A federal government council made up mostly of hunters and hunting advocates met for the first time Friday to begin its efforts to advise the interior secretary on how to improve public awareness of the benefits of international recreational hunting.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke created the International Wildlife Conservation Council in November to provide recommendations on conservation issues, specifically to tout the role of hunters in conservation and increase public awareness of "economic benefits that result from U.S. citizens traveling abroad to hunt," according to a press release.
The majority of the 16 council members have a connection to trophy hunting or groups that advocate for hunting as a way to support conservation, according to a federal database of government advisory committees.
Six of the members are listed as "U.S. hunters actively engaged in international and/or domestic hunting conservation," in the official list of committee members. Others are listed as affiliated with wildlife and habitat conservation organizations like Safari Club International, other groups related to international hunting, and some have connections to firearms manufacturers or the National Rifle Association.
Several animal advocacy groups said in their public comments that the council is biased and does not include members with a scientific expertise in conservation.
"Built on the backs of hunters and anglers, the American conservation model proves to be the example for all nations to follow for wildlife and habitat conservation," Zinke said in that press release. "The conservation and long-term health of big game crosses international boundaries. This council will provide important insight into the ways that American sportsmen and women benefit international conservation from boosting economies and creating hundreds of jobs to enhancing wildlife conservation."
Zinke is an avid hunter and has said that he wants to expand access to hunting and fishing on public lands in the U.S.
The committee expects to provide recommendations by fall of this year on multiple issues relating to the import of animals legally hunted overseas to the United States.
Those recommendations are expected to include "recommending removal of barriers to the importation into the United States of legally hunted wildlife," an ongoing review of bans on importing hunted animals and "providing recommendations that seek to resume the legal trade of those items, where appropriate," and recommending ways to streamline or expedite import permits, according to the group's charter.
The government's policies on trophy hunting permits have been a source of controversy over the last few years.
The Trump administration faced intense public scrutiny after announcing that it would begin allowing permits to import elephant trophies from some countries in November. That decision was quickly put on pause after the president tweeted calling it a horror show. He later said in an interview he didn't agree with killing elephants.
That decision upset hunting groups like Safari Club International who had sued the Obama administration to lift a ban on elephant trophy imports put in place in 2014. A judge's ruling in that case recently led the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to withdraw the ban but the decision is still facing legal challenges.
Zinke said in a hearing Thursday that no elephants have been imported since that decision. He has also said that the new policy is "100 percent aligned with the president."
On Friday the council elected former congressman Bill Brewster as chairman. Brewster retired from Congress in 1997 and worked as a board member for the NRA and a lobbyist, according to the NRA publication American Hunter.
The elected vice chair is Jenifer Chatfield, a veterinarian who worked in the office of Rep. Brian Babin, R-Texas, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association website.
In the first meeting, council members heard presentations from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Deputy Director Greg Sheehan, Craig Hoover, who runs the agency's management of an international treaty on threatened species, and the head of the Fish and Wildlife Service law enforcement office, David Hubbard.
Other members include Paul Babaz, the president of Safari Club International. The Safari Club praised the Trump administration for lifting a ban on imports of elephant trophies from some countries and still has a lawsuit pending after it sued to reverse the ban on elephant trophies put in place by the Obama administration in 2014.
The Safari Club described all 16 council members as "various facets of the pro-hunting community" in a blog post announcing that Babaz was appointed.
Cameron Hanes is a bowhunter and an athlete sponsored by Under Armour. He told ABC News in a message that he's never killed an elephant, lion or rhino.
"I'm on the council because I care about animals. And I hunt. The two aren't mutually exclusive as everyone on the council has a deep concern for animal welfare and just as deep of love for Africa and its people," Hanes said in a message Friday night.
Another council member, Keith Mark, hosts a hunting show on the Outdoor Channel. He has gone hunting with Donald Trump Jr. prior to being appointed to the council and has posted photos of meetings with Zinke and Trump Jr.
Terry Maple, a psychology professor at Georgia Tech University and former CEO of Zoo Atlanta, is also on the council and listed as "Tourism, outfitter, and/or guide industries related to international hunting." Maple co-wrote a book on the environment debate with former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich in 2007.
Hunting advocates often cite revenue generated from U.S. hunters that travel abroad as an important source of funding for conservation efforts in those countries. In Hoover's presentation Friday he said that international hunters contribute $325 million to countries in East and South Africa each year, according to a 2015 Safari Club report on revenue from trophy hunting.
Hunters that travel to countries like Zambia, Zimbabwe or South Africa to hunt have to pay significant fees to that country's government, which is supposed to use that money for conservation programs. The hunt itself can cost tens of thousands of dollars in fees and a guide. According to that report 74 percent of hunters visiting African countries were from the United States.
But critics say that it is difficult to ensure that money is used for conservation and that there are limited controls in countries like Zimbabwe, for example. A 2016 report by Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee, which oversees Interior and the Fish and Wildlife Service, found that there hunting can only help wildlife populations if it is properly regulated and recommended the FWS make some changes to how it issues permits for trophy hunters.
Several members of the committee defended their involvement on social media today, saying that hunters are especially dedicated to conservation efforts.
Animal advocacy groups like the Humane Society of the United States say the council is biased and that the members will make money from expanding trophy hunting. Protesters from the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity gathered outside the department's entrance before the meeting.
Masha Kalinina, an international trade policy specialist with the Humane Society, said in her prepared comments that the council is more of a trade association than an advisory panel.
"Notably missing from this council are qualified representatives of the broader conservation community, with scientific credentials and direct experience with the management of successful conservation programs, along with wildlife law enforcement experts, and others, who have no financial or commercial stake to cloud or shape their judgments," Kalinina said in her statement.
An anti-animal cruelty group, the Animal Welfare Institute, said in its submitted public comment that the council is wasteful and that the Trump administration has not held meetings of wildlife trafficking advisory councils created by President Barack Obama.
"The makeup of this new council is also of significant concern, with designated seats for representatives of the firearms and ammunition industries, who have no scientific or conservation expertise. There is no seat at the table for experts with a scientific or conservation focus," the group's government affairs director Nancy Blaney said in the statement.
Another animal rights nonprofit, Born Free USA, filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this week for documents related to the creation of the council.