Trump wildlife protection board stacked with trophy hunters

A new U.S. advisory board created to help rewrite federal rules for importing the heads and hides of African elephants, lions and rhinos is stacked with trophy hunters, including some members with direct ties to President Donald Trump and his family.

Board was created to rewrite rules for importing African animal hides and heads

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, shown earlier this week, has appointed members to a wildlife protection board who will agree with his position that the best way to protect critically threatened or endangered species is by encouraging wealthy Americans to shoot some of them. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

A new U.S. advisory board created to help rewrite federal rules for importing the heads and hides of African elephants, lions and rhinos is stacked with trophy hunters, including some members with direct ties to President Donald Trump and his family.

A review by The Associated Press of the backgrounds and social media posts of the 16 board members appointed by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke indicates they will agree with his position that the best way to protect critically threatened or endangered species is by encouraging wealthy Americans to shoot some of them.

This screenshot from Twitter shows photos of Zinke meeting with Donald Trump Jr. and hunting guide Keith Mark, who is a member of the advisory board. (Twitter via AP)

One appointee co-owns a private New York hunting preserve with Trump's adult sons. The oldest son, Donald Trump Jr., drew the ire of animal rights activists after a 2011 photo emerged of him holding a bloody knife and the severed tail of an elephant he killed in Zimbabwe.

The first meeting of the International Wildlife Conservation Council was scheduled for Friday at the Interior Department's headquarters in Washington. Council members aren't being paid a salary, though the department has budgeted $250,000 in taxpayer funds for travel expenses, staff time and other costs.

Hunting helps conservation, Zinke says

Trump has decried big-game hunting as a "horror show" in tweets. But under Zinke, a former Montana congressman who is an avid hunter, the Fish and Wildlife Service has quietly moved to reverse Obama-era restrictions on bringing trophies from African lions and elephants into the United States.

Asked about the changes during a congressional hearing Thursday, Zinke said no import permits for elephants have been issued since the ban was lifted earlier this month. The Fish and Wildlife Service said permits for lion trophies have been issued since October, when imports from Zimbabwe and Zambia were first allowed, though they could not immediately provide a number for how many.

A licensed two-week African hunting safari can cost more than $50,000 US per person, not including airfare, according to advertised rates. Advocates say money helps support habitat conservation and anti-poaching efforts in some of the world's poorest nations, and provides employment for local guides and porters.

In a statement last year, Zinke said, "The conservation and long-term health of big game crosses international boundaries. This council will provide important insight into the ways that American sportsmen and women benefit international conservation from boosting economies and creating hundreds of jobs to enhancing wildlife conservation."

Appointees include hunters, rifle manufacturers

But environmentalists and animal welfare advocates say tourists taking photos generate more economic benefit, and hunters typically target the biggest and strongest animals, weakening already vulnerable populations.

There's little indication dissenting perspectives will be represented on the Trump administration's conservation council. Appointees include celebrity hunting guides, representatives from rifle and bow manufacturers, and wealthy sportspeople who boast of bagging the coveted "Big Five" — elephant, rhino, lion, leopard and Cape buffalo.

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

Elephants graze inside Zimbabwe's Hwange National Park in 2015. Appointees to the board include wealthy sportspeople who boast of bagging the coveted "Big Five" — elephant, rhino, lion, leopard and Cape buffalo. (Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters)

They include the Safari Club's president, Paul Babaz, a Morgan Stanley investment adviser from Atlanta, and Erica Rhoad, a lobbyist and former Republican congressional staffer who is the NRA's director of hunting policy.

Bill Brewster is a retired Oklahoma congressman and lobbyist who served on the boards of the Safari Club and the NRA. An NRA profile lauded Brewster and his wife's five decades of participation and support for hunting, and his purchase of a lifetime NRA membership for his grandson when the boy was three days old.

Also on the board is Gary Kania, vice-president of the Congressional Sportsmen's Foundation, a group that lobbies Congress and state governments on issues affecting hunters and fishermen.

'Biased, thrill-kill council'

Zinke described the purpose of the council as representing the "strong partnership" between federal wildlife officials and those who hunt or profit from hunting. Council paperwork said the panel's mission was "to increase public awareness domestically regarding conservation, wildlife law enforcement, and economic benefits that result from United States citizens travelling to foreign nations to engage in hunting."

In its charter, the council's listed duties include "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."

If Trump really wants to stop the slaughter of elephants for trophies, he should shut down this biased, thrill-kill council.- Tanya Sanerib, Center for Biological Diversity

In a letter this week, a coalition of more than 20 environmental and animal welfare groups objected that the one-sided makeup of the council could violate the Federal Advisory Committee Act, which requires government boards to be balanced in terms of points of view and not improperly influenced by special interests. The groups said they nominated a qualified representative, but Zinke didn't select him.

"If Trump really wants to stop the slaughter of elephants for trophies, he should shut down this biased, thrill-kill council," said Tanya Sanerib, a spokesperson for the Center for Biological Diversity. "The administration can't make wise decisions on trophy imports if it only listens to gun-makers and people who want to kill wildlife."

Connections to Trump

Interior Department spokesperson Heather Swift said the makeup of the council fully complies with the law.

"There are members on the council that represent all areas of conservation and varying opinions," Swift said.

Among Zinke's appointees is Steven Chancellor, a longtime Republican fundraiser and chairman of American Patriot Group, an Indiana-based conglomerate that includes a company that supplies Meals Ready to Eat to the U.S. military.

According to Safari Club member hunting records obtained in 2015 by the Humane Society, Chancellor has logged nearly 500 kills — including at least 18 lions, 13 leopards, six elephants and two rhinos.

Donald Trump Jr. takes part in a pheasant hunt near Akron, Iowa, last year. The president's eldest son drew the ire of animal rights activists after a 2011 photo emerged of him holding a bloody knife and the severed tail of an elephant he killed in Zimbabwe. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

In early 2016, records show Chancellor filed for a federal permit to bring home the skin, skull teeth and claws from another male lion he intended to kill that year in Zimbabwe, which at the time was subject to an import ban imposed by the Obama administration.

Later that same year, Chancellor hosted a private fundraiser for then-candidate Trump and Mike Pence at his Evansville, Ind., mansion, where the large security gates leading up the driveway feature a pair of gilded lions.

Chancellor did not respond to a phone message seeking comment on Thursday.