WASHINGTON — Along with receiving thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from Safari Club International while running for Congress, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke spoke at the hunting advocacy group’s 2016 veterans breakfast, had a notable photo-op with its director of litigation on his first day as head of the Interior Department, and dined with its vice president in Alaska earlier this year.
The appropriateness of the relationship has come into question after the Interior Department lifted Obama-era bans on importing elephant and lion trophies from Zimbabwe and Zambia.
Last week, SCI announced via a celebratory news release that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had begun issuing permits for American hunters to import elephants killed for sport in the two African countries. SCI and the National Rifle Association had sued to block that ban in 2014.
But before that, Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States, called the announcement of the reauthorized permits “jarring.” That it was made by SCI “suggests an uncomfortably cozy and even improper relationship between trophy hunting interests and the Department of the Interior,” he added in a blog post last week.
Founded in 1972, SCI is an advocacy group with more than 50,000 members that focuses on “protecting hunters’ rights and promoting wildlife conservation.” It has been criticized for giving out awards — with names like “Grand Slam African 29,” “African Big Five” and “Bears of the World” — to hunters who kill exotic and sometimes threatened species, like elephants, rhinos and polar bears.
SCI’s support for Zinke, an avid hunter whose office features a slew of taxidermied creatures, dates back to at least 2014, when the native Montanan first ran for the U.S. House of Representatives. The group’s political action committee donated a total $13,500 to Zinke’s 2014 and 2016 congressional campaigns, according to Federal Election Commission data.
During the 2016 election cycle, SCI was one of Zinke’s top 20 contributors, according to data compiled OpenSecrets.org. And only one candidate, Rep. Bruce Poliquin (R-Maine), received more money from the group.
In February 2016, during his first term in Congress, Zinke was a featured speaker at SCI’s annual veterans breakfast, where he “expressed his support of SCI and all the veterans they serve, then [led] the room in the Pledge of Allegiance,” according to a release by the group. SCI endorsed Zinke in the election later that year.
SCI celebrated last December when Trump tapped Zinke to lead the Interior Department — an agency that manages some 500 million acres of federal land, including the 59 national parks. The former Navy SEAL “has stood with hunters for greater access and for wildlife conservation policies based on sound science instead of emotion,” SCI President Larry Higgins said at the time.
A day after being sworn in, Zinke signed a pair of hunter-focused secretarial orders. One overturned a federal ban on using lead ammunition and fishing tackle on Fish and Wildlife Service lands, including wildlife refuges. The other was aimed at expanding hunting, fishing and recreation access on federal lands.
At the signing ceremony at department headquarters in Washington, D.C., Zinke was flanked by representatives of nearly 20 outdoor and pro-hunting groups. SCI was, as the group described in a release, “front and center.”
“SCI’s Director of Litigation, Anna Seidman, had a prime spot, right at Secretary Zinke’s elbow, to witness the signing of these important orders for the hunting community,” SCI wrote on its website.
A little more than two months after being sworn in, Zinke was scheduled to deliver remarks at SCI’s annual “Lobby Day,” a day of meetings with legislators that coincided with the group’s monthly board meeting.
According to SCI, other Interior Department officials took Zinke’s place after he was pulled away on official business related to Trump’s executive orders threatening 27 of America’s national monuments.
After the event, SCI wrote in a report on its website that it was “obvious” that the department officials who attended “understood the value that SCI brings to the table in helping them to execute their missions.”
Less than a month later, Zinke met face-to-face with the group’s vice president, Eddie Grasser, according to documents obtained by the Western Values Project through a Freedom of Information Act request. After swinging by a fundraiser for Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) at a steakhouse in Anchorage, Zinke and several staff and security had dinner at a local brewery with Grasser and John Stacey, president of the Alaska Professional Hunters Association. The reservation was for 14 people.
The purpose of the meeting is unclear. Neither the Interior Department nor SCI responded to HuffPost’s requests for comment.
As Zinke has prioritized energy development over conservation, a number of hunting and fishing groups that came out as early supporters, including a few present at the March signing ceremony, have grown frustrated with him. But SCI has remained a loyal ally, even supporting Zinke’s controversial, oil-friendly order targeting an Obama-era conservation plan for the greater sage grouse.
SCI supports amending the Antiquities Act — signed by President Theodore Roosevelt more than a century ago — in order to strip away presidents’ power to unilaterally designate national monuments. Zinke has said the act has “become a tool of political advocacy rather than public interest.” And he has recommended Trump shrinking or otherwise weakening at least 10 existing national monuments, according to a leaked copy of the report Zinke submitted to the White House in late August.
While there is plenty to suggest there is a strong alliance, the recent decision by Zinke’s agency regarding trophy hunting stands out. Greg Sheehan, principal deputy director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, broke the news to SCI during the African Wildlife Consultative Forum in Tanzania, an agency spokesperson told HuffPost last week. The forum, which ended Friday, was hosted by the Safari Club International Foundation and the United Republic of Tanzania.
Facing immediate backlash, Trump suspended his own administration’s decision shortly thereafter. And in a post to Twitter on Sunday, the president called trophy hunting a “horror show” and said he’s unlikely to allow for such imports. Citing White House aides, The New York Times reported Monday that Trump learned of the reauthorized import permits via news reports and had not been involved in the decision.
“I, personally, absolutely think this is a Zinke thing,” Tanya Sanerib, a senior attorney with the conservation group Center for Biological Diversity, told HuffPost. She noted Zinke’s installation of a “Big Buck Hunter” arcade game in the cafeteria of Interior Department headquarters, a bizarre attempt to highlight the contributions the hunting and fishing communities make to conservation.
“He seems to be well-embedded with the sport hunting crowd,” Sanerib said. “And obviously, this is something Safari Club has had at the top of their list.”
The Center for Biological Diversity and the Natural Resources Defense Council filed a lawsuit on Monday against the Trump administration in an effort to maintain the Obama-era bans on importing elephants and lions.
In a letter to Trump on Monday, SCI ran to Zinke’s defense, saying he and the Fish and Wildlife Service “made crucial, scientifically supported determinations about hunting and the U.S. importation of African elephants from Zimbabwe and Zambia.”
“By supporting Secretary’s Zinke’s authorization of import permits, you can reverse the senseless acts perpetrated by the Obama administration against hunting and the sustainable use conservation of African wildlife,” the letter reads.
The announcement about elephant trophy imports came just days after Zinke announced the creation of an International Wildlife Conservation Council to advise him on “the benefits that international recreational hunting has on foreign wildlife and habitat conservation, anti-poaching and illegal wildlife trafficking programs.” The 18 members of the council, who have not yet been selected, will work to expedite the process of importing sport-hunted wildlife. It seems likely that SCI, the NRA and other industry groups will have seats on the council.
In an op-ed published last week by National Geographic, Katarzyna Nowak, a conservation scientist affiliated with the zoology department at the University of the Free State, Qwaqwa, in South Africa, expressed alarm at the news.
“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,” she wrote.