SALT LAKE CITY — U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said Friday that he's taking steps to improve habitat and migration corridors in Western states for big-game animals such as elk, mule and deer, a move that critics called an effort to cover up damage.
Zinke announced an order that calls on his agency to work closer with states and private landowners. Hunting groups joined him at a hunting and conservation expo in Salt Lake City and applauded the move as adding important protections for animals such as deer and elk.
The Interior Department will study migration habits and devise ways to improve habitat, Zinke said, which could include getting ranchers to modify fences and collaborating with states on sagebrush restoration.
The order will "harmonize and prioritize" work on wildlife corridors, to ensure that wildlife is preserved for future generations, Zinke said. Invoking President Teddy Roosevelt as a model, he called himself a steward of public lands and took a shot at his frequent critics.
"I'm not an advocate for ever selling or transfer of public lands, but I am an advocate for managing," Zinke said.
The Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, blasted the decision as nothing more than "bureaucratic window dressing" to cover up damage Zinke has done to the habitat.
"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," the organization said in a statement.
Zinke has drawn the ire of conservation groups for recommending President Donald Trump shrink two national monuments in Utah. Trump followed the guidance, downsizing Bears Ears National Monument by about 85 percent and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument by nearly half.
A few dozen protesters made their anger known Friday outside the hunting expo. A person dressed in a bear suit and another in a dinosaur costume stood next to a cardboard cutout of Zinke with a sign stuck to it that said, "Utahns love Bears Ears and Grand Staircase."
"Monuments tell the stories of who we are as Americans. They are places that hold our values," said Terri Martin of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "When the Trump administration shrinks them, they shrink all of us, they shrink who we are and what we stand for."
Zinke also met with Utah Gov. Gary Herbert to discuss his plan to move more of the Interior Department's decision-making to the West, including the agency's Bureau of Land Management.
Herbert, a Republican, called the plan "good old-fashioned common sense" that can help restore the trust between states and the federal government.