Trump administration to endangered species: We’re coming for you

Interior Secretary Zinke directs deputy with long track record lobbying for anti-wildlife clients to weaken wildlife protections

In Secretary Ryan Zinke’s Interior Department, the race to gut protections for endangered species is on. Last Friday, the secretary sent a memo giving his staff 15 days to develop a plan that would drain water from key California rivers and reservoirs and pump it to irrigation districts in the southern part of the state. These plans contradict California’s state-driven efforts to conserve water and protect endangered fish.

In a clear conflict of interest, Zinke directed his second-in-command, former water lobbyist David Bernhardt, to run the hatchet job. Bernhardt is also leading the agency’s broader efforts to weaken the Endangered Species Act, action long sought by his corporate clients in the oil, gas, and mining industries.

Secretary Zinke and Deputy Secretary Bernhardt are anything but impartial decision-makers when it comes to wildlife protection. On the contrary, both have extensive track records of undermining endangered species and propping up special interests and business at the expense of vulnerable wildlife both in California and across the country.

Gutting wildlife protections starts at the top

In his brief tenure in Congress, Ryan Zinke was a devoted enemy of the Endangered Species Act. In a foreshadowing move, he co-sponsored legislation to undermine protections for threatened and endangered fish in California, as well as bills that would block protections for the gray wolf. On the floor of the House, he voted repeatedly to eliminate or prevent protections for the greater sage-grouse, the northern long-eared bat, the lesser prairie-chicken, the gray wolf and the American burying beetle.

Second in command, first in attacking wildlife

The second-ranking official in the agency, Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, is the textbook definition of a swamp creature. Before and after two stints in the Bush administration Interior Department, Bernhardt served as a high-powered lobbyist and legal adviser for extractive industries and water users that sought to weaken the Endangered Species Act.

Most notably, Bernhardt extensively lobbied for California’s largest water user, Westlands Water District, which has long sought to pump more water from the Sacramento delta to the Central Valley — seemingly the exact plan ordered by Secretary Zinke and one that would harm several threatened and endangered fish species. Bernhardt assured Senators during his confirmation process that he would recuse himself from issues relating to his former clients for one year. But less than two weeks after that year expired, Zinke placed the former lobbyist in charge of delivering the action long sought by his client.

Outside government, Bernhardt made a career working for industries focused on destroying the Endangered Species Act. For example:

  • He lobbied for Rosement Copper Company, which is seeking to build a massive open-pit copper mine in southern Arizona that would impact a dozen or more threatened and endangered species, including jaguars and ocelots.
  • He served as a legal adviser for the Independent Petroleum Association of America, an oil and gas trade association so devoted to gutting the Endangered Species Act that it launched its own branded campaign targeting lawmakers, dubbed “ESA Watch.”

Within government, Bernhardt’s credentials for carrying out anti-wildlife policy date back years. During his stint as Interior Department Solicitor under President George W. Bush, he was implicated by one of the department’s most notorious scandals. Julie MacDonald, one of Bernhardt’s reports, was forced to resign after she was caught altering scientific work to push for reduced wildlife protections, including protections for the imperiled Delta smelt.

Not coincidentally, Deputy Secretary Bernhardt is at it again. In his role, he’s proactively working to undermine protections — once again — for the Delta smelt in California, a fish barreling towards extinction. At the same time, Secretary Zinke’s put him in charge of “modernizing” — read undercutting — the Endangered Species Act.

He announced the effort with an op-ed in the Washington Post which was written to sound as benign and uncontroversial as possible. But, make no mistake, beneath the milquetoast rhetoric is a long history of working for private clients and inside the U.S. government to permanently disable the Endangered Species Act.

Past is prologue for David Bernhardt and his boss, Secretary Zinke — they want the Endangered Species Act out of their way.

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Stories about public lands and the outdoors from the Center for Western Priorities

Jesse Prentice-Dunn

Written by

Policy Director | Center for Western Priorities | Denver, CO



Stories about public lands and the outdoors from the Center for Western Priorities