Making the most of what could be his final months in office, President Trump is overturning Obama-era rules that banned extreme hunting methods on public lands in Alaska, like luring bears with doughnuts doused in bacon grease, or using artificial light to lure bear moms and their cubs out of hibernation to shoot them.
“It’s flat-out terrible,” says Jim Adams, Alaska regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association. “And it’s terrible because it stretches the definition of sports hunting to the ethical extreme—and because it allows National Park land to become game farms, turning its back on a hundred-year tradition and reducing natural predators.”
Making bears easy prey for people who call themselves sportsmen is at the heart of the “predator control” that Trump’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed last week. The goal is to reduce the bear population, which would then boost the number of caribou and moose. To the Forest Service, it aligns federal policy on public lands with long-held state wildlife management practices. But in the view of environmentalists, the move would upset nature’s balance.
The new Trump rule resurrects such barbaric practices as shooting coyote and wolf pups while they’re being weaned, and the gunning down of caribou while they are swimming, which so-called sportsmen do from the safety of their motorboats. Samantha Hagio with the Humane Society of the United States calls the rule “the latest nod to trophy hunters and special interests.” The public has until August 10 to comment, and Hagio provides this link for those who wish to make their views known.
The Trump administration came into office with the stated goal of expanding hunting rights on public lands, and the president’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., has been an active proponent of big-game trophy hunting. The Safari Club International, which promotes the freedom to hunt, auctioned off a seven-day “dream hunt” with Trump Jr. through Alaska in November 2020. But Alaska voters, by a three-to-one margin, oppose luring bears from hibernation with artificial lights and hunting swimming caribou with the aid of motorboats. And by a two-to-one margin, Alaska voters recoil from the baiting of bears with pet food, grease, rotting game, fish, or other high-calorie foods.
“This is already the most anti-nature administration in history, and the last two weeks have doubled down on that,” says Kate Kelly, Public Lands director at the Center for American Progress, citing Trump’s executive order on June 4 waiving environmental regulations under a number of landmark laws because of COVID-19, and his wiping away with the stroke of his pen the marine monument designated by President Obama in 2016 off the coast of New England to protect whales and other species from over fishing. “They are using this moment when the nation’s attention is rightfully focused on the pandemic” to undo regulations that at any other time would trigger an outcry, says Kelly.
Why the flurry of deregulatory activity in what may be the twilight of Trump’s presidency? “The why is basically money and politics, which I guess it always is,” Andrew Wetzler with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) told the Daily Beast. “The administration came into office to bolster the oil and gas industry, and at the same time they have huge hostility to renewables,” he explained. This bias explains a lot of Trump’s deregulatory activity. “If it’s bad for renewables, they’re for it, and if it’s good for oil and gas, they’re for it,” says Wetzler.
That explains the administration’s re-interpretation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 to no longer hold responsible so-called secondary killings that result from migrating birds landing in pits that look like water from the air but are uncovered waste from the oil and gas industry. Hundreds of thousands of birds die each year in these pits.
Trump has often cited the fact that birds get caught up in wind turbines and die in great numbers as one of the reasons he’s opposed to wind as an energy source. The wind industry is a beneficiary of this new rule interpretation, which Trump apparently tolerates because his main benefactors are getting what they want.
Recent administrations, Democratic and Republican, rarely enforced this law, but in 2012, the BP Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico filled television screens with images of oil-slicked birds unable to fly, and distraught volunteers trying to clean bird feathers with Dawn dishwashing liquid. BP was fined $100 million under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and it’s been a priority of the oil and gas industry to get that aspect of the law, which holds them responsible, off the books.
“This administration is chock-full of former lobbyists from the oil and gas industry,” says the NRDC’s Wetzler, citing Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, who worked at a Colorado law firm and represented several extractive and energy companies, and at least a half dozen other top officials. “The industry has a wish list, and it’s a fair charge to say this administration is very responsive to their wishes.”
Another reason for the stepped-up urgency is the Congressional Review Act (CRA), which allows the next Congress to overturn by a simple majority vote in each chamber regulations imposed within the final 60 legislative days of the previous administration. Until Trump took office in 2017, the CRA had only been successfully invoked once before, in 2001. The Trump administration successfully overturned 14 Obama-era rules to reflect there was a new sheriff in town.
The date when the CRA window opens won’t be known until the end of the year because it depends on the number of days Congress is in session. But it is rapidly approaching if it hasn’t already passed. That means if the Senate were to flip, Democrats could use the CRA to reverse a lot of what Trump has done in his last months in office.
“A lot of it can be undone,” says Wetzler. “Environmentalists are tracking all the rollbacks Trump has done and mapping how and when to reverse them. Some can be done with the stroke of a pen. Some are proposed but may not be finalized before the inauguration. And if they’ve been finalized, they may need a new regulation, which takes time, or they can be taken down by the Congressional Review Act.”
A prime candidate would be Trump’s proclamation on June 5 overturning Obama’s establishment of a stretch of water off the coast of New England to protect fragile sea life. Commercial fishing groups challenged the designation, which presidents are empowered to make under the 1906 Antiquities Act. They lost in court, and now the question becomes whether a president can undo what a previous president has done in setting aside an area for scientific, historic, or cultural reasons.