-game species.”

The reaction from wildlife conservation groups was largely positive, though some groups, including Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, urged Zinke to take the approach further.

“We commend the secretary’s decision but urge him to apply the same rigorous approach to other resource management challenges, such as our Western sagebrush steppe – home to hundreds of species of wildlife,” said Land Tawney, the group’s president and CEO. “These unique public lands and waters deserve no less.”

Zinke has taken credit for a number of orders he believes will expand hunting opportunities across the West. Among then, he opened national wildlife refuges and national monuments to hunting.

At the request of Sen. Steve Daines, he also reversed an order banning the use of lead ammo and fishing tackle, despite objections that it poisoned plant and animals when left on the ground or in water.

Blake Henning, the chief conservation officer with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, said Zinke’s latest effort is a positive step in preserving big-game habitat.

“In order to do that, we must maintain a focus on winter range and migration corridors for elk and other wildlife,” Henning said. “We support stronger collaboration between landowners, agencies, conservation groups like RMEF and all others seeking to enhance habitat for the benefit of our wildlife populations.”