Wildlife conservation board appointed by Zinke subject of trophy hunting complaint

(Courthouse News Service) Urging a federal judge to disband the board that is supposed to advise the White House on wildlife conservation, four nonprofits claimed in court this week that the council flouts federal law by operating in secret to advance the interests of the trophy-hunting industry.

Represented by Jeffrey Dubner from the Democracy Forward Foundation, the National Resources Defense Council is the lead plaintiff in the complaint filed today in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke appointed the advisory board at issue last fall.

Despite its name, the complaint says, Zinke’s International Wildlife Conservation Council “actually exists to promote the anthesis of sound conservation policy: the hunting of imperiled species as a means to import their heads, hides, tusks, feet, and other body parts.”

The complaint notes that Zinke “has accepted tens of thousands of dollars of campaign contributions from the trophy hunting industry” and stacked his council “solely with representatives of the hunting, firearm, and animal trade industries.”

Each of the plaintiffs by contrast is “committed to effective and science-based conservation strategies,” the complaint continues.

They say Zinke’s failure to appoint a balanced board, coupled with the council’s failure to make its work open to the public, flies in the face of a 1972 law called the the Federal Advisory Committee Act.

Congress enacted FACA “to curb the executive branch’s reliance on superfluous and secretive ‘advisory committees:’ ad hoc, non-federal bodies that nonetheless counseled governmental decisionmakers on significant swaths of national policy,” the complaint sates.

“Prior to FACA,” it continues, “special interests had used these committees – and the associated veneer of governmental legitimacy – to drive federal decisionmaking outside the light of public scrutiny, participation, and debate.”

The NRDC says this is exactly what is happening now that Zinke has granted “a small band of trophy hunting enthusiasts and politically connected donors … an outsized opportunity to craft federal wildlife policy.”

“For decades, this group has sought to relax or eliminate federal laws that impede its chosen pastime: the international hunting of imperiled species – such as lions, elephants, and rhinos – for trophies and for profit,” the complaint states. “Now, acting under an ill-gotten federal imprimatur, these individuals are moving quickly to achieve their goals.”

Already the website of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service boasts a hunter-friendly message.

“You can call it trophy hunting, or you can call it bucket-list destination hunting,” the websitestates.

Wednesday’s complaint notes that Six of the individuals on Zinke’s advisory board have ties to the National Rifle Association or firearm manufacturers, and eight are connected with to “avowedly pro-trophy hunting organizations” such as Safari Club International and Conservation Force.

Emphasizing the highly specialized interest that is being served by the council’s focus, the complaint also points that just one big-game overseas hunt “tends to cost significantly more than the median household income for American families.”

“Zinke’s thrill-kill council is unethical and illegal, and apparently that’s just fine with him,” Tanya Sanerib, international program legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement.

“These people kill imperiled animals for fun,” Sanerib added. “They have no business making policy decisions about wildlife imports and we’re hopeful that the courts will agree.”

While nearly every voice on Zinke’s council has a personal or financial interest “in lowering regulatory safeguards for importing exotic animals and their parts,” the complaint notes that it also excludes “any scientist, economist, or expert in international wildlife conservation.”

Details about the makeup of Zinke’s council can be found on the website FACAdatabase.gov.

“All but one of the 16 discretionary members the administration chose, hunt foreign species that are subject to import permits, represent an organization that promotes hunting of such species, guide hunts for such species, or is a ‘celebrity hunter’ who  glorifies hunting of such species,” Elly Pepper, deputy director of the NRDC’s Wildlife Trade, Wildlife Division, Nature Program, said in a March 2018 blog post.

“This insanely biased membership ensures that all committee decisions will benefit hunters at the expense of iconic species already on the brink,” Pepper added.

According to reporting by Politco, Zinke received $79,000 from gun-industry lobbyists in 2016, making him the recipient of the second-highest contributions from the gun lobby, after Speaker of the House Paul Ryan.

Representatives from the Department of Interior and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have not responded to requests for comment.

The Natural Resources Defense Council and the Center for Biological Diversity brought a previous suit against Zinke in November 2017 over the Trump administration’s rollback of a ban on importing big-game trophies from Zimbabwe.

Last month, the Interior Department’s inspector general launched an investigation into a Montana real estate deal involving Zinke and the chairman of Haliburton.