Letting the Foxes ‘Protect’ the Hens in Ryan Zinke’s Department of Interior

On November 8, U.S. Department of Interior (DOI) Secretary Ryan Zinke announced the creation of an International Wildlife Conservation Council that will advise him. As a recent Science Policy Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science assigned to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) Division of International Conservation, I’ve watched the disarticulation of legislation intended to protect such iconic treasures as elephants, lions and giraffes, all species that the American public insisted upon saving, and which are protected via Congressional oversight. Here, however, that sanctity is jeopardized by beguilement at the federal level by Secretary Zinke.

I make three points: 1) that the Government Accountability Office is legally mandated to protect against conflicts of interests in appointments for federal advisory committees, 2) that duplication of regulatory bodies is to be avoided, and 3) the U.S. role in international treaties concerning wildlife conservation will be inexorably weakened once the fox guards the hen house, in which are the hallowed species Americans have chosen to legally protect.

The DOI plan is to draw an 18-“discretionary” member Council from at least five entities named in the November 8 notice. Four of these represent industry interests despite the 1972 Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) dictating that committees have balanced membership, avoid conflicts of interest, and provide agencies with objective advice.

These dictates are not evident in Zinke’s list of entities that includes: wildlife and habitat conservation and management organizations, U.S. hunters actively involved in international or domestic “hunting conservation”, the hunting sports industry, international hunting outfitters, and firearms or ammunition manufacturers.

It’s unclear how the “advice” of this Council would mesh with the in-house expertise of established divisions within USFWS. The Divisions of Management and Scientific Authorities already have decision-making mechanisms streamlined with 182 nations that are also signatories of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). CITES regulates trade in wildlife, including trophy-hunted species, through science-based assessments of a species risk from further exploitation and trade based on its vulnerability to compounded threats.

According to the notice, the Council will “review interactions with CITES with a goal of eliminating regulatory duplications” – even though the establishment of this new Council would epitomize duplication (FACA stipulates that councils be established out of necessity). The U.S. could soon become an outlier yet again by absconding from another international convention (this time CITES) just as it has become a fugitive in the Paris climate accord.

The Council would also review import suspensions and bans and “streamline and expedite” the process of import permits, presumably making it easier for U.S. hunters to import international wildlife trophies irrespective of what the science says.

For example, the USFWS ended the import of sport-hunted elephant trophies from Tanzania in April 2014 following a 60 percent decline in Tanzania’s elephants from ivory poaching. In an ongoing case, Safari Club International (SCI) and the National Rifle Association (NRA) are suing USFWS on the basis that many of SCI’s members already had made plans to hunt elephants in Tanzania in 2014.

There’s little doubt that SCI and the NRA will be represented on Zinke’s “Conservation” Council and work to overturn this and other bans, including on imports of lion and leopard trophies, undermining incentives for ethical hunts (not baited, nor captive or canned).

The Council will also review seizure and forfeiture actions and practices, very likely diminishing the well-established 117-year-old Lacey Act by which USFWS wildlife inspectors and Office of Law Enforcement (OLE) can seize, upon attempted import, wildlife protected by laws in other countries; in this way, inspectors and OLE help regulate imports of unlawful hunting trophies.

Finally, the Council will also review foreign species listed on the Endangered Species Act (ESA), which include species of interest to U.S. hunters, for example exotic, endangered antelopes. The “take” of ESA listed species – irrespective of the country in which they live – is strictly regulated.

DOI is seeking comment and nominations for the Council in a period that is all of 16 and 30 days long, respectively. While the U.S. Constitution mandates that religion and state are not conflated, the line here between promulgating of business and recreational shooting grows increasingly murky. What is not is that when foxes guard the hens, and industry is indiscriminately merged with State under the guise of public benefit, the interest of many ethical hunters and other like-minded conservationists will be circumvented, as will time-honored federal policies.

While regulated, responsible hunting has indeed been part of the North American conservation movement with groups like Ducks Unlimited promoting the conservation agenda. For hunting to succeed as a conservation tool, good governance as well as sound understanding of population numbers and species ecology are prerequisites. This is not the reality everywhere U.S. hunters go.

  • Some 48 hours after this blog was published, SCI announced the lifting of Obama-era bans on the import of elephant hunting trophies into the U.S. from Zimbabwe and Zambia. More information on the Humane Society blog.

Katarzyna Nowak is a conservation scientist affiliated with the Zoology Department at the University of the Free State, Qwaqwa, South Africa. She has spent fifteen years researching and writing about the behavior and conservation of wild monkeys and elephants, and human-wildlife interactions. She helped establish and advises the Southern Tanzania Elephant Program. She’s currently based in Colorado’s Front Range. Photo credit: Trevor Jones

Changing Planet


Meet the Author
Katarzyna Nowak is a conservation scientist affiliated with the Zoology Department at the University of the Free State, Qwaqwa, South Africa. She has spent fifteen years researching and writing about the behavior and conservation of wild monkeys and elephants, and human-wildlife interactions. She helped establish and advises the Southern Tanzania Elephant Program. She's currently based in Colorado's Front Range. Photo credit: Trevor Jones