An African elephant on the Masai Mara game reserve in Kenya. (Godong/UIG/Getty Images)

Advocacy groups sued the Trump administration Wednesday over what they call the biased makeup of a wildlife advisory council.

The lawsuit filed in a U.S. District Court in New York alleges that the International Wildlife Conservation Council is made up of “hunting enthusiasts” and “politically-connected donors” who are likely to craft favorable policy for groups that profit from hunting “imperiled animals,” the complaint said.

“It’s very obvious [the 17-member council has] an intent to undermine some of the protections put in place” based on the affiliations of its members, Zak Smith, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, told The Washington Post. Smith said the law requires advisory councils to be balanced so that all sides are represented.

The panel was announced in November 2017 by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. Its purpose is to increase American awareness of conservation, ensure the support of hunting as a tool to combat illegal poaching and recommend the “removal of barriers to the importation into the United States of legally hunted wildlife,” the charter said. In its ranks are a National Rifle Association official, six members who are listed as active hunters and five members who are said to represent wildlife conservation groups.

Paul Babaz, the president of Safari Club International, is listed as a conservationist, and his organization has been criticized for endorsing the hunting of vulnerable animals. SCI, which told The Post in an email it is monitoring the lawsuit, endorsed Zinke in his House campaign in Montana in 2016 and donated $10,000, according to OpenSecrets.


Cecil the lion in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. The lion, an attraction at the park and a subject of study,  was killed by an American recreational big-game hunter in 2015, igniting a global controversy. (Andy Loveridge/Wildlife Conservation Research Unit/AP)

The lawsuit is largely cautionary, Smith said, as the council has yet to publicly issue an advisory. But advocates are still worried about the potential sway that the “biased” council might have — as advisory recommendations are “looked at more closely and are likely to be readily adopted,” Smith said.

“If we have to sue to get our government to listen to wildlife conservation experts, we’re happy to do so,” Smith said in a statement.

The lawsuit was filed by the Democracy Forward Foundation on behalf of the NRDC, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Humane Society of the United States and Humane Society International.

Advocacy groups in the complaint also alleged the council disobeyed long-standing rules by not publishing transcripts and detailed notes of its meetings in the proper amount of time. Groups in the complaint said they diverted organizational resources to procure “records that should [already be] public.”

The Interior Department, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment, announced in March that it would break with an Obama-era ban on elephant trophies from Tanzania and Zimbabwe, saying it would permit entry on an individual basis. The NRA and SCI heralded the decision, according to The Hill.

Thirty-three lion trophy permits were granted between 2016 and 2018, and half of the recipients donated to Republicans or have a connection to SCI, according to a Friends of Animals report.

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