What does Joe Biden’s win mean for wildlife conservation?

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Under Donald Trump’s administration, the future of wildlife conservation appeared bleak, but what might it look like now Biden is in power? Graeme Green speaks to three wildlife photographers about what the new President-elect should prioritise

The 80 million American voters, and many more people around the world, who celebrated Donald Trump’s recent defeat in the US election all had their reasons: his persistent lying, his racism and divisiveness, his broken election promises, his cosy relationships with global dictators, his attacks on journalism; the list goes on. High on that list, especially for younger voters, was President Trump’s abysmal record on climate change, wildlife conservation, and environmental protections. This is the President who withdrew America from the global Paris Climate Accord agreement, and who claimed climate change was a myth, even suggesting that: “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive.” 

Domestically, the Trump administration rolled back regulations on air pollution, and weakened the Endangered Species Act: a 1973 law that was designed to protect more than 1600 species in the US, including bald eagles, grizzly bears, gray wolves and condors. Trump cut regulations to make way for the extraction of natural resources, such as oil, natural gas, and logging. Even after losing the election, he has reportedly been pushing for the sale of oil and gas drilling sites in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. 

Wildlife photographers and photojournalists have an important role to play in bringing public attention to issues facing wildlife and the environment, and there’s cautious optimism for President-elect Biden who, in contrast to Trump, is regarded as a supporter of wildlife protections. Biden voted on the original 1973 Endangered Species Act and for other laws relating to conservation and the environment during his political career. “One place for President-elect Biden to start would be to undo much of the massive environmental damage that the Trump administration has done in the past four years,” says photographer Melissa Groo, whose work focuses on birds and nature. “We’ve suffered the dismantling of major climate policies and the rollback of dozens of rules on clean air, water, wildlife and toxic chemicals.” 

Melissa Groo. © JoEllen Arnold.
© Graeme Green / Prints For Nature.

“I’m very hopeful about having a president who believes in and relies on science”

Melissa Groo

On wildlife protection, Biden has a long to-do list. “I’d like to see Biden re-install the ban on the use of lead ammunition and fishing tackle [which poisons wildlife] on federal lands that Trump lifted, impose a ban on the hunting of predators in Alaskan wildlife refuges that Trump overturned, and strengthen the parts of the Endangered Species Act dangerously weakened by Trump,” says Groo. “I’d also like to see enhanced protection for migratory birds. The Trump Administration’s Department of the Interior changed its interpretation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act to stop fining ‘unintentional killing’, letting oil and gas and other energy industries off the hook if birds are killed by their actions. That was outrageous.”

In October 2020, just before the election, the Trump Administration removed gray wolves from the Endangered Species Act’s list of animals at risk. The decision was condemned by a coalition of six conservation groups, including Defenders Of Wildlife. It is hoped that Biden will reinstate protections for gray wolves. “Like all native species in the US, wolves have an integral role in the ecosystem in controlling prey populations as an apex predator, which has cascading effects on the entire ecosystems they inhabit,” says Ronan Donovan, who produces photography and films on wolves for National Geographic. “This continues to be a contentious issue in the US, and worldwide. The hope is that through clear, data-driven messaging, the public and governments can acknowledge their important role to the landscape, allowing wolves to expand into their historic range in the US: coast to coast and from the Arctic to Mexico.”

National Geographic photographer Steve Winter also works to highlight threats to America’s wildlife. His famous Hollywood cougar picture [below] highlights the need to protect cougars and other wildlife in California. More recently, he’s focused on the abuse of big cats in so-called zoos and sanctuaries. Joe Exotic’s former zoo, GW Exotics, as seen in Netflix’s popular Tiger King series, was shut down by the government this year. But roadside ‘zoos’, ‘sanctuaries’, ‘photo ranches’ or just people owning exotic ‘pets’ all continue to be a huge issue across the US, where more tigers are kept in captivity than remain in the wild worldwide. “Most roadside zoos keep animals in terrible conditions. Most have cages too small for a big cat, with no room to move, bad nutrition and lack of proper vet care. And there’s no federal or state oversight, except in extreme situations,” says Winter. “Game Photo Ranches are no better, where animals live in cages, then get moved to a spot for photos in a smaller cage, all for money. These are animals exploited for human enjoyment.”

© Steve Winter / Prints For Nature.

“Being ‘better than Trump’ and undoing the harm that Trump has caused will not be enough”

Winter hopes to see the US Congress pass The Big Cat Public Safety Act, a bipartisan bill that would outlaw certain practices related to big cat ownership, including the breeding of cubs and cub selfies. “With the Biden administration’s concentration on the environment, one would think the oversight and enforcement of standards by the USDA of roadside zoos and breeding would be strengthened,” Winter adds. “In the last three years, inspections have dropped by 96 per cent.”

On the global issue of the climate crisis, Biden is also seen as a better hope than Trump; he’s publicly committed to re-join the Paris Climate Agreement. “Thankfully, Joe Biden has said he considers climate change the ‘number one issue facing humanity’,” says Groo. “He’s vowed a national transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, saying he wants to put us on a path to zero carbon pollution from the electricity sector by 2035 and net-zero emissions by 2050. I’m very hopeful about having a president who believes in and relies on science, and who believes in reaching out to scientists who are experts in their fields.”

But being ‘better than Trump’ and undoing the harm that Trump has caused will not be enough. One million species of animals and plants are at risk of extinction; the pace of extinction and the climate crisis are accelerating, and are a threat to us all. Biden is seen as a centrist, a deal-maker, but for many, including conservationists and members of his own party, his commitments on climate change and energy don’t go far enough; he rejected the progressive Green New Deal.

Biden also faces the possibility of a Republican-controlled senate, likely to block any bold ideas he may want to push through, as well as powerful vested interests. “The US is a capitalist state built upon unsustainable resource extraction,” argues Donovan. “This means large corporations hold much of the power in this country and regardless of politics, large-scale sweeping changes have always been met with opposition from powerful corporate special interests. It’s unlikely Biden will be able to make the bold changes to protect wildlife, address climate change and create a green economy in just four years or even eight. But the hope is that his administration can lay down the framework for bold changes that will address the needs of Americans first and corporations second. Easier said than done.”

A pup bites at a feather while another nuzzles the pack’s ageing matriarch, White Scarf (far right). After the last known kill she was part of, White Scarf made sure the pups ate first and later disappeared out on the tundra. Ellesmere Island, Canada 2018. © Ronan Donovan / Prints For Nature.

Progress has also been impeded by the vast amount of misinformation being spread online. The most worrying aspect of the last four years was how successfully the Trump administration attacked the idea of truth. In America, as in the UK and elsewhere, there are now two (or more) warring sides on almost any issue. Depending on any individual’s personalised social media algorithms, their chosen news source or who they follow on Twitter, what people think is now based on entirely different versions of “facts”.

Wildlife, nature and the environment have been deliberately turned into Left and Right issues for party politics. For decades, climate change scepticism has been driven by “alternative science”, funded by oil companies and other corporations with vested interests. As waters rise and wildfires rage, it will be harder to believe that climate change is a Left or Right issue. But by pitting two sides against one another — Left vs Right, Democrat vs Republican, conservative vs liberal — and muddying the waters with attacks on journalism, the urgent work needed to save the planet, it’s wildlife and human inhabitants will be slowed, when we do not have time to lose.

Photography has an important role to play. “We just have to keep banging the drum,” says Groo, optimistically. “I feel encouraged by the fact there are so many heroes out there, depicting the truth, galvanizing others to action. It’s such an exciting time to be a photographer. Photos have more power than ever before – more than the written word. Photos have the ability to go viral and be seen across the world in seconds, and to alert us all about environmental challenges and needs.”

But in this age of misinformation, Groo also strikes a cautious note. “Photos can be faked too,” she says. “That’s why it’s ever more important that photography be ethical and honest, faithful to the truth, and respectful of its subject. Otherwise we strip it of its singular power. And then what do we have?”

Melissa Groo, Steve Winter, Ronan Donovan and Graeme Green are four of more than 85 international photographers who have donated images to Prints For Nature, a print sale organised by National Geographic photographer Ami Vitale to raise money for Conservation International. The four photographs included in this piece are available as part of the sale, which ends 10 December 2020.

Graeme Green

Graeme Green is a British photographer and journalist whose work appears in international publications including the BBC, The Sunday Times, The Guardian, The Sunday Telegraph, Outdoor Photographer and New Internationalist, covering subjects ranging from conservation to human trafficking. He’s also used his photography to raise money for wildlife charities including African Parks, Panthera and Conservation International. Graeme is the founder of the New Big 5 project, an international wildlife conservation initiative supported by +250 photographers, conservationists and charities.