Trump administration appointees open more federal refuges to hunting than last three administrations combined
WASHINGTON D.C.––Opponents of hunting might imagine that Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service chief Aurelia Skipwith waited until the public was distracted by soaring daily death tolls from the COVID-19 global pandemic to announce the biggest-ever expansion of hunting and fishing access in the 117-year history of U.S. National Wildlife Refuge system.
Far from trying to keep the giveaway to hook-and-bullet enthusiasts quiet, however, both Bernhardt and Skipwith sought to grab media notice by linking it to COVID-19.
Hunters have “something significant to look forward to” when COVID-19 quarantines and “social distancing” recommendations are relaxing and hunting season begins in the fall, Bernhardt said in a prepared statement.
“No better way to celebrate” than killing animals
Added Skipwith, with tongue evidently deep in someone’s cheeks, if not her own, “Once the [Donald] Trump administration’s effort to eliminate the threat of COVID-19 has been successful, there will be no better way to celebrate than to get out and enjoy increased access for hunting and fishing on our public lands.”
Bernhardt, a former oil industry lobbyist, had repeatedly announced since June 5, 2019 that the expansion of hunter access to 1.4 million acres of protected wildlife habitat in 74 National Wildlife Refuges would be coming, perhaps as early as September 2019.
That pledge was not met, perhaps because the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, responsible for operating the U.S. National Wildlife Refuges, had not had a fulltime director since August 2018.
Lobbyist against Endangered Species Act
Bernhardt eventually nominated Skipwith to become director. Skipwith, the first person of African-American ancestry to lead the Fish & Wildlife Service, is also longtime consort of prominent resource extraction industry lobbyist Leo Giacometto and a former lobbyist herself against Endangered Species Act enforcement.
Approved as Fish & Wildlife Service director by a U.S. Senate committee in September 2019, and confirmed by the full Senate on December 12, 2019, Skipwith in media statements on both occasions echoed Bernhardt’s intent to expand hunting and fishing access to National Wildlife Refuges.
The only question left was when exactly Bernhardt and Skipwith would officially designate more National Wildlife Refuges to become killing fields––and how extensive the damage would be.
2.3 million more acres to be soaked in blood
On April 8, 2020, Bernhardt and Skipwith announced that hunting and fishing access would actually be expanded on 2.3 million acres at 97 National Wildlife Refuges plus nine fish hatcheries, beginning during the 2020-2021 hunting season.
The time frame coincides with the run-up to the November 3, 2020 U.S. general election.
The pre-election giveaway to hunters continues a quasi-tradition begun by then-U.S. President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, in 2000. Boosting the unsuccessful effort of then-U.S. vice president Al Gore to succeed him in 2000, Clinton opened 37 National Wildlife Refuges to hunting: more than any previous president.
By the end of the Clinton administration, 311 of the then-540 National Wildlife Refuges allowed hunting and 280 allowed trapping.
Democratic strategy co-opted by Republicans
Clinton and Gore hoped to win hunter support in the conservative rural and semi-rural “red” states which form the base of the Republican constituency––especially in the “swing” states of Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. All remain hunting strongholds, even as hunting participation plummets in most of the “blue” states that usually favor Democrats. Overall, only about 4% of Americans hunt, according to U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service survey data most recently updated in 2016.
But the Clinton/Gore ploy failed. Hunters in 2000 overwhelmingly favored the Republican presidential candidate, George W. Bush, a life member of Safari Club International.
Bush and his successor, Barack Obama, continued the election year giveaways, albeit on a lesser scale. By the end of the Obama administration, 321 of 553 National Wildlife Refuges allowed hunting in some form.
The U.S. National Wildlife Refuge system, begun by then-U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903, now includes 567 refuges and 38 aquatic wildlife management areas. About 60% allowed hunting before the Bernhardt/Skipwith announcements. More than 80% will now allow hunting in some form. Many will offer multiple hunting, fishing, and trapping seasons.
Not the only spring 2020 Trump giveaway to hunters
The National Wildlife Refuge hunting access giveway was not the only spring 2020 Donald Trump administration gift to hunters.
“The Trump administration’s course on wildlife policy, riddled with handouts to trophy hunters, took another wrong turn with the hiring of Anna Seidman, a litigator for Safari Club International, to head a key office of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service,” jointly observed Humane Society of the U.S. president Kitty Block and Humane Society Legislative Fund director Sara Amundson in March 26, 2020 blog postings.
“As director of the Safari Club International legal advocacy and international affairs arm until 2019, Seidman spent 20 years fighting U.S. laws and agency decisions that prohibit the killing of at-risk and endangered animals,” Block and Amundson recalled.
Seidman favored “cruel predator control”
“Among other things, Seidman led numerous lawsuits against the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and other federal agencies, including one challenging a 2014 ban on the import of elephant trophies from Tanzania and Zimbabwe, and 2015 and 2016 Obama-era regulations that prohibited cruel predator control tactics in national preserves and refuges in Alaska,” Block and Amundson wrote.
“Now, as assistant director of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service international affairs program,” Block and Amundson explained, “Seidman will lead a team responsible for implementing international conservation treaties and protecting at-risk wildlife populations and their habitats around the globe, at the very agency whose policies she opposed.”
Alaska spares bears, but not wolves
Among the few bright notes for hunted wildlife amid the COVID-19 scare, KINY radio reported on April 1, 2020 from Juneau, Alaska, state Department of Fish & Game commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang “directed the Division of Wildlife Conservation to close all black and brown bear hunts statewide for both resident and nonresident hunters, effective through May 31, 2020.
“This decision will be reevaluated as necessary,” KINY said. “All subsistence bear hunts will remain open.”
But Alaskan wolf hunting policy remained as aggressively anti-wolf as ever.
Prince of Wales Island, Alaska, for instance, in the Alexander Archipelago of the southeastern “nose” of the state, had an estimated 170 resident wolves at the beginning of the 2019-2020 season, during which 165 wolves were reportedly killed, chiefly on U.S. Forest Service land.
Colorado & Washington push puma hunting
Both Colorado Parks & Wildlife and the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife are meanwhile pushing proposals to expand puma hunting, presently practiced by only about 3% of licensed hunters. Both state agencies argue, in part, that killing more pumas will increase the availability of deer to hunters, who shot 36,389 deer in Colorado in 2019 and 102,648 deer in Washington.
Many states, including Washington, temporarily closed whatever fishing, shellfishing, hunting and trapping seasons were open during the COVID-19 pandemic, but others promoted fishing, shellfishing, hunting and trapping as outdoor activities that could be pursued without violating “social distancing” recommendations.
In addition, Showing Animals Respect & Kindness (SHARK) founder Steve Hindi emailed to ANIMALS 24-7, “We’re finding that some states declaring lockdowns are allowing canned hunts,” meaning “hunting” in enclosed habitats from which the target animals cannot escape, and at which killing trophy-sized animals is often guaranteed.
SHARK during April 2020 invoked “non-essential business” shutdown orders to stop captive pigeon and duck shoots in at least three states.
Malta opens quail season, against E.U. policy
Continuing to allow and even promoting hunting as an appropriate activity, while otherwise mandating “social distancing,” is scarcely unique to the U.S.
The Mediterranean island nation of Malta on April 10, 2020 opened a 20-day quail hunting season despite vigorous opposition from BirdLife Malta.
“Police sources have in the last 24 hours warned about the unnecessary strain opening a hunting season will put on resources to be able to carry out enforcement at a time when police and security forces are overstretched trying to cope with the pandemic situation,” BirdLife Malta said.
Who will enforce hunting law?
“Malta is obliged to adhere to strict conditions to derogate from the European Union Birds Directive and open a spring hunting season, including that for every 1,000 hunters there should be seven police officers to see that the law is enforced,” BirdLife Malta added. “It remains to be seen how this will be implemented.”
Observed the Reuters news service, “Health authorities have banned any public gatherings of more than three people. They have also ordered all those over 65 and those suffering chronic medical conditions to stay indoors. Hunters aged over 65 have had their licenses withdrawn and will not be able to hunt.
“Malta has so far reported 227 COVID-19 cases but no deaths,” Reuters finished.