By Erica Cirino
On a day when millions of people across the U.S. took part in celebrating and conserving nature, Donald Trump Jr. took part in destroying it.
This past Earth Day, April 22, President Donald Trump’s eldest son traveled to Montana and met up with Greg Gianforte, a tech-millionaire and the current Republican nominee for Montana’s House Seat, to shoot prairie dogs. This despite prairie dogs’ ecological importance: out west they help make soil more fertile by digging burrows that carry water and nutrients, and serve as a food source for many predator species.
“As good Montanans, we want to show good hospitality to people. What can be more fun than to spend an afternoon shooting the little rodents,” Gianforte said of the planned prairie dog hunt.
Many people ignore the scientific importance of prairie dogs and instead see them as pests that eat crops and loosen soil. This includes the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services unit, an agency notorious for its lethal wildlife “management” practices, lists prairie dogs as “pests” in Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, Utah and Wyoming, despite the fact that state wildlife agencies consider prairie dogs as a keystone species that needs to be conserved.
This complicates the species’ management, often putting state agencies and scientists at odds with the federal government’s eradication plans. According to U.S. government data, last year Wildlife Services killed 14,591 black-tailed prairie dogs and 63 Gunnison’s prairie dogs in the American west in 2016.
Federal agents blast the prairie dogs with one shot of a high-powered rifle. These rifles are almost always loaded with lead ammunition. The lead-contaminated prairie dog carcasses poison the scavenger animals that feed on them—from eagles to vultures, to badgers and other creatures—and can also contaminate water sources.
What’s more, Gianforte and Trump initiated their hunt during a time of year when prairie dogs are most vulnerable: breeding season.
“For prairie dogs, March through June is peak breeding season, which means pregnant, adult females will also be at risk,” said Lindsey Sterling Krank, director of the Humane Society’s Prairie Dog Coalition.
Trump Jr., who currently sits on the board of his father’s Trump Organization, is no secret. In 2012 photos of Trump Jr. and his younger brother Eric, taken on a hunting trip two years earlier, surfaced on the Internet. The photos show the Tump sons with hunters and guides in Zimbabwe, Africa, with a menagerie of dead animals, including crocodiles, antelopes and waterbucks. There is also an image of Trump Jr. standing and holding the chopped-off tail of a deceased elephant.
The photos immediately evoked outrage among animal rights activists and conservationists. Trump Jr. defended the images, saying he had “no shame about them,” that he hunts and eats the animals he kills, and that the animals he killed “fed a village for weeks.”
It’s clear is that Trump Jr.’s Earth-Day prairie dog killing spree was done for sport. And conservationists say that the scientific agreement that prairie dogs are ecologically important and wrongly classified by the federal government as pests makes his actions even more questionable.
“Prairie dogs are an important keystone species with myriad other species dependent on their survival, including the burrowing owl, black-footed ferret and nesting birds,” said Krank. “People do not hunt these animals for food or any legitimate wildlife management purposes. We have a duty to protect them to ensure that every species within the ecosystem continues to thrive.”