Interior Dept. drops trophy hunting council amid court fight

WASHINGTON (AP) — Facing significant legal challenges, the Trump administration has disbanded its advisory board created to help boost trophy hunting and relax federal rules for importing the heads and hides of African elephants, lions and rhinos.

In a filing to a federal court in New York, an official with the Department of Interior said the two-year charter for the International Wildlife Conservation Council had expired and that there were no plans to renew it. The board held its final meeting in October.

The council was created by then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, a former Republican congressman from Montana forced to resign amid a corruption scandal. A 2018 investigation by The Associated Press showed that the board was stuffed with big-game hunters, including appointees with direct ties to President Donald Trump and his family.

A coalition of environmental groups later sued, alleging that the board's one-sided makeup violated the law governing the creation of federal advisory boards. The government's decision to terminate the board, first revealed in a court filing on Friday, was hailed as a victory by those seeking to blunt its influence.

“I have little doubt our litigation spurred the administration’s decision to abandon the IWCC and walk away from its biased and un-transparent practices,” said Zak Smith, international wildlife conservation director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “We’re glad the Trump administration is closing shop on this ridiculously misguided council and we await a full accounting of its tainted work product.”

An avid hunter who adorned his Washington office with animals preserved through taxidermy, including a snarling grizzly bear, Zinke created the council to represent a "strong partnership" between federal wildlife officials and those who hunt or profit from hunting. In its 2017 charter, the council included among its its duties "recommending removal of barriers to the importation into the United States of legally hunted wildlife" and “ongoing review of import suspension/bans and providing recommendations that seek to resume the legal trade of those items, where appropriate.”

The council met five times over the last two years, issuing a report in December that provided a description of the presentations the board had received. However, the council's members ultimately did not vote on making any formal recommendations to the Interior Department.

Eric Alvarez, the acting assistant director for International Affairs at the Fish and Wildlife Service, said in a written statement to the court that the council's final report to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt would not be regarded as anything more than “correspondence,” since it was not adopted in a public meeting. Alvarez went on to say that the council's initial charter expired on Dec. 21.

"Because there is not a valid charter, the terms of all members of the IWCC have also terminated," Alvarez told the judge. “I am not aware of any plans to bring back this discretionary committee or any new committee with a comparable mission or scope in the future.”

In a separate filing on Friday, the Justice Department asked the federal judge overseeing the lawsuit to dismiss the case, citing the wildlife council's dissolution.

Interior spokesman Conner Swanson said Monday the department "takes illegal wildlife trafficking seriously and will continue working to grow our partnerships, while continuing to move toward shared conservation stewardship.”

The AP's 2018 review of the backgrounds and social media posts of the 16 council members Zinke selected showed they were likely to agree with his position that the best way to protect critically threatened or endangered species is to encourage wealthy Americans to shoot some of them, funding conservation and anti-poaching efforts by paying hefty license fees to cash-strapped African countries.

Zinke's hand-picked appointees included celebrity hunting guides, representatives from rifle and bow manufacturers and wealthy sportspeople who boasted of bagging the coveted "Big Five" — elephant, rhino, lion, leopard and Cape buffalo.

Most were members of Safari Club International and the National Rifle Association, groups that had sued the Fish and Wildlife Service to expand the list of countries from which trophy kills can be legally imported.

Despite tweets from Trump describing big-game hunting as a “horror show," his administration has largely followed through on the priorities pushed by the pro-trophy hunting groups.

Donald Trump Jr. spoke last weekend at the annual convention of Safari Club International in Reno, Nevada. As part of the festivities, the group auctioned off a weeklong Alaskan “dream hunt” aboard a luxury yacht with the president's eldest son. Two hunters paid a combined $340,000 to go on the trip, according to an NRA media release.

Zinke resigned in December 2018 amid several investigations that he had misused his office for personal gain. He quickly joined Turnberry Solutions, a D.C. lobbying firm whose clients include oil and gas companies and Native American tribes.

Phone messages seeking comment from Zinke about the wildlife council's dissolution did not receive a response.

Under Bernhardt, himself a former fossil fuels lobbyist, the Fish and Wildlife Service issued a controversial permit in September to a Michigan trophy hunter to import the skin, skull and horns from a rare black rhinoceros he shot in Africa. The hunter paid $400,000 to an anti-poaching program to receive permission to hunt the male rhino bull inside a Namibian national park. A critically endangered species, there are only about 5,500 remaining in the wild.

“The end of Trump’s thrill-kill council is a huge victory for elephants, lions and other imperiled animals targeted by trophy hunters,” said Tanya Sanerib, international legal director for the Center for Biological Diversity, which was a party to the lawsuit. “It’s still critical to address this biased committee’s past legal violations and prevent self-serving advice from trophy hunters from poisoning federal wildlife policies.”

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