Educational Series: Killing Wildlife on Public Lands

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For more than a century, public lands in the United States have been a refuge for some of our nation’s most iconic and majestic wildlife species. When Yellowstone National Park was first established in 1872, it protected species like bison that were on the verge of extinction. Yellowstone and other protected public lands have since helped hundreds of other animals recover including grey wolves, grizzly bears, bighorn sheep, and wolverines. But public lands and the wildlife who live on them are now under attack as never before.

During the past year, federal agencies like the U.S. Department of Interior have proposed unprecedented rollbacks to protections on public lands, opening them to exploitation by the oil, mining, timber, and hunting industries. Under these proposed changes to how public lands are managed wild animals who were once safe from harm could soon see their homes invaded by profit-making corporations.

One of the most controversial moves regarding public lands has been U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke’s proposal to shrink the boundaries and ease restrictions on National Monuments, lands that were previously closed to most extractive industries. Under the 1906 Antiquities Act, U.S. presidents may declare new National Monuments to protect areas of exceptional archeological and ecological importance. The first National Monuments were established by President Theodore Roosevelt in the early twentieth century. Since then, more than 120 places on U.S. public lands and within U.S. waters have been designated as National Monuments.

Until the last couple years, no presidential administration ever tried to eliminate protections from a National Monument once it had been established. However, after being appointed by President Trump and confirmed as Interior Secretary by Congress, Ryan Zinke is trying to dramatically shrink existing monuments or open them up to industries that were previously excluded from them. Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, which was established by President Obama, has been shrunk by 85% under the Trump administration. The land originally covered by Bears Ears Monument is home to mountain lions, bighorn sheep, black bears, and one of the rarest bird species in the world–the majestic California condor. Only a few hundred California condors survive in the wild, and some are believed to live among the cliffs and desert landscapes of Bears Ears.

Grand Staircase-Escalante Monument, another sanctuary for desert wildlife, is being reduced by nearly half. Like Bears Ears, Grand Staircase-Escalante is home to bears, mountain lions, and other large mammals with vast territories who need large protected areas to survive. Other monuments that have been proposed for shrinking or reduced protections include Maine’s Katahdin Woods and Waters, Oregon’s Cascade-Siskiyou, and Nevada’s Gold Butte National Monuments, among others.

It isn’t just wildlife who live on land that are at risk. Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, first established by President George W. Bush and expanded by President Obama, protects countless marine species including the adorable Hawaiian monk seal, which was once hunted to the brink of extinction. Secretary Zinke has recommended shrinking Pacific Remote Islands and other marine National Monuments and opening them to commercial fishing activity that threatens species like the monk seal.

Other actions from lawmakers have targeted some of the most majestic wild animals in some of our most inspiring parks and other public lands. Early in Trump’s term, Congress passed legislation which Trump signed allowing hunters in Alaska to shoot wolves and bears from airplanes and kill hibernating bears. The Department of Interior has also removed protections from grizzly bears in and around Yellowstone National Park, allowing states like Wyoming to hold grizzly bear hunts for the first time in decades.

The current administration has pursued a policy of opening public lands and waters–including not only National Monuments, but National Forests, National Wildlife Refuges, and vast offshore marine areas–to mining and oil drilling on a truly massive scale. In January, 2018 the Department of Interior proposed opening nearly all U.S. waters–in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, Gulf of Mexico, and Arctic–to deep sea offshore oil drilling. Meanwhile a little-known provision in the 2017 Tax Bill has opened the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, home to polar bears, grizzly bears, caribou, and other animals, to drilling for the first time.

Fortunately, there is good news: people are fighting back in huge numbers against these threats to imperiled animals on public lands. Environmental organizations are challenging Trump’s attack on National Monuments in court, and thousands of ordinary people across the country have submitted comments opposing oil drilling in offshore waters and the Arctic. One of the easiest ways to get involved is to call or write to your members of Congress, asking them to protect public lands and the animals who live there. If members of Congress hold a town hall in your community, consider attending and asking them about public lands and wildlife. Finally, you can help public lands and wildlife by voting in every election and casting your ballot for candidates who support protecting endangered species.

In past decades many of our most treasured landscapes–from Yellowstone to the Grand Canyon–were protected from industrial projects only after massive public outcries from people who cared about preserving public lands. Today, the current attacks on public lands are a reminder that if these wild places are going to survive, it will be because ordinary people once again took action to save them. There could not be a better time to take action and speak up for public lands.

Photo credit: D Kopshever NPS

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