Flattery won’t get you wildlife habitat

Last week, Minnesota Outdoor News published an unusual commentary. For starters, it wasn’t an opinion piece, just a Dept. of the Interior press release announcing new hunting and fishing opportunities on national wildlife refuges. This is a standard announcement from Interior that reflects updates to refuge management plans. What made this release unusual was that more than half of it was devoted to accolades to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke from politicians, bureaucrats and the leaders of several conservation organizations.

As has been previously noted in this column, praise for the man in charge has become common in Interior’s press releases during Zinke’s tenure. At the very least, the flattering quotes distract from the intended message of the news release. On a deeper level, the willingness of outside organizations to provide such flattery is troubling.

In the release published as commentary in Outdoor News last week, quotes from pols and NGOs ranged from political tripe to eye-rolling exaggeration. For the former, we have such pithy remarks as “this proposal means that families and individuals across our nation will be better able to participate in our nation’s tradition of hunting and fishing.” And for the latter we have this whopper, “This is likely the most sweeping increase in opportunities for U.S. waterfowl hunters that we’ll see in our lifetimes.” And then we have flat-out fawning with, “Secretary Zinke’s proposal is one step closer to guaranteeing the next generation will have the same recreational opportunities we have today.”

Since this is the season for politicians to dig their camouflage hats and jackets out of the closet and go hunting for the sportsman’s vote, such utterances are to be expected from them. But it seems a bit unbecoming to read such quotes from conservation organizations. Why are they compelled to praise Zinke for an action that is simply business as usual?

Perhaps this is a public display of loyalty intended to secure a seat at Interior’s table. Secretary Zinke is reported to expect loyalty to his agenda, having famously said last year that one third of the Dept. of Interior employees were not “loyal to the flag.” One of those employees may well be Daniel Wenk, the superintendent of Yellowstone National Park, who the Washington Post reports announced his retirement rather than take a reassignment to Washington, D.C. Setting a retirement date several months into the future allows Wenk time to complete work with the state of Montana and an Indian tribe to move bison from Yellowstone to tribal lands at Fort Peck, 400 miles away.

According to the Post, “Wenk would not comment on why Interior identified him for a transfer. But those close to him called the move ‘punitive’ and ‘political’ by an administration that demands loyalty over issues of deep concern to Wenk, such as wilderness preservation and conservation.”

Zinke, a former Montana congressman, has been a mixed bag for conservation as Interior Secretary. He supports the identification and protection of wildlife corridors in the West, yet also has diminished protections for migratory birds. His actions often prioritize oil and mineral extraction on public lands over other uses and concerns. It’s in this arena that Zinke is at the greatest odds with fish and wildlife interests.

In the June, 2018 issue of Dakota Country magazine, Ed Arnett, chief scientist for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, writes about mitigation for habitat lost to development. Generally, mitigation involves a transaction with the developer to secure and protect an amount of habitat equal to what was lost via options such as conservation easements, land trades or others. Mitigation is the tool used to ensure that quality fish and wildlife habitat stays on the landscape. In other words, mitigation ensures hunting and fishing opportunities remain.

Arnett writes, “A pattern has emerged and the Trump Administration has made it clear that anything burdening development on public lands will be reviewed and either revised or thrown out entirely, including mitigation policies. Secretary Zinke has said publicly that mitigation is extortion and un-American. Recently, the DOI rescinded three existing Bureau of Land Management mitigation policies, and the policy used by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is currently under review and likely to be changed. Drastic changes or elimination of these policies could yield major losses of habitat that could take decades to regain–or could be lost forever.”

Hunters and anglers ought to take Arnett’s words as a warning that Zinke’s Interior Dept. may be on a path that will lead to lasting damage to hunting and fishing opportunities on public land. If so, hunters and anglers, and the conservation organizations they support, may need to go toe-to-toe with Secretary Zinke to protect public hunting and fishing. It is unlikely that flattery will resolve their differences.

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By Shawn Perich