Over the last week, something truly remarkable has happened in our political discourse. A conservation issue — trophy hunting of big game — made international news, and in the end, advocates for wildlife conservation may get a victory.
On Tuesday, November 14, the Trump administration said it would lift the ban on African elephant trophy imports, which was imposed by the Obama administration in 2014. Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke also said they’d begin allowing lion trophy imports from Zimbabwe for the first time since the species was listed under the Endangered Species Act in January 2016.
The decision made headlines quickly.
“Long-time animal advocates such as Ellen DeGeneres and Ricky Gervais criticized the action,” writes Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, “but so too did major conservative pundits, including [FOX News host] Laura Ingraham and Mike Savage — two of the president’s biggest supporters during the presidential campaign.”
On Thursday, for example, Ingraham tweeted:
I don’t understand how this move by @realDonaldTrump Admin will not INCREASE the gruesome poaching of elephants. Stay tuned. https://t.co/KqizmlgaGg
— Laura Ingraham (@IngrahamAngle) November 16, 2017
In an article published by the Daily Mail, conservative British television host Piers Morgan blasted the move, saying “This appalling decision doesn’t make America great again; it makes America cruel again.”
Gervais tweeted that the policy change was “savage and pointless.” The message was retweeted 183,000 times and received 359,000 likes:
The fact that Trump has lifted President Obama’s ban on elephant trophies being imported into the country is a devastating blow to the survival of these beautiful animals. It’s savage and pointless. It breaks my heart. pic.twitter.com/iclfxN6TXr
— Ricky Gervais (@rickygervais) November 16, 2017
DeGeneres used her powerful platform — the second-highest-rated daytime TV show in the United States — to take a stand for elephants:
I’m determined to do something about this. #BeKindToElephants pic.twitter.com/0dGkx4vNzD
— Ellen DeGeneres (@TheEllenShow) November 17, 2017
The backlash was so significant, that by Friday, November 17, Trump tweeted that the policy reversal would be put “on hold.” On Monday, November 20, he went further, tweeting: “Big-game trophy decision will be announced next week but will be very hard pressed to change my mind that this horror show in any way helps conservation of Elephants or any other animal.”
While the tweet appears to be good news for big game, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Center for Biological Diversity aren’t taking chances. They sued the administration on Monday over the plan to allow importing of lion and elephant parts.
If Obama’s policy is ultimately left in place, then that’s a rare win for wildlife. Those of us who advocate for conservation of nature should thank the conservative and liberal voices who took a stand on the big-game issue.
But I think we should use this moment to point out to the media personalities and celebrities who spoke up that it’s easy to get behind saving elephants and lions. They’re among the world’s most recognizable animals, after all. The fact is that in this time of relentless attacks on wildlife, public land, clean-air and -water regulations, and other environmental laws, we desperately need a public outcry on par with or greater than the recent coverage of elephants and lions.
The list of injustices levied against nature since Trump took office run the gamut. Here are just a few:
- The proposed border wall that Trump campaigned on (and tweeted about again on Monday) would cut through one of America’s top bird refuges, Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in South Texas. (Read the latest on the Save Santa Ana Facebook page.)
- In August, Zinke’s Interior Department ordered revisions to Greater Sage-Grouse management plans, opening the door to expanded development across the American West.
- A proposed Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rule would exempt construction of communication towers from our nation’s environmental laws. The towers harm millions of birds annually.
- On his first day on the job, Zinke reversed the Obama-era ban on lead bullets on federal lands. The move threatens birds, other wildlife, and hunters with toxic lead exposure.
- Trump signed legislation on April 3 — rushed through Congress under the Congressional Review Act — that repealed an Obama administration rule that prohibited killing wolves and their pups in their dens, shooting bears at bait stations, and targeting them from airplanes. Under the legislation signed by Trump, all of the practices can now be allowed.
- Trump’s approval of the Keystone XL pipeline puts groundwater — and the plovers, cranes, and other birds that rely on clean water and soil — at risk of oil spills. (More than 200,000 gallons leaked from the pipeline in South Dakota last Thursday.) Plus, it increases the problems associated with climate change by encouraging more extraction from Canada’s oil sands.
- Even the tax bill passed by the House of Representatives last week would harm bird conservation and research (and pretty much every other scientific discipline). The bill would raise taxes significantly on graduate students across the country by treating tuition waivers as taxable income. The research that increases our collective knowledge about birds, bugs, planets, the oceans — you name it — is dependent on our strong colleges and universities, and their ability to attract and retain smart students would be jeopardized by the bill.
- In October, the administration indicated it will shrink two national monuments in Utah — Bears Ears and Grand Staircase — opening more land to development and threatening Golden Eagles, Pinyon Jays, and other birds.
- And of course, the June move to pull the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement on climate change threatens migratory birds and other wildlife, as well as humans.
New York Times: 52 environmental rules on the way out under Trump
Even if the ban on trophy imports remains in place, it would be, in the larger context, a small victory and one that benefits so-called charismatic megafauna in Africa. We Americans, it seems to me, must speak out in vastly larger numbers in support of our own natural resources — our eagles and cranes, warblers and chickadees, sandpipers and ducks, wolves and bears, butterflies and dragonflies, trees and rivers, parks and monuments, and our air and water.
It’s also clear that this should not be a partisan issue. As Audubon president David Yarnold wrote in July: “Birds don’t have a party, but they have a constituency of 47 million Americans who enjoy watching birds, second only to gardening as a hobby.” Yes, liberals are more inclined to be pro-environment, but obviously if conservatives like Piers Morgan, Laura Ingraham, and Mike Savage saw the folly in rescinding the big-game ban, then why can’t they call out Trump and Zinke (and Scott Pruitt at the EPA) on more issues? Everyone needs clean air and water, after all.
And to folks like Ellen DeGeneres, Ricky Gervais, and any other celebrity who spoke out for elephants last week, I say a million times, thank you. Now, please use your star power to speak out against other environmental setbacks and speak up for bees and flowers and wolves and birds. Especially birds.
— Matt Mendenhall, Editor
More conservation coverage
Passenger Pigeon: Like meteors from heaven
What birds found a year after the oil spill on the Gulf coast
Birds protected by the U.S. Endangered Species Act
Twenty years of California Condor recovery
One man’s walk across Wisconsin for bird conservation
The desperate race to save one of Africa’s rarest birds
Connecting the dots for American Kestrel
Bringing back Red-headed Woodpecker
How backyard birds benefit from the Duck Stamp
Desert birds more at risk as temperatures rise
Landbirds in need of conservation action
At 100, Migratory Bird Treaty Act more essential than ever
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