BLOG: Top Interior Official Addresses Former Lobbying Client of Bernhardt

Group Advocates Against Sage Grouse Protections and Was Found Selling Captive-Bred Lion Hunts at Convention

Recent reporting revealed that Aurelia Skipwith, controversial Director of Fish and Wildlife Services (FWS) spoke at a Safari Club International (SCI) event – a group known for its efforts lobbying Interior against sage grouse protections. Skipwith’s FWS is in charge of large parts of sage-grouse habitat management plans, making the speaking engagement at SCI’s event indicative of Interior Secretary Bernhardt’s culture of corruption. Already clear and according to her publicly released calendars, Skipwith has been deeply involved in the administration’s rollback of habitat protections for the imperiled sage grouse. Now, she’s addressed a group invested heavily in undermining habitat protections. 

Sage grouse and Bernhardt’s conflicts of interest 

Former mega-lobbyist turned-Interior Secretary, David Bernhardt previously represented SCI. The foundation paid him at least $5,000 in legal fees in 2016 alone. Then, like many of Bernhardt’s former clients, SCI greatly benefited from access once Bernhardt joined Interior’s leadership ranks. SCI is staunchly against protecting the imperiled sage grouse and its habitat area. In 2013, Brian Cebull, president of SCI’s Montana chapter, testified before Congress and argued against listing the sage grouse as an endangered species, despite widespread science that recognizes the bird as quickly declining. The group also supported a proposal in 2011 that would have released several million acres of public lands into development, lifting protections and restricting access. 

Partially due to SCI’s lobbying efforts, as well as other former clients of Bernhardt’s, the Trump administration’s final sage-grouse habitat management plans now include removing protections and opening up public lands to drilling and leasing, even if and when proposals encroached on and are located within critical sage-grouse habitat. 

Unsurprisingly, SCI receives funding from the oil and gas industry. 

Aurelia Skipwith’s already swampy past 

While Skipwith’s resume has previously raised questions about her qualifications for a leadership role at such a critical agency, more importantly, it is littered with ties to special interests. Skipwith failed to disclose lobbying ties between her former employer, Gage International LLC, and their work on behalf of the powerful Westlands Water District — another former client of Bernhardt’s.

She also spoke at the oil and gas association Independent Petroleum Association of America’s (IPAA) regulators’ forum. IPAA is yet another former client of Interior Secretary Bernhardt’s, whose political director was caught on tape laughing about the connections and access they have within the Trump administration. 

Skipwith’s only political campaign donation was made to the Trump re-election campaign just two days after her nomination, raising additional questions about her ethical conduct. 

A full profile of Aurelia Skipwith is available on Western Values Project’s Department of Influence website, a one-stop-shop documenting the revolving door between special interest lobbyists and Trump’s Interior appointees.  

Destructive trophy hunting and Ryan Zinke

The SCI event that highlighted Skipwith also featured a live auction that included a hunting trip with Donald Trump Jr. The trip went for a whopping $340,000. Recently, the Trump administration was embroiled in yet another legal battle concerning trophy hunting. Previously, in an attempt to relax regulatory rules for importing elephant, lion, and rhino hides and heads, former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke created the International Wildlife Conservation Council, a board made up with members from both SCI and the National Rifle Association. However, because of legal challenges, it was disbanded. However, with Skipwith’s address and Trump Jr.’s action at SCI’s annual meeting, it is clear that their influence within the administration remains strong. 

While Trump Jr. parades around in new camouflage wardrobes and FWS Director Skipwith panders to extremists, the Trump administration and officials at his Interior Department continue to uplift extremist views that are a detriment to the future of our public lands, wildlife, and outdoor heritage. 

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