In a surprising move, President Donald Trump has left-footed his own Department of Interior’s attempts to overturn former president Barack Obama’s ban on the import of wildlife trophies. But leaked emails suggest the department is not backing off, writes DON PINNOCK.
Zinke had plenty of support. In 2017, eight hunting organisations petitioned the secretary – whose office is decked with mounted animal heads – to “take swift action to right the perceived wrongs of the previous administration”. Trump’s abrupt U-turn appears to undermine his own appointees, break standard practice and all but invite a legal challenge from his customary allies. But he has refused to back down.
In a British ITV interview with Piers Morgan early this week, Trump criticised the unnamed Fish and Wildlife Service official who decided to resume the trophy imports.
“I thought it was terrible,” Trump told Morgan, “that this was done by a very high-level government person. As soon as I heard about it, I turned it around.
“I didn’t want elephants killed and stuffed and have the tusks brought back into this [country]. People can talk all they want about preservation and all of the things that they’re saying where money goes toward. Well, money was going, in that case, to a government which was probably taking the money, okay?”
Ryan Zinke, however, doesn’t appear to be backing off. Leaked emails between Fish and Wildlife employees and the US hunting umbrella organisation Safari Club International reveal that Zinke and Interior Department Deputy Director Greg Sheehan will be attending the Safari Club convention. It’s thought to be the first time an Interior secretary has participated in a Safari Club International convention.
The leaked emails also indicate that at the convention, Zinke and Sheehan are scheduled to meet high-level delegates from Africa – probably South Africa, Zimbabwe, Tanzania Uganda and possibly Zambia and Mozambique – this weekend.
Last year one of the petitioners to Zinke, an outfit named Conservation Force, said the secretary should walk back Obama-era restrictions on the import of lion, leopard and elephant trophies from Zimbabwe and Zambia and revise the US seizure and forfeiture practices. Hunting “is not an ideological issue to us”, said its president, John Jackson. “It’s traditional conservation practice.”
Under Obama, the Fish and Wildlife Service had said it could not make the finding that the sport-killing of Zimbabwe elephants “would enhance survival of the species”, as the law requires.
Safari Club International and the National Rifle Association filed suit to challenge the Zimbabwe ban. The groups contended that the Fish and Wildlife Service failed to support its ban with necessary findings. In November 2017 the Fish and Wildlife Service complied, announcing it would resume trophy import permits for Zimbabwe and Zambia. There was a public outcry, and Trump tweeted he would put the decision on hold so he could “review all conservation facts”.
Less than 15 minutes after the US Fish and Wildlife Service announced it would lift the ban, Trump’s “review” arrived as a Tweet: “Big-game trophy decision will be announced … but will be very hard pressed to change my mind that this horror show in any way helps conservation of elephants or any other animal.”
This sent Fish and Wildlife Service officials scrambling to figure out how they might unwind a decision that was painstakingly vetted and formally published. They also had to deal with hunters who had received trophy permits.
“In my experience, it’s unprecedented for a final decision to be put on hold and reversed by the White House,” former Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe told the news service Greenwire. “We can conserve elephants without hunting them,” he added.
Writing in Huffington Post, Chris D’Angelo said the move by Trump was puzzling. “That Trump would side with the conservation community over gun rights and hunting advocacy groups is surprising. His sons Donald Trump Jr and Eric Trump are avid big game hunters. In a photo that surfaced in 2012, Trump Jr can be seen holding the tail of an elephant he shot and killed in Africa.”
At a Safari Club International jamboree this weekend, Zinke and Sheehan will undoubtedly discuss lion and elephant trophy imports, among other such imports. SCI is arranging travel for African delegates so they can meet with Zinke. Formal invitations to meet him will evidently come from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, a clear indication of support for the hunting industry. DM