SALT LAKE CITY — U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said Friday that he's taking steps to study and preserve habitat and migration corridors in Western states for big-game animals such as elk, mule and deer, a move that hunters and some experts applauded but that critics called an effort to cover up damage.
Zinke's order calls on his agency to work closer with states and private landowners. He announced it during a trip to Utah, where he recommended significantly downsizing two sprawling national monuments that President Donald Trump approved. It received support from Republican leaders but triggered outcry among environmental groups and a coalition of tribes who protested Zinke's latest visit.
Hunting groups joined him for his announcement at a hunting and conservation expo in Salt Lake City and said the plan will add 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 prioritize work on animal corridors to ensure wildlife is preserved for future generations, Zinke said. Invoking President Teddy Roosevelt, 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.
Matthew Kauffman, a University of Wyoming associate professor and big-game wildlife migration expert, applauded the move that comes as researchers using advanced technology can now precisely document migration corridors and the roads, fences and housing developments that impede them.
In Wyoming, conservationists recently purchased land on a slate slated for a housing development to preserve a quarter-mile-wide stretch of land where 4,000 mule deer cross each year, Kauffman said.
Tracking collars now last two to three years and show researchers where animals are every hour, he said.
"The science is there. We know how to map these," Kauffman said. "It's a very logical next step which builds on the last 10-15 years of migration research."
The Center for Western Priorities, a conservation group, acknowledged that it's important to plan for wildlife migration but noted that Zinke has inflicted major damage to lands by supporting the oil industry and recommending reductions to national monuments.
"We won't allow the secretary and his staff to greenwash this abysmal record with meager policy crumbs," group deputy director, Greg Zimmerman, said in the statement.
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.
A few dozen protesters made their anger known outside the hunting expo. A person 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, "Utahans 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 shrink them, they shrink all of us, they shrink who we are and what we stand for."
Zinke said environmental groups that criticize his monument recommendation are using "nefarious" and "false" claims. He said "every inch" of the lands stripped from the monuments are still protected under other designations.
"Public lands belong to the people, not special interests," he said.
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.