What a president will do for wildlife has never been much of a campaign issue. Debates focus on national security, trade, economics, and to a lesser degree in this election cycle, on the environment. Wildlife, however, plays a part in all those concerns.
Take, for example, the illegal wildlife trade. It’s a multibillion-dollar business that destabilizes developing countries, thrives on corruption, and funds warlords and terrorism. It’s easier to get away with smuggling animals than drugs or humans. Penalties are far lower, but the payoff can be just as high. When law enforcement officers intercept shipments of elephant ivory, rhino horn, and other wildlife products, the cargo is often worth hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars. Wildlife crime, increasingly, is organized crime.
We’re now moving toward a world with no elephants in the wild. Some 33,000 are killed by poachers every year for their ivory. And rhino poaching in South Africa, where most live, has exploded from 13 killed in 2007 to 1,175 in 2015 because of demand from both the traditional medicine trade and the newly wealthy in Asia, who see it as a status symbol. The trade in tiger parts is thriving, leaving only about 4,000 of the big cats in wild places, and restaurant demand for the scales of pangolins has decimated populations in Southeast Asia.
Given our demonstrably disastrous effects on wildlife, there is now recognition that humans have a certain obligation to protect wildlife for its own sake. In 2013 President Barack Obama issued an executive order directing 17 federal agencies to take on the battle in new and expanded ways. His State Department, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Attorney General’s office all worked at an international level to attack the trade by collaborating with supply, transit, and demand countries to reduce poaching and stifle demand.
Obama helped wildlife in other ways too. He set aside new swaths of land and oceans for wildlife, put in place new regulations on big game hunting of at-risk African species, and implemented numerous other environmental policies protecting humans and animals alike from climate change and pollution.
President-elect Donald Trump campaigned on a platform of undoing Obama’s legacy. So what will a Trump presidency mean for wildlife at home and abroad? National Geographic has looked at what might happen under Trump when it comes to the illegal wildlife trade, climate change, hunting, the Endangered Species Act (ESA), and habitat protection.
A lot will depend on whom Trump picks to head the Department of the Interior.
A New Secretary
The Department of the Interior is the federal agency that oversees management of America’s wildlife, 500 million acres of public lands, including national parks and forests, and more than a billion acres of seafloor. It also shapes the role the U.S. plays in international wildlife affairs, including the country’s strategy for combating the illegal wildlife trade. It’s safe to say that whoever heads this department will have a lot of power to shape how his administration approaches wildlife protection.
Some of the latest rumored contenders don't have a strong track record of advocating for wildlife or habitat protection. Possible nominees include former Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, Wyoming Congresswoman Cynthia Lummis, and Sarah Palin, who made the catch phrase “drill, baby, drill” a part of the 2008 campaign. There’s also 74-year-old oil executive Forrest Lucas, founder and chairman of Protect the Harvest, an advocacy group that among other things has argued in favor of keeping elephants in circuses and against efforts to ban lead ammunition, which nearly pushed the California condor to extinction and poses a serious threat to birds and other wildlife.
“Forrest Lucas would be a declaration of war on animal welfare and conservation,” says Wayne Pacelle, CEO of the Humane Society of the United States. “He has the most extreme views on animal issues of any name advanced in a serious way for interior secretary.”
Stopping Poachers and the Illegal Wildlife Trade
Under Obama, the U.S. took an active interest in combating the illegal wildlife trade. The task force will stay in place after Obama leaves office, helping ensure that the efforts to stop international wildlife trafficking continue, says David Hayes, the chair of the U.S. Wildlife Trafficking Alliance, a coalition of NGOs and businesses launched in 2014 as part of the White House’s National Strategy to Combat Wildlife Trafficking.
“I think it’s a bright spot of likely continued attention by the [new] administration,” he says. “This is not a partisan issue. Folks appreciate the seriousness of the global crisis.”
“It’s an issue of national security as well as conservation,” says Under Secretary Catherine Novelli at the State Department, who has led the department’s anti-trafficking efforts. “The support has been very bipartisan going back a very long way.”
Republicans and Democrats in Congress echoed that sentiment. This fall both houses of Congress unanimously approved the Eliminate, Neutralize, and Disrupt (END) Wildlife Trafficking Act, a new law that makes it easier to prosecute wildlife crimes at home, requires federal agencies to work with under-resourced countries that are wildlife crime hot spots on anti-poaching and anti-trafficking efforts, and mandates the continuation of the presidential task force.
“With terrorists increasingly profiting off the slaughter of rhinos, elephants, and other endangered animals, we can’t let up in our fight to stop wildlife trafficking,” said Rep. Ed Royce (R-California) in an emailed statement. “I am ready to work with the Trump administration to fully implement it.”
Royce co-sponsored the bill in the House with Democratic Congressman Eliot Engel of New York. Senators Jeff Flake (R-Arizona) and Chris Coons (D-Delaware) sponsored the bill in the Senate. Flake told National Geographic he planned to use the momentum from the bill’s passage to push the issue forward in the new Congress, and a representative for Coons said the senator was confident the Trump Administration would continue the fight.
Hayes thinks wildlife trafficking may actually catch Trump’s interest, given the number of big companies that have made commitments to combat wildlife trafficking, including Google, JetBlue, Ralph Lauren, and others.
“Large companies are coming together and speaking out and helping on this,” he says. “It shows a business commitment to the issue that I think will be attractive to the Trump Administration.”
Lastly, there’s the Trans-Pacific Partnership. It’s the first trade deal to address the illegal wildlife trade, but some worry that it could do just as much damage by promoting industries that destroy critical habitat. Trump has promised to ax the deal. (Read more: How the Trans-Pacific Partnership Will—and Won’t—Protect Wildlife.)
Wildlife on a Warming Planet
Trump has questioned whether climate change is real (it is) and whether it poses a significant threat (it does). Animals are already feeling the effects: polar bears starving because of rapidly melting sea ice, sea turtles whose reproduction is undermined by changing temperatures at nesting sites, African elephants suffering from climate change-induced droughts.
Trump’s stated policy goals could make it worse. He wants to undo efforts to cut power plants’ carbon emissions, support the fossil fuel industry, and withdraw from the Paris Agreement, the international climate pact that was negotiated in late 2015 and came into force earlier this month. (Read more: The Global Dangers of Trump’s Climate Denial.)
Hunting at Home and Abroad
During the election, photos of Eric and Donald Trump, Jr., holding the body of a leopard they’d shot in Africa made the rounds. Another surfaced showed Donald, Jr., holding an elephant tail as a trophy. Then in August, in the heat of the campaign, the pair disappeared from the campaign trail, reportedly on another hunting trip.
Trump himself has sent mixed messages about his personal stance on sport hunting. He told TMZ in 2012 that he’s not a “believer in hunting.” But during the campaign this year, he told Field & Stream that he’d “love to” go hunting with his sons. He also earned the endorsement of the National Rifle Association, which advocates on behalf of sport hunters.
Donald, Jr., has made it clear that he’ll have an influence in his father’s administration when it comes to hunting and conservation issues. He told Outdoor Life in October that he “will be there to make sure the people who run the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and so on know how much sportsmen do for wildlife and conservation and that, for the sake of us all, they value the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation.”
That model essentially says that fish and wildlife are a resource meant for use by citizens, and that hunters and fishermen have an important role to play in their conservation. Critics, including many scientists, have condemned it as an excuse for managing public lands and wildlife for the sole purpose of hunters and fishermen. (Public lands in the U.S. are currently managed for “multiple use,” meaning the wants and needs of wildlife must be balanced with those of hunters, oil developers, miners, and hikers and other recreational users.)
Internationally under Obama, the Fish and Wildlife Service has reaffirmed its guiding belief that trophy hunting, when done sustainably, plays an important role in conservation by injecting tourism money into local economies abroad and reiterated that domestic hunting license and tag fees fund conservation efforts at home. It’s likely that the new administration would continue support for trophy hunting, given the Trump sons’ penchant for it.
What is less clear is whether Trump will try to loosen rules put in place by the Fish and Wildlife Service that restrict imports of African elephant trophies and lion trophies put in place to protect their population numbers. But such a move wouldn’t be surprising, given the NRA endorsement and its opposition to trophy hunting regulations.
“I think it’s a real possibility, but I don’t know yet if it’s likely to happen,” Andrew Wetzler, deputy chief program officer with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in an email.
America’s Endangered Species
Leatherback turtles face threats like getting entangled in fishing gear or changing climates, in addition to being hunted by for their meat, shells, and eggs.
Unsurprisingly, Trump and his team haven’t yet mentioned anything about endangered species—it’s not a hot campaign issue for most voters. But now that Republicans control both Congress and the White House, there’s a chance that efforts to chip away at the Endangered Species Act could make headway.
The law, enacted in 1973, allows the federal government to protect at-risk species from further decline by listing them as threatened or endangered. Once a species is listed, the public can’t hunt that animal or interfere with its habitat, among other things. The legislation is credited with bringing a number of species, including bald eagles and gray wolves, back from the brink of extinction.
In the past, and to this day, Congressional Republicans have tried to peel away some protections, but having a Democrat in the White House meant there were constraints. “In almost every case, the safety net provided by having Obama willing to threaten vetoes has protected the ESA,” says Bob Dreher at Defenders of Wildlife. “It’s not at all clear where Trump will be on these issues, and it’s predictable a Republican Congress will attempt to strip protections for wildlife.”
Many Republicans want to dismantle the ESA, arguing that it has stunted economic development and been misused as a way to shift land ownership to the federal level. During this congressional session Republican legislators introduced more than a hundred bills attempting to weaken the law, from making it harder to list species to keeping specific animals, such as the lesser prairie-chicken, a Western species that has lost habitat to agriculture and oil and gas development, off the ESA list. (Related: “Why These Rare Species Are Targeted by the GOP.”)
Habitat Protection and Public Lands
While Trump has made no public statements about how his administration would manage U.S. wildlife, it’s clear that some of his policies could put them at risk. He has called for new oil and gas drilling on public lands and in waters, which could degrade habitats and disrupt migratory pathways of native species. There’s always the risk of oil spills too.
In particular, the debate over oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is likely to be revived. In February Obama effectively banned oil exploration on 12 million acres of land in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but Trump has said he’d reverse that. The area is a sensitive ecosystem, home to millions of migratory birds, polar bears, and porcupine caribou, among other animals.
Trump’s transition website also says he’d roll back the Obama Administration’s attempt to clarify which waters are and aren’t protected by the Clean Water Act. The administration's move was to address the upstream effects of agricultural fertilizer runoff on downstream rivers and streams. Agricultural runoff has the potential to contaminate animals’ (and people’s) drinking water, suffocate fish and other aquatic animals, and pollute all-important wetlands, which filter water and provide habitat for a vast array of land and water animals. (Read more: "What Does Trump Mean for America’s Lands and Waters?")
Last but not least is the possible border wall. The U.S.-Mexico border area is a sensitive desert ecosystem, home to diverse wild animals, from the roadrunner and bighorn sheep to El Jefe, the last known jaguar in the U.S. A wall has the potential to choke off migratory routes, destroy habitat, and make it nearly impossible for rare animals like El Jefe and the North American ocelot to hunt for food and find mates. A Fish and Wildlife Service analysis estimated that a wall running the entire length of the border could threaten 111 endangered species.