Ryan Zinke Ignores Wildlife Experts To Tap Montana Ally, Fellow Hunter For Conservation Advice

The interior secretary knows David Spady, a longtime conservative media consultant, from Montana and has met with him regularly since taking office.

Montana native David Spady is a longtime conservative operative in California, a foe of government regulation, the environmental movement and climate science, and a ubiquitous presence on social media chronicling his ostentatious gun and hunting escapades.

He’s also a man with extraordinary access to the Trump family, top administration officials and Republican lawmakers, and was recently tapped to advise the head of the Interior Department on wildlife and habitat conservation.

In the last year and a half, Spady has swapped hunting stories with Eric Trump at Trump World Tower in New York City, and posted a photo in November 2016 with then-candidate Donald Trump, dressed in a Trump brand tie and a camouflage “Make America Great Again” hat. He’s appeared in pictures with Donald Trump Jr., whom he called a “kindred hunter,” and Vice President Mike Pence, whom he described as “a man of unwavering character, steadfast loyalty, a great sense of humor and excellent communication skills.”

He and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) are friends. He’s mingled at Montana ski resorts, including the private Yellowstone Club, with Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Steve Daines (R-Mont.). At the White House Christmas party, Spady looked at home with Ivanka Trump, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and former White House press secretary Sean Spicer.

“There’s a number of people that are in positions at this current time of power and influence that happen to be friends of mine,” Spady told HuffPost.

One of his closest allies in the Trump administration is Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. According to Spady’s social media accounts, he’s met with Zinke at least a dozen times since January 2017.

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Last month, shortly after Zinke announced to a roundtable of sporting and environmental groups that he would be making a “grand pivot” from energy development to conservation, the Interior Department named 17 members to its Hunting and Shooting Sports Conservation Council. The volunteer panel, which will advise Zinke on how to increase hunting opportunities and conserve game species, is made up almost entirely of representatives of hunting groups and the gun lobby.

There’s Chris Cox, executive director of the National Rifle Association’s Institute for Legislative Action, and NRA board member and trophy hunter Graham Hill. There’s Donald Peay, the founder of Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, who called for the administration to gut national monuments and has dismissed that the North American conservation model — the idea that wildlife is a public resource that must be protected — as “socialism.”

Then there’s Spady, a longtime media and public affairs consultant and the former California state director of Americans for Prosperity, a right-wing political advocacy group that fossil fuel barons David and Charles Koch founded in 2004. Like Zinke, Spady is from Montana, an avid hunter and fisherman, and a staunch defender of the 2nd Amendment.

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In January 2017, a few weeks after Trump selected Zinke as his interior secretary, Spady posted a photo of a stuffed bison head hanging on the wall of the former Montana congressman’s office. The day before Trump’s inauguration, Spady and Zinke posed for a photo at a formal event in Washington. The two socialized at a fundraiser for Daines near Big Sky, Montana, in March 2017, as well as at a Mexican restaurant in Santa Barbara, California, the following month.

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On Sept. 5, Spady and Zinke posed alongside a stuffed grizzly bear in Zinke’s office. “Three Montanans in the 2nd coolest office in Washington, DC,” Spady wrote in an Instagram post. He was among the guests at a Christmas party Zinke threw at Interior Department headquarters. At this year’s SHOT Show, an annual gathering of the shooting, hunting and outdoor trade industries, Spady took a picture of Zinke looking at lightweight body armor ― manufactured by DFNDR Armor, one of Spady’s clients ― that fits into a backpack to protect children in the event of a school shooting. Less than a week later, Spady posted a photo of himself and Zinke with former NFL offensive tackle Matt Light.

Spady also met with Zinke at Interior headquarters on March 12 and April 12, according to his Instagram account. Last month, after flying to Washington aboard a private jet ― which seems to be Spady’s preferred mode of transportation, based on his social media presence ― and checking into Trump International Hotel, Spady posted a photo of the Washington Monument from Zinke’s office balcony. And he checked in again on Facebook at the Interior Department on May 17, just five days before being named to Zinke’s advisory council.

Aaron Weiss, media director of the Colorado-based conservation group Center for Western Priorities, finds it telling that Zinke gives face time to Spady on a near monthly basis, but refused to meet with his advisory board for the National Park Service ― a claim made by board members who resigned in January. (Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift dismissed that as “patently false.”)

“Giving Spady, who holds extremist views on public lands, a seat at the table shows that Ryan Zinke’s claims of a ‘pivot’ to conservation are complete nonsense,” Weiss said.

In a letter dated May 11, which Spady posted online, Zinke wrote that he appreciated Spady’s “willingness to commit your time and expertise to ensure we have broad-based input as we address recreational hunting and wildlife conservation issues.”

Zinke signed the letter with the words, “Bravo zulu!” ― a naval signal meaning “well done.”

The two men know each other from before Zinke’s tenure at Interior. Spady first met Zinke when Zinke was running for Congress in Montana and helped introduce the Republican candidate around. He said his numerous visits with Zinke over the last year and a half were social visits, not related to business or hunting.

“My wife and I have interacted with him and his wife a few times socially,” Spady said. “It’s not something I do every time I’m in Washington, D.C., but I’m back there quite a bit and if I have some time I’ll swing by and say hi to him, as I do with a number of other people I know there.”

Spady enjoys hunting, fishing and shooting guns, but he has no professional experience working in the field of wildlife conservation. According to his LinkedIn profile, he studied communications at Azusa Pacific University and national security studies at California State University, San Bernardino. He worked for Americans for Prosperity from 2007 to 2016 and has been with Salem Media Group, either as a full-time employee or consultant, for nearly two decades. In 2007, he founded his own public relations group. In addition to DFNDR Armor, his clients include Freedom Partners, a conservative nonprofit founded in 2011 and backed by the Koch brothers.

“I’ve done contract work for some Koch-related organizations, but am not involved with any of them at this time,” Spady said.

In its May 22 announcement, Interior noted that Spady is president of the Liberty and Property Rights Coalition. The organization, which Spady has led since July 2013, is all but nonexistent. It has no website or Facebook page, but according to a 2013 press release is “committed to promoting and preserving Constitutional rights to liberty and property in public policy and the law.”

Spady told HuffPost that the group is “not actively engaged at this time,” and that he believes Interior referenced it in its announcement “because it was the most obvious group I’ve been involved with that dealt primarily with land use issues.”

His appointment seems particularly odd considering some of the people Zinke named as alternate members of his council. Take for example Becky Humphries, CEO of the National Wild Turkey Federation, who’s worked for decades in wildlife management and conservation, including as director of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and the nonprofit Ducks Unlimited.

Spady said he applied and was chosen for the panel, but is unaware of what criteria Interior used in its selections. Along with advocating for increased access for hunting on public lands, he hopes to raise awareness about the value that hunting and fishing bring to wildlife conservation.

“It’s one of my great passions,” he said. “I also see myself as somebody who wants to use any platform I can to advance that for the rest of the general public.”

The Interior Department did not respond to HuffPost’s requests for comment.

Spady appears to live a lavish lifestyle. He travels a lot. He’s a fan of taxidermied creatures, energy drinks, wild game and guns, guns, guns.

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He often builds “bed mummies” out of sheets in high-end hotel rooms.

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Along with a passion for firearms and hunting, Spady brings to the council animosity for government regulation, in particular the Endangered Species Act, and a well-documented history of dismissing the near-universally accepted science of climate change. He’s voiced support for transferring control of federal land to states, something Zinke has said won’t happen under his watch. And he has embraced portions of a right-wing conspiracy that Agenda 21 ― the voluntary sustainability plan developed by the United Nations and signed by more than 170 countries including the United States in 1992 ― is a tool for controlling land and stripping away individual rights. Glenn Beck wrote a dystopian science fiction novel based on Agenda 21.

In a 2013 interview with a Bozeman, Montana, radio station, Spady said “there is an attempt at some kind of environmental global governance” and that those behind the international deal are pushing “almost like an anti-human agenda.” He said Agenda 21 “seeks to undermine how we live our lives, and really re-engineer our lives, create unnecessary burdens for taxpayers and ultimately kill jobs and lower our quality of life.”

Asked about Agenda 21, Spady said he takes issue with aspects of the program ― “I don’t believe China and Congo should be deciding U.S. policy on environmental protection.” ― but does not “subscribe to all the conspiracy nonsense.”

“I prefer to live in the real world,” he said.

Spady has produced two documentaries. His 2013 film, “Wolves in Government Clothing,” is about “predators in the wild, and in government, and how the Endangered Species Act has empowered both of them to destroy people’s lives.” In the film, Spady says the wolf has “become a symbol of wilderness idealism” and that wolves and people are “incompatible.” His 2014 documentary is about the California water crisis, which he blamed on “radical environmentalists” and Washington bureaucrats who push “utopian environmental ideals.”

In 2014, his organization, the Liberty and Property Rights Coalition, authored a five-page report arguing that federal land management agencies have no law enforcement authority. An “appalling example” of “tyranny,” the group wrote, was the 2014 armed standoff ― or, as LPRC described it, a “para-military raid” ― between federal law enforcement and supporters of Nevada farmer Cliven Bundy, which stemmed from a decades-long dispute over land rights. The report appears to have been authored by Ramona Hage Morrison, the organization’s executive director and the daughter of the late Wayne Hage, a Nevada rancher who for years battled the federal government over grazing rights.

Also in 2014, Spady was among the keynote speakers at a conference of the far-right American Freedom Alliance. Among the other speakers was Richard Mack, the former sheriff of Graham County, Arizona, who played a key role in strategizing the Bundy standoff and famously said he was planning to put women and children up front in case the situation escalated into a shootout.

In April, Spady shared on Facebook a Wall Street Journal story about how ranching families like the Hages are losing a land war in the American West.

“Radical environmentalism and the heavy hand of government are doing to ranchers and farmers what droughts, wildfires, disasters and extreme hardships often weren’t able to do ― put them out of business,” Spady wrote.

Spady told HuffPost he does not remember the 2014 LPRC report and stressed he has nothing to do with the Bundy family.

“I have never met them and I’m not a fan of their tactics or rhetoric,” he said.

Since taking over Interior, Zinke has made a major push to promote hunting, fishing and shooting on federal land. He’s said that the best stewards of wildlife are America’s sportsmen and -women. And he has close ties to Safari Club International, a hunting advocacy group that lobbied the Trump administration to overturn Obama-era bans on importing elephant and lion trophies from Zimbabwe and Zambia.

Interior has made several pro-hunting announcements in recent weeks, including expanding hunting and fishing opportunities on numerous wildlife refuges and moving to scrap a 2015 rule that bans aggressive hunting tactics in national preserves in Alaska, including shooting bear cubs and wolf pups in their dens and swimming caribou from motorboats. The latter move, the agency said, would increase hunting opportunities, as Zinke called for in a pair of secretarial orders last year.

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