Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.) is poised to lead the Department of the Interior, with his nomination passing a Senate committee last week and now headed to the Senate floor. Endangered species have cause for alarm.
As interior secretary, Zinke would oversee about one-fifth of the nation’s land, 70,000 employees and several agencies including the National Park Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
That means he’d lead the stewardship of America’s most vulnerable wildlife and plants. The Fish and Wildlife Service is one of two agencies that administers the Endangered Species Act, the strongest and most important federal law protecting threatened species. About 700 native animals and more than 900 native plants are currently listed as threatened or endangered.
Under the Obama administration, 23 species recovered enough to be removed from the protected list. “In the Act’s 43-year history, more recoveries have been declared under the [Obama] Administration’s watch than all past Administrations combined,” Fish and Wildlife announced this past August.
It was a piece of good news amidst an extinction crisis of tragic proportions. According to a World Wildlife Fund report published last year, humans could kill off two-thirds of the world’s wildlife by 2020.
Conservationists have expressed concern that Zinke’s nomination could halt the positive trend for America’s threatened species. Although his supporters note that he is a defender of public lands and one of the more conservation-minded GOP lawmakers, the League of Conservation Voters gave Zinke a rock-bottom 3 percent lifetime voting record on issues such as air and water, climate change, drilling, forests and wildlife.
Leda Huta, executive director of the Endangered Species Coalition ― which has vehemently opposed Zinke’s nomination ― told HuffPost that the Montana congressman has proven himself to be an enemy to threatened species.
“Rep. Zinke cast at least 21 votes against endangered species protections, including voting to remove endangered species protections for the gray wolf and to prevent protection for greater sage grouse, lesser prairie chicken and northern long-eared bats,” Huta said.
During his confirmation hearing, Zinke said he would consider reversing the Obama administration’s decision to stop oil and gas drilling in the Arctic, home to many endangered creatures including the polar bear. In 2015, he voted to block the Bureau of Land Management, an agency he could soon oversee, from limiting harm to wildlife, water and air from hydraulic fracking.
Zinke’s political career has been “substantially devoted to attacking endangered species and the Endangered Species Act,” said Kierán Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, in a December statement.
Beyond the issue of endangered species, Zinke’s stance on other environmental matters is mixed at best and has prompted conflicting reactions.
Zinke has on several occasions spoken out in opposition to the transfer of federal public lands to states and corporations. Last year, he voted against the GOP’s 2016 budget because it proposed selling off public lands. And at his Senate hearing, he reiterated his commitment to keeping public lands public.
The congressman, who is an avid hunter, has won support from some in the outdoor industry for his position on land conservation. In 2015, he was the only Republican to back a Democratic amendment to fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a federal program that aids local parks and recreation projects.
Zinke has also referred to himself as an “unapologetic admirer” of president and conservationist Theodore Roosevelt. But he has not been consistent in his commitment to land and water protections.
He voted to curb the use of the Antiquities Act, which Roosevelt signed into law in 1906 and which protects natural, cultural and scientific sites. He voted against public review of hard rock mining on public lands and for legislation pushing through approval of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. He opposed President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which aimed to curb emissions from power plants that cause climate change, and the stream protection rule, a regulation that would have protected waterways from mining operations. (House Republicans voted last week to overturn the latter regulation.)
Zinke has also argued that the science on climate change is “unsettled.” While he has said “something is going on” with the climate, he has stopped short of blaming humans for global warming. Last year, he told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle that although “you need to be prudent” about climate change, “it doesn’t mean you need to be destructive on fossil fuels.”
Like several of Trump’s other Cabinet picks ― including Rick Perry, nominated to head the Energy Department, and Scott Pruitt, picked to lead the Environmental Protection Agency ― Zinke has been accused of supporting the welfare of industry over the well-being of communities and the environment.
“Zinke consistently votes for the interests of oil and gas companies, which is not surprising since Oasis Petroleum is his largest campaign contributor and the oil and gas industry is his third-largest sector contributor,” said Suckling. Zinke has received $300,000 from oil and gas industry donors over the course of his political career.
Moreover, there are signs the congressman is starting to waffle on even his defense of public lands. He recently voted in favor of House Resolution 5, which makes it easier for the federal government to transfer ownership of public lands to individual states.
“[W]hat are we to make of your mixed signals, Mr. Zinke?” the Natural Resources Defense Council wrote in a Jan. 25 blog post. “In trying to gauge what kind of steward of public lands you’d be, do we look at what you did last July, what you did in early January, or what you said last week?”
“What are we to make of your mixed signals, Mr. Zinke?”
Despite Zinke’s contradictory record on environmental issues, some conservationists say they are cautiously optimistic that they can work with him. Given that a number of Trump’s other Cabinet picks have been vocally anti-science and some have been openly hostile to the agencies they’ve been chosen to lead, conservation activists and scientists admit they were bracing for Trump to appoint someone even more problematic to lead the Interior Department.
“Unlike other cabinet nominees, [Zinke’s] background makes him a reasonable choice for this position. Hunters and fishermen have historically played an important role in advocating for land conservation and have done so working collaboratively with other conservation organizations,” Norman Christensen, dean and professor emeritus at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment, told HuffPost in an email.
Christensen admitted that he was concerned about Zinke’s views on “resource extraction” and his take on managing national forests and range lands.
“Perhaps I could summarize my feelings this way,” Christensen said. “I am uneasy about his nomination and concerned that many of the conservation successes of the past 8 years could be undone, but I am fully aware that other potential nominees could be far worse.”
Dominique Mosbergen is a reporter at The Huffington Post covering climate change, extreme weather and extinction. Send tips or feedback to dominique.mosbergen@Twitter.or follow her on