Ryan Zinke’s missteps on ivory — and everything else

FILE - In this May 9, 2017, file photo, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke takes a horseback ride in the Bears Ears National Monument with local and state representatives in Blanding, Utah. President Donald Trump is shrinking two national monuments in Utah, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante, accepting the recommendation of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to reverse protections established by two Democratic presidents, a Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said Friday, Oct. 27. (Scott G Winterton/The Deseret News via AP)
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke rides through the Bears Ears National Monument with local and state representatives in Blanding, Utah.

Any Republican who compares himself to Teddy Roosevelt, the ardent conservationist known for protecting the nation’s wild places, has a lot to live up to. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is working to get the optics just right, but he falls significantly short on policy. In fact, in a mere eight months in office, he has made so many missteps that Donald Trump himself tweeted out a policy reversal late last week.

While Zinke, a former Navy Seal and Montana congressman, took a Roosevelt-style tour of protected lands in Utah on horseback — cowboy hat in evidence — his staff cleaned house at the Interior Department, according to The New York Times, to make room for foes of environmental regulations and for a longtime advisor to oil magnate Charles Koch.

Zinke’s name also surfaced as part of an embarrassing travel scandal, where government officials traveled at taxpayer expense on private jets and military planes. In fact, Zinke’s own department is now probing his actions: In October, Interior’s inspector general announced the office would investigate at least three trips by Zinke — including a $12,000 charter flight from Las Vegas to Montana in June on a plane owned by Wyoming oil and gas executives. And Politico reported this week that his wife, Lola, has caused headaches for department staffers and raised questions about misuse of government resources.


Then there’s the Whitefish Energy Holdings deal, which involved a dubious $300 million contract with a tiny Montana company — with ties to Zinke — to rebuild Puerto Rico’s power grid after Hurricane Maria. That deal was scuttled after the Federal Emergency Management Agency accused the company of price gouging.

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But even Donald Trump distanced himself from Zinke, last week, after the US Fish and Wildlife Service moved to overturn an Obama administration ban on importing elephant trophies like tails and tusks from Zimbabwe and Zambia. Trump rolled back that decision on Twitter after a bipartisan furor erupted.

It’s unclear whether Trump was reacting to tweets from celebrities and media stars or was actually weighing advice from those in his own party who are concerned about the role that poaching plays in funding terror groups bent on destabilizing African governments. Edward Royce, the California Republican who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, rightly observed that elephants and other big game in Africa are “blood currency”and are being killed at an alarming rate.

Unfortunately, the hold might be temporary. That’s especially worrisome because, even with the Obama-era ban, the United States is the second largest market for illegal ivory. And Boston ranked fourth in the nation, in a study by the International Fund for Animal Welfare, of ivory for sale on Craigslist. Because states enforce laws governing illegal sales of trophies like tusks and rhino horn, two bills in the State House would afford much-needed protections, especially in the face of last week’s confusing federal dictates. The bills, now being reviewed by the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources, and Agriculture, deserve passage.

Even if Zinke survives his rough start — all too likely in a chaotic administration struggling to fulfill the most basic tenets of Republican orthodoxy — Massachusetts can be an important bulwark against illegal poaching and the threat of extinction of an entire species.