The Trump Administration’s War on Wildlife Should Be a Scandal

President Trump makes remarks at the Department of the Interior with Secretary Ryan Zinke and Vice President Mike Pence on April 26, 2017. Photo: Mike Theiler - Pool/Getty Images

The Trump administration’s policies are leading to wholesale destruction of certain birds and other wildlife. This fact has escaped most public notice amid the broader damage the Cabinet is causing to the environment. Among other measures, regulatory agencies have been working to lift protections on endangered animals, open up vast animal habitats for drilling, encourage more trophy hunting, and repress treatment standards for farm animals.

Granted, Republican administrations since Ronald Reagan’s, with their contempt for federal regulation, have often been unfriendly to the animal kingdom. George W. Bush’s administration, for instance, only added 62 kinds of animals to the endangered species list over the course of 8 years, compared to 700 animals each under Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. But several veteran policy advocates we reached for interviews this week said Trump’s team has been unusually aggressive about regulatory rollback.

“I think that what’s different this time is an across-the-board, no-stone-left-unturned, no-holds-barred approach to rolling back environmental safeguards — including for wildlife,” said Andrew Wetzler of the Natural Resources Defense Council. George W. Bush’s advisers, he added, picked their targets more selectively. “It was more like a rifle-shot approach. This is more of a shotgun approach.”

Ryan Zinke, the secretary of the Interior, has made his office a shrine to the pointless killing of animals, decking it out with a taxidermied grizzly bear, a bobcat, and the heads of bison and elk. One of his first moves in office was to sanction the use of lead bullets in national parks — a triumph of “ignorance and stupidity,” in the opinion of Noah Greenwald, of the Center for Biological Diversity. “Using lead ammunition for hunting — if you bring that food home, you’re poisoning your own family,” Greenwald said. “It’s astounding to me that that’s even an issue.” The Humane Society estimates that lead bullets also cause the deaths of 10 to 20 million non-targeted animals each year.

However, Zinke’s deputy, David Bernhardt — who has been floated for the top position, now that Zinke is stepping down — appears to be the architect of the department’s most sinister work. Bernhardt was the Interior’s top attorney during the last three years of George W. Bush’s administration, and by all accounts, he knows better than anyone there how to effectively navigate the bureaucracy. He spent the Obama years working for a lobbying firm that represents oil and gas interests, leading Democrats to call him a “walking conflict of interest” at his confirmation hearing last year.

Under Bernhardt’s leadership, the department has enacted the biggest changes to the Endangered Species Act since it was passed in 1973. It has moved to drop most protections for “threatened” animal species, i.e., species that are dwindling in number but not quite at the point of facing imminent extinction. It has said economic costs should be taken into account anytime a species is being considered for endangered status; and like the Bush administration, it has been ignoring petitions to add new animals to the endangered list — such as the American wolverine, which Greenwald said has fallen to critically low population levels. It has also eliminated a number of small conservation programs, such as a breeding project for whooping cranes, of which there are only 500 left in the wild in North America.

Oil companies aren’t the only groups that don’t like the Endangered Species Act — it’s also a nuisance to safari hunters. Though Trump once called trophy hunting a “horror show,” it didn’t sound sound like his heart was in it; his own sons, after all, are avid safari-goers and have posted photos of themselves with dead leopards, bulls, rams, and alligators on social media. Trump didn’t stop Zinke from reversing a ban on importing elephant and lion carcasses from Africa. The Interior Department also tried to kickstart the first grizzly bear hunt at Yellowstone in more than 40 years, only to have it halted by a judge. All the while, Zinke’s “wildlife conservation council” — stacked not with wildlife conservationists, naturally, but with gun and trophy-hunting lobbyists — is making the improbable case that safaris are somehow good for animals.

Less horrific on its face, but more destructive overall, is the administration’s opening of animal habitats for drilling, mining, logging, and other industry uses. For instance, it has announced plans to strip protections for the sage grouse, an awkward bird with an overgrown breast and a peacock-like tail, which is native to the American West. There are only 200,000 to 500,000 of the creatures left, said Sarah Greenberger, the Audubon Society’s policy director. Currently some 9 million acres of western land, rich with oil deposits, have been kept off limits to industry, for the sake of protecting the birds.

The Interior Department has also reduced the size of two national monuments in Utah — Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante — so that 2 million more acres can now be leased to oil and gas companies, to the peril of countless animals, including a number that are endangered. And it’s working to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, likely the site of the biggest untapped oil reserve in North America, but also home to 800 or 900 polar bears, not to mention porcupine caribou and other species that native peoples depend on for food.

To Greenberger and other bird-rights advocates, the most galling development is the dropping of penalties for recklessly endangering birds out in the wild. Greenberger said the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, on the books since 1918, is responsible for all kinds of protective measures at sites around the country. It’s one reason companies often put blinking lights on their towers, or place nets over oil pits: so that birds won’t fly into them and die, triggering corporate fines. But in the spring, the Department of the Interior announced companies won’t be held responsible anymore, so long as killing birds isn’t the culprit’s primary goal.

To clarify, the department sent around a memo with some rather grotesque examples. Say, for instance, someone wants to burn down a barn that happens to be full of owls. So long as the deaths of the owls are merely collateral damage and not the purpose of setting the farm on fire, they won’t be subject to fines. “All that is relevant,” the memo reads, “is that the landowner undertook an action that did not have the killing of barn owls as its purpose” — a startling conclusion from the standpoint of legal theory alone.

Greenberger called this rule change “totally unnecessary,” even for economic growth. “It’s not the Migratory Bird Treaty Act that’s driving the ups and downs of the oil and gas market,” she said. But she noted that two oil companies, Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon, have borne the vast majority of the fines — and were no doubt eager to have the rule reversed.

Beyond these broad environmental measures, the disregard toward animals also affects Trump’s USDA. The Obama administration had created a rule, set to take effect in 2017, that would have raised the requirements for a farm to be certified as organic. It said birds would have to be kept in cages large enough for them to move freely and stretch their wings, and cows would have to get year-round access to the outdoors. Of course, the rule would have hurt large-scale organic egg farms, some of which house three hens per square foot. The Trump administration halted it in the spring.

Often over the course of this administration, liberals have comforted themselves with the thought that an army of bureaucrats — career workers, with no party attachments — might be able to quietly blunt the worst excesses of Trump and his advisers. Greenwald, the advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity, said this is decidedly not the case when it comes to animal rights and conservation. Across his 20 years working on policy, he’s noticed that Republicans tend to be more strategic than Democrats on environmental matters. They tend to pick their own administrators, down to the state level, to make sure their priorities are being carried out everywhere. “With Clinton and Obama, it’s been like, ‘Well, leave them alone. We’re not going to interfere with their jobs or their science, but we’re not going to go in and bring new leadership either,’” he said. “It’s been hard to watch.”

Polls bear this out; when questioned by the Union of Concerned Scientists, workers at the Fish and Wildlife Service tend to report at a higher rate than most that politics get in the way of their work.

Trump’s stealth war on wildlife has gone under the radar. It’s hard to get worked up about the gratuitous death of, say, 200,000 sage grouse. But Greenberger argues that everyone has a stake in what happens to the sage grouse. “They are an indicator for a much bigger landscape — where there are pronghorn and mule deer and other iconic species,” she said. “If we allow these birds to go extinct, what that signals is something much bigger that will impact all of us.”

Trump’s War on Wildlife Should Be a Scandal