Ryan Zinke Gallops into Office, Immediately Pits Conservationists Against Hunters

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Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke arriving for his first day of work at the Interior Department in Washington, Thursday, March 2, 2017, aboard Tonto, an 17-year-old Irish sport horse. AP

The new Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke took his role pretty seriously on his first day of office, literally riding a horse to his office in Washington, D.C., on Thursday morning. The journey lasted over a little less than a mile, from the National Park Service’s stables to the Department of the Interior. The media took notice of this publicity stunt — with most coverage stopping there — but the big news began after Zinke dismounted and got to work.

Yesterday Zinke signed two secretarial orders that signaled the start of what may well be a roller coaster ride for conservationists and public land advocates. Order No. 3347 was mostly positive for these groups: It directs agencies and bureaus in the DOI to “immediately identify areas where recreation and fishing can be expanded.” It also directs several councils to advise the DOI on how to expand access to outdoor recreation on public lands. However, buried in the directive is Section 4.c.4.4 that states that “the Department shall…identify specific actions to manage predators effectively and efficiently.”

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Predator management can be a hot-button issue for many conservationists. As an Idaho Fish and Game report noted, nonlethal predator management rarely works, and studies suggest that killing off predators can endanger them, disrupting the ecosystem. While predator management is necessary for hunters and anglers, the open-endedness of Zinke’s first order might put some conservationists on edge.  

Secretary Zinke’s other order was just as divisive, especially for hunter-conservationists. 

Order number 3346 revokes a late January order from the Obama administration, the Use of Nontoxic Ammo and Fishing Tackle. In effect, that order eliminated the use of lead-based ammunition and tackles on federal lands like national parks and wildlife refuges, as well as any other land administered by the Fish and Wildlife Service. “According to the U.S. Geological Survey, lead poisoning is a toxicosis caused by the absorption of hazardous levels of lead in body tissues,” the order read. Lead shot was outlawed in 1991 for waterfowl, but it remains in wide use on other public lands. The Humane Society estimates that 10 to 20 million non-target animals die each year due to absorbing the lead of spent pellets. Conservationists were thrilled about the ban.

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But nontoxic ammo can be much more expensive than their lead counterparts, and hunters weren’t huge fans of the brief Obama-era rule, citing it as an unnecessary regulation. “Hunting groups and Second Amendment advocates called the lead ban a backdoor gun-control maneuver designed to degrade Americans’ right to bear arms, and justification for eight years of gun and ammo hoarding,” noted the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette at the time. 

Now, with Order 3346 revoking the rule, conservationists and hunters may find themselves at an impasse. The issue on nontoxic ammo can be a divisive one for the advocates of public lands — something that seemed impossible only days ago, as hunters, conservationists, and a variety of interest groups gathered and rallied to protect public lands.

Most conservation groups, so far, have been diplomatic regarding the revoked order. They feel that Obama’s late-term order was hurried in at the last minute. “The science is clear that reducing lead in the soil and water will help wildlife populations,” says Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation. “But rather than rushing a policy a few days before the end of an administration, we need to have an honest conversation about the science with sportsmen, wildlife professionals, government, and industry to find common-sense and science-based solutions that will survive the test of time.”

All of these groups — hunter and conservationist — are absolutely devoted to keeping public lands in public hands. How they split on the issue of toxic ammo remains to be seen. In any case, it was a busy first day for Zinke’s DOI.

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