President Donald Trump announced late Monday that he intends to nominate a former agrochemical industry official to lead the Department of the Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS).
The selection of Aurelia Skipwith, who worked at Monsanto for six years, to head FWS carries on a Trump administration trend of filling top environmental regulatory positions with officials from companies regulated by the agency. If confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Skipwith’s duties will include enforcing federal wildlife laws, protecting endangered species, managing migratory birds, and conserving and restoring wildlife habitat.
Environmental and conservation groups largely condemned Skipwith’s nomination, noting that she spent the past year and a half at the Interior Department helping to oversee the administration’s dismantling of wildlife and national monument protections.
Skipwith worked for seed and pesticide giant Monsanto from 2006 to 2012, finishing her time at the company in its corporate affairs department. Skipwith currently serves as deputy assistant secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks at the Interior Department, where she is responsible for the protection of lands and water in national parks and the wildlife refuge system.
“Ms. Skipwith’s nomination is business as usual for an administration that has sought to reward its allies at the expense of public lands and wildlife,” Chris Saeger, executive director of the Western Values Project, said Tuesday.
In a statement, Saeger alluded to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s recent announcement that the department would make a “grand pivot to conservation.”
“If appointing a darling of corporate special interest to become the country’s top wildlife manager” is what Zinke intended with his announcement, Saeger said, “then it’s clear he was never serious to begin with.”
The Center for Biological Diversity highlighted the fact that Skipwith has been working in the Trump administration since April 2017. During this time, the department has had a bulls-eye on protections for migratory birds, endangered species, and national monuments.
“Skipwith will always put the interests of her old boss Monsanto and other polluters ahead of America’s wildlife and help the most anti-environmental administration in history do even more damage,” Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said Tuesday in a statement.
Monsanto was one of almost two dozen major corporations that bankrolled Trump’s inauguration festivities. The company reported giving $25,000 to the inauguration committee.
From June 2017 to August 2018, when he left the Interior Department, Greg Sheehan served as deputy director of the Fish and Wildlife Service and acting head of the agency. Jim Kurth currently serves as deputy director “exercising the authority of the director.”
Skipwith has a master’s degree in molecular genetics from Purdue University and a law degree from the University of Kentucky College of Law. Prior to joining the Trump administration, Skipwith worked as assistant corporate counsel and regulatory affairs coordinator for Alltech Inc., a Kentucky-based company that develops agricultural products for use in livestock and crop farming. According to her LinkedIn page, she also served as co-founder and general counsel of AVC Global, an “agricultural value chain platform.” She is the first African American ever to be nominated to head FWS.
“She has helped lead some of my top priorities for getting more people to enjoy our public lands, like expanding access for hunting and fishing, recognizing National Urban Refuge Day, and designating sites on the African American Civil Rights Network. I look forward to her speedy confirmation,” Zinke said Tuesday in a statement.
Under current U.S. law, the Center for Biological Diversity said a president cannot appoint a person to run FWS unless the person is “by reason of scientific education and experience, knowledgeable in the principles of fisheries and wildlife management.” Skipwith’s nomination breaks with decades of tradition from presidential administrations of both parties “in that she has neither education nor experience in fisheries and wildlife management,” the environmental group said.
In spring of 2017, FWS ended the first nationwide biological reviews that assessed the impacts of pesticides on endangered species. In August, it reversed a 2014 decision prohibiting bee-killing neonicotinoid pesticides and genetically modified, pesticide-resistant crops on national wildlife refuges.
Ducks Unlimited CEO Dale Hall welcomed Skipwith’s nomination as director of the FWS. “We hope this nomination moves forward quickly,” Hall said Tuesday in a statement.