MANHATTAN (CN) – As the government vied to snuff out claims over pro-hunting elements that pervade a White House advisory board on wildlife conservation, four nonprofits insisted in court Monday that they have standing to sue.
The Center for Biological Diversity and three other groups that advocate for wildlife conservation brought the underlying case in August 2018, claiming that the International Wildlife Conservation Council “actually exists to promote the antithesis of sound conservation policy: the hunting of imperiled species as a means to import their heads, hides, tusks, feet, and other body parts.”
Among other allegations, the groups accuse then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke of violating the Federal Advisory Committee Act by failing to appoint a balanced board and failing to make the council’s work open to the public.
During one hour of oral arguments before U.S. District Judge Alison Nathan on Monday afternoon, attorney Travis Annatoyn with the Democracy Forward Foundation said the International Wildlife Conservation Council was “secretive and lopsided” in favor of big game hunting.
“Defendants have constructed a black box” that excludes viewpoints critical of pro-hunting policy from having a seat at the table at all, Annatoyn added.
With the government fighting to have the suit dismissed, Annatoyn told Judge Nathan that, rather than challenging the expanded extraterritorial hunting policies themselves, his clients have taken aim at the policy-making apparatus.
Beyond the potential that the council’s pro-hunting policy recommendations will harm wildlife, Annatoyn said the challengers have already suffered the burdens of the council’s lack of transparency because they have sent people to monitor the council in person and have had to fund Freedom of Information Act battles.
For her portion of the hearing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Ann Jude largely reiterated the government’s February motion to dismiss.
In addition to lack of standing, Jude argued that the first two counts of the lawsuit should be dismissed for failure to state a claim because the plaintiffs failed to identify any FACA authority that requires the kind of written disclosures that they claim are obligatory.
Jude said the plaintiffs’ claims of injuries “very speculative” and are insufficient under to establishing any substantial likelihood of causation of noticeable reduction in wildlife from the council’s pro-hunting policy recommendations.
Jude told the court that there has been no showing that the government’s alleged FACA violations would have any imminent effect on their on-the-ground conservation projects that do not involve advocacy.
Judge Nathan reserved her decision on the motion to dismiss Monday afternoon.
Zinke appointed the advisory board in the fall of 2017 and resigned this past January amid souring relations with President Donald Trump and an ethics scandal arising from traveling arrangements he made for his wife with taxpayer money.
In addition to several other accusations of ethical breaches during his time in the Trump administration, Zinke faced two inspector general inquiries from the Interior Department prior to his departure.
Zinke was replaced by David Bernhardt, a former energy company lobbyist who previously worked as deputy secretary of the agency.