U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on Friday traveled to Salt Lake City to announce a new initiative with Western states to improve migration corridors and habitat for big game on federal lands.
Within 30 days, he said at a news conference, he’ll name a coordinator to work with appropriate states, federal agencies, nongovernmental organizations and others to optimize connections between wetlands and other migration and wintering habitat.
Protecting wildlife corridors, Zinke said, will “make sure our kids, our kids’ kids, will have the same opportunities we did” to hunt and fish. He described mule deer as “kind of a bellwether of the health ... of all the other species” included in “our legacy of hunting and fishing.”
Earlier in the day, Zinke joined wildlife officers and volunteers in tagging and collaring deer in Herriman, to be moved to the Oak Creek area in central Utah, according to the Mule Deer Foundation.
“This morning I was wrestling a doe in a neighborhood that wasn’t there two years ago,” Zinke said, noting that development around Salt Lake City has “disrupted” wildlife patterns. “Wildlife is moving to the highlands.”
The Center for American Progress called Zinke’s announcement an attempt to “apply some bureaucratic window dressing to cover up the damage he’s done.”
“If Secretary Zinke were serious about increasing America’s wildlife populations, he would stand by Western governors’ protections for sagebrush country, restore public input on drilling decisions, and stand up for America’s national monuments and wildlife refuges instead of selling them out,” Kate Kelly, public lands director for the center, a public policy research group, said in an email.
But groups from the National Wildlife Federation to the National Rifle Association lauded the initiative.
“Together, we can and must restore important habitat, mitigate physical barriers to migration, prevent conflicts with energy development, reduce disease transmission from domestic livestock, and protect genetic diversity — all of which will help ensure safe passage and survival for some of America’s most majestic species,” said Collin O’Mara, president of the National Wildlife Federation.
Earlier Friday, Gov. Gary R. Herbert met with Zinke to discuss a reorganization of the Interior department. The department now has eight regions, and Utah is part of a 10-state group that has a regional office in Denver.
Zinke wants to ”reduce and realign regions ... with the aim to put decision makers closer to the states and their people,” Herbert said in a statement, adding that he believes Utah would benefit from a reorganization.
“Practical solutions like this can help restore trust between the states and the federal government,” Herbert said. Governors will discuss the issues at National Governors Association meetings later this month in Washington, D.C.
About 150 protesters gathered outside of the Salt Palace Convention Center on Friday afternoon in anticipation of Zinke’s arrival.
“Secretary Zinke has continued a legacy of people in power pushing folks off public lands,” said Olivia Juarez, a community organizer for the environmental group Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, which coordinated the protest.
Zinke announced the conservation initiative during the Western Hunting and Conservation Expo running through Sunday. Hunters from throughout the country are in Salt Lake City to bid on hunting tags, check out the latest in gear and look at exhibits from hunting guides and manufacturers.
Protesters were focused on the Trump administration’s recent order dividing and reducing the former Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears national monuments.
Garon Coriz, of the Santo Domingo Pueblo tribe in New Mexico, recalled his father showing him the ruins in the Four Corners region.
“He said, ‘Son, these were made by your ancestors,‘” Coriz said amid Friday’s protest. “It filled me with awe and reverence for these places. ... I can tell you the Pueblo people still worship at the Bears Ears. ... I can sit down at the fireside of my ancestors.”
At one point, participants squished together on the plaza outside the Salt Palace to demonstrate the 50 percent reduction in monument lands at Grand Staircase-Escalante and the 85 percent reduction at Bears Ears. One protester, pretending to be Zinke, shooed the crowd into a scrum, admonishing them, “Stand within the monument land or leave the monument!”
Some in attendance decried the energy industry, which pushed for the monument reductions. Uranium deposits in the Bears Ears area and coal, gas and tar sands near Escalante have raised conservationists’ concerns about future land use.
“The desire for fossil fuel is outdated and morally reprehensible when it furthers climate change,” said Eliza Van Dyk.
Zinke said there are “no oil and gas assets in the Bears Ears” and areas with uranium mines are now protected as wilderness.
“They’re angry people,” Zinke said of those objecting to the monument reductions. He said there is “no chance” the Trump administration will revisit the decision.