Biggest trophy the NRA bagged from the Trump administration
WASHINGTON D.C.––The National Rifle Association spent $16.3 million during the 2020 U.S. national election campaign to try to secure pro-gun and pro-hunting concessions granted by ex-president Donald Trump.
After Trump lost, the National Rifle Association spent $3.3 million more on federal lobbying.
Despite all that, the National Rifle Association nonetheless lost the sweetheart deal with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service that was the biggest handout the NRA could claim to have won for hunters during the Trump years.
Aurelia Skipwith, the last Trump appointee to head the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, on January 13, 2021––seven days from leaving office––signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the National Rifle Association “to assist in the recruitment, education and retaining” of sport hunters.
“Formalizing an anticipated 10-year partnership,” the Skipwith announcement said, the deal appeared to ensure that the NRA would have a strong inside voice in any U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service decision having anything to do with hunting.
Short-lived deal followed other major handouts to hunters
The “10-year partnership” lasted, even on paper, just eight months.
Skipwith, the first person of African-American ancestry to lead the Fish & Wildlife Service, and one of the only black faces to head a federal agency under Trump, is longtime consort of trophy hunter and resource extraction industry lobbyist Leo Giacometto.
Earlier, on August 18, 2020, the day current U.S. President Joe Biden was nominated to run against Trump, Skipwith announced that hunting seasons would be opened or expanded on 2.3 million acres scattered among 147 National Wildlife Refuges.
The Trump administration had already opened more National Wildlife Refuges to hunting than the Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton presidential administrations combined.
Some of the expansions of hunting access on National Wildlife Refuges have already been suspended or rescinded due to wildfires and the threat of wildfires across much of the drought-parched U.S. west.
Now, revealed DCReport correspondent Sarah Okeson on August 25, 2021, the National Rifle Association deal with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has been pitched.
“Not adequately reviewed”
“The service’s memorandum of understanding with the National Rifle Association was not adequately reviewed by agency staff or the Department of the Interior solicitor’s office,” an unidentified U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service spokesperson told Okeson.
“Therefore, the service terminated the agreement.”
Center for Biological Diversity spokesperson Brett Hartl suggested that the likely goal of the agreement, Okeson paraphrased, is “increasing the opportunity for trophy hunters to kill big game animals and put their heads on walls.”
Observed Okeson, “The NRA’s most noted trophy hunter is Wayne LaPierre, the head of the NRA, whose hapless efforts to kill an elephant,” caught on video and extensively exposed by The New Yorker in April 2021, “have made him a mockingstock. Trump’s sons Eric and Donald Jr. are also both trophy hunters,” Okeson mentioned in passing.
Packed wildlife council with trophy hunters
Okeson also noted that, “Skipwith named NRA lobbyist Erica Tergeson as the NRA contact” for implementing the deal to promote hunting.
“Tergeson, also known as Erica Rhoad, once worked for the House appropriations subcommittee on Interior and related agencies,” Okeson remembered, and “was one of the members of the International Wildlife Conservation Council who Trump’s first Interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, set up to help rewrite federal rules for importing heads, hides and other body parts of African elephants, lions and rhinos.
“Other members included Peter Horn, a vice president at [the gun-making company] Beretta who owned a hunting property in upstate New York with Donald Trump Jr., and Republican fundraiser Steven Chancellor, whose hunting record includes killing at least 18 lions, 13 leopards, six elephants and two rhinos.
“The Center for Biological Diversity and other conservation groups sued in 2018,” Okeson continued, “saying the makeup of the council violated the Federal Advisory Committee Act which requires that all federal advisory panels have a balanced mix of members.”
Rather than defend the appointments in federal court, the Trump administration dissolved the International Wildlife Conservation Council in 2020.
Aimed to resurrect sport hunting industry
But far more than the heads of endangered elephants, lions, tigers, and rhinos were at stake. The deal with the National Rifle Association sought to do nothing less than to channel U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service resources fully into promoting a resurrection of the entire sport hunting industry.
Hunting participation has now dropped almost every year for more than 45 years, falling since 2011 at the rate of more than half a million hunters per year.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service counted only 11.5 million hunters in 2016, the lowest number since the agency began surveying the hunting population every five years during the Jimmy Carter presidential administration.
Further, more than half of the U.S. hunter population are now in the 45 to 64 age bracket, close to “aging out” of active participation.
Only about a third of the U.S. hunter population are younger than age 34, in the age brackets including the most active hunters.
Altogether, only 4.4% of Americans hunt now, a quarter as many as eat plant-based vegan burgers.
Humiliation for the NRA
Loss of the deal with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service followed a string of other humiliating defeats for the National Rifle Association.
Only two days after the memorandum signing ceremony, the NRA on January 15, 2021 filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
“The group said it plans to leave New York State, where it was founded in 1871, and reincorporate as a Texas nonprofit in a move it is calling ‘Project Freedom,’” reported CNN Business writer Clare Duffy.
The National Rifle Association bankruptcy and exodus from New York to Texas came after New York state attorney general Letitia James on August 6, 2020 filed a lawsuit seeking to dissolve the organization as irremediably corrupt.
Had the move been accomplished, the National Rifle Association would have removed itself from James’ jurisdiction.
Instead, U.S. Federal District Judge Harlan Hale, of Dallas, Texas, on May 11, 2021 ruled that the Chapter 11 bankruptcy claim had been filed in bad faith.
Summarized Jake Bleiberg and Michael R. Sisak for Associated Press, “Hale’s decision followed 11 days of testimony and arguments. Lawyers for New York state and the NRA’s former advertising agency,” Ackerman McQueen, now the organization’s biggest creditor, “grilled the group’s embattled top executive, Wayne LaPierre, who acknowledged putting the NRA into Chapter 11 bankruptcy without the knowledge or assent of most of its board and other top officers.”
Added Tim Mak for National Public Radio, “Testimony included examples of the nonprofit organization’s tax-exempt funds being used for wedding expenses, private jet travel and exotic getaways. For example, LaPierre’s private travel consultant, who was paid $26,000 a month to cater to him personally, testified about how LaPierre instructed her to alter travel invoices for private jets so as to hide their true destinations.”
Under cross-examination, LaPierre “admitted to annual trips to the Bahamas, where he would stay on a luxury yacht belonging to an NRA vendor,” Mak recounted, “a conflict of interest he did not disclose at the time, which testimony and court proceedings showed was in contravention of NRA policy.”
LaPierre has headed the National Rifle Association since 1991.