President-elect Barack Obama's Cabinet is taking shape, and about half of the top jobs have now been filled. The positions likely to come next, such as Secretary of Agriculture and Secretary of the Interior, will have the most direct impact on animal welfare. And there's talk that Interior and other environmental posts may be announced this week.
Some new names have emerged since I first wrote about the Interior appointment several weeks ago, and the two frontrunners now appear to be Congressmen Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and Mike Thompson (D-Calif.). Obama faces a choice between a new direction that would place conservation above corporate interests, and a pick that would look very much like past selections at the Department of the Interior.
The possibility of Grijalva as Interior Secretary has been enthusiastically endorsed by Latino groups, Native American leaders, progressive organizations, scientists, and environmentalists who have admired his work as chairman of the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands. As John Nichols wrote in the Nation, Grijalva "has been a genuine activist in that position, challenging giveaways to agribusiness and big ranchers who have taking advantage of ridiculously cheap grazing permits on federal lands in the west and exploring the role that oil and gas development on federal property has played in the decline of hunting habitats in the west."
In turning around a failing agency, Grijalva would not only have the experience but would also have a blueprint for doing so. He recently outlined numerous problems in a 23-page report on the Bush Administration's assault on our national parks, forests, and public lands--ranging from weakening air quality and carrying loaded guns in parks, to the slaughter of Yellowstone buffalo and the mismanagement of wild horses and burros. Roberto Lovato notes that a Grijalva appointment would "foster change and hope with regard to both the stewardship of federal land and the management of relations with Indian nations" and would "bring urgency and much-needed balance to these important government functions."
On animal protection issues, Grijalva has been a vocal champion in his subcommittee and on the House floor. He is the lead author with Congressman John Campbell (R-Calif.) of the Bear Protection Act, which would crack down on the illegal poaching of bears by stopping the trade in bear bile and gall bladders on the black market. He has scored a perfect 100 percent on every issue of the Humane Scorecard since he has been elected to Congress, and has sided with animal protection on every measure that had relevance to the Interior Department, such as the import of sport-hunted polar bear trophies, the commercial sale and slaughter of wild horses and burros, the slaughter of buffalo in Yellowstone National Park, and bear baiting on federal lands.
Thompson has often supported animal protection bills, such as those to stop horse slaughter and strengthen the law against animal fighting, but he has departed from us on all issues having to do with sport hunting. In fact, having served as both co-chair and vice-chair of the Congressional Sportsmen's Caucus, it is his close association with the hunting lobby that seems to be the primary reason his hat is in the ring. Frankly, that's the old criterion for selecting the Interior Department leader. In the past, if you fished and hunted, and saw the world the way the NRA and Safari Club do, then you met the threshold test for securing the appointment. But we are talking about an agency that manages more than 500 million acres of public lands, enforces the Endangered Species Act, and has a major role to play in protecting biodiversity. At a time when wildlife watchers outnumber hunters in the U.S. by six-to-one, and contribute twice as much to the economy, we must get beyond this very narrow field of vision if we are to confront the major environmental and public lands challenges of the 21st century.
Thompson's annual ratings on the Humane Scorecard have ranged from a very respectable 58 to 85 percent--but he has been on the wrong side of many issues that will fall under the direct jurisdiction of the next Interior Secretary. He sided with the National Rifle Association and other extreme hunting groups when it came to the trophy hunting of threatened polar bears and the use of pizza and jelly doughnuts as bait to lure bears to hunters on federal lands. He did favor pro-animal amendments in Congress to protect Yellowstone bison and restrict the use of steel-jawed leghold traps, but he opposed measures that would have cut federal funding for lethal predator control. When he was a state senator in California, and chair of the Natural Resources and Wildlife Committee, he helped to defeat legislation to halt the high-tech hound hunting of black bears--an inhumane and unsporting practice. He later voted in favor of a bill to resume the trophy hunting of mountain lions, which California voters have twice defeated. These are extreme hunting practices not only at odds with the Humane Society Legislative Fund, but also with the average American and probably with President-elect Obama himself.
Thompson's candidacy is being pushed by hunting lobby organizations and gun and ammo trade groups. Among the 32 groups signing a pro-Thompson letter are Safari Club International, which gives awards for killing rare species around the world, and the U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance, which even tried to stop a program to help pets affected by foreclosures. The Safari Club has honored him as Federal Legislator of the Year and with the Hunting Heritage Award, and is one of Thompson's top financial contributors. Both groups, and their allies at the NRA, worked very hard against Obama, and it would be a slap in the face to the environmental community and the animal protection community to appoint their hand-picked favorite as Interior Secretary.
In addition to having a respectable record on animal protection -- with the hunting issues being the glaring exception -- Thompson also has a solid record on protecting the environment. But he's never been a leader, or a go-to person for the environmental community on the big fights of the day. And while he did chair the Natural Resources and Wildlife Committee in the state Senate, he has not served in Congress on the Natural Resources Committee and has essentially seen wildlife issues only through the lens of his leadership at the Congressional Sportsmen's Caucus, rising to the defense of inhumane and unsporting hunting practices. The nation needs someone with a broader background, and Obama should understand this as well as anyone.
This seems an easy call for a president-elect who wants to change the way business is done in Washington and throughout the nation. Grijalva would bring much-needed hope for wildlife and the environment as Interior Secretary, and not just more of the same.