Interior Secretary nominee awaiting confirmation vote

By Jamila Blake

©Gage Skidmore

Last week, the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources held its confirmation hearing for the new administration’s nominee for Secretary of the Interior. The Montana Congressman, Ryan Zinke, was interviewed on a variety of topics, including public lands, invasive species and climate change.

Zinke discussed his main goals if confirmed as Secretary of the Interior. He aims to restore trust by working with local communities and states, prioritize the maintenance and repair backlog of our national parks, and ensure frontline professionals, like rangers, have the right tools, resources and flexibility to give a voice to the people they represent. Zinke claims to follow a Roosevelt school of thought for conservation, but also acknowledges the merit of Muir and Pinchot approaches.

The Congressman emphasized his commitment to public lands throughout the hearing, particularly protecting public access. As a self-stated huntsman and fisherman, Zinke wants to maintain access for current and future generations. Zinke reaffirmed his support to permanently reauthorize and allocate funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) in his responses to questions from multiple senators.

Wild horses (Equus caballus) and burros (Equus asinus) were another topic broached during the hearing. Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ) questioned Zinke on how these feral populations would be handled moving forward. In his response, Zinke acknowledged that he recently learned about the issue so it warranted further discussion. He wants to move away from current policies that don’t work and for management teams to be seen as a helpful resource rather than an entity to be feared. As a founding member of the National Horse & Burro Range Management Coalition, The Wildlife Society supports sound, scientifically-based practices for management of wild horse and burro populations to promote healthy ecosystems that support native species.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) pressed Zinke on the subject of climate change. Zinke said that he didn’t believe that climate change was a “hoax,” but the role of humans isn’t clear. Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) followed up with questions about the economic costs of not addressing climate change. Franken referred to a letter signed by Zinke in 2010 that depicts climate change as a national security threat that requires immediate action.

Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies President, Nick Wiley, says the organization is looking “forward to working together to strengthen state-federal relationships across all agencies in the Department of the Interior for the benefit of our fish and wildlife resources, our citizens, and future generations of Americans.” Other organizations, like The Wilderness Society, have expressed concerns about Zinke, “whose repeated support for logging, drilling and mining on cherished public lands is out of step with most Americans.”

The Senate is expected to approve Zinke as Secretary of the Interior. The vote was scheduled for Jan. 24, but, the morning of, Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Ranking Member Maria Cantwell (D-WA) officially announced that the vote would be postponed until further notice. Today the committee announced that the vote has been rescheduled for Jan. 31.

Read TWS’ Position Statement on Feral Horses and Burros in North America.

Jamila Blake is a policy intern at The Wildlife Society as part of the Wildlife Policy and Programs team. Read more of Jamila's articles here.