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Senators Grill Ex-Monsanto Exec Tapped as Wildlife Chief (1)

Sept. 11, 2019, 10:01 AMUpdated: Sept. 11, 2019, 5:56 PM

Aurelia Skipwith, who has been nominated to become chief of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, faced aggressive questioning from Democrats during her Senate confirmation hearing Sept. 11.

Delaware Sen. Tom Carper, the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said he sent Skipwith a set of questions on Aug. 29 asking about her interests with former employers and the extent she’d tried to avoid conflicts of interest.

“Last night, just hours before this hearing, we finally received a response and the response is incomplete,” Carper said at the hearing. “That’s unacceptable and I sincerely hope that it’s not an indication of how you will respond to future legitimate inquires from members of this committee, be they Democrat or Republican, should you be confirmed.”

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) questioned Skipwith about a $5,600 donation she gave to the Trump administration two days after she was nominated to the post, and wanted to know about her contacts with the administration.

“I support what this administration is doing,” Skipwith replied.

Whitehouse responded, “Do you understand the rot runs deep with this administration?”

Target of Environmentalists

If confirmed, Skipwith would become the first African-American to run Fish and Wildlife, and would oversee 557 national wildlife refuges and enforce protection of imperiled species under the Endangered Species Act.

But she has become a target of environmentalists who say she has too little experience in wildlife management to be qualified for the job. She worked for Monsanto from 2006 to 2012, leading a team responsible for bringing new agricultural products to market.

Skipwith is currently Interior deputy assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks, and was nominated for Fish and Wildlife Service director in 2018, but wasn’t confirmed before the end of the last Congress. President Donald Trump renominated her in July.

When originally nominated, Skipwith said that in her role at Interior she has helped to protect species, increase public access, and “ensure science is at forefront of our decisions.”

At the time, she said: “If confirmed, I look forward to the opportunity to lead the service in achieving a conservation legacy second only to President Teddy Roosevelt.”

‘Leader Within The Department’

Previously, Skipwith worked for Alltech Inc. as assistant corporate counsel and regulatory affairs coordinator, and was co-founder of AVC Global, an agricultural company connecting farmers with multinational buyers.

“Aurelia is a leader within the department who has helped us execute our initiatives as outlined by President Trump,” Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said in a July 17 statement announcing Skipwith’s re-nomination.

Skipwith “has a unique understanding of the value of public-private partnerships as we work to resolve complicated environmental and wildlife issues. This perspective will bring value as we work to balance both economic and environmental drivers,” Jeff Trandahl, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation executive director, said in Interior’s statement.

The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation is a private grant-making organization. The Interior secretary approves its 30-member board.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce also backed Skipwith. In addition to a “distinguished career as a public servant,” her “experience in the private and nonprofit sectors has provided her with the knowledge and expertise to implement federal policy objectives,” said Neil Bradley, the chamber’s executive vice president and chief policy officer, in a Sept. 5 letter.

Before senators began questioning Skipwith, Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) told the panel that she would be a good example for young women interested in pursuing roles in science.

“We encourage our black girls to embrace the road less traveled,” Clay said.

Groups Protest Nomination

Twenty-two environmental groups wrote a letter Sept. 10 to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, urging it to oppose Skipwith’s nomination, saying she is unqualified and has put coal interests before wildlife during her tenure at Interior.

“Ms. Skipwith was instrumental in an effort to undermine safeguards for endangered wildlife in Appalachia—including the Guyandotte River and Big Sandy crayfish—to green-light mountaintop coal mines owned by political benefactors of the Trump administration,” the groups wrote, referring to Skipwith’s actions revealed in a May 10 Washington Post report.

The Post article cited documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act showing how Skipwith and other Interior officials worked with West Virginia and industry groups that had objected to protections for crayfish species, which have helped maintain the health of creeks and rivers.

“In her two years as a political appointee within the Department of Interior, Ms. Skipwith has been involved in efforts to weaken the Endangered Species Act’s implementing regulations and strip protections from our nation’s most vulnerable species,” the groups wrote.

The groups include the Center for Biological Diversity, WildEarth Guardians, and the Atlanta Audubon Society.

(Adds comments from Senate hearing.)

To contact the reporters on this story: Bobby Magill at; Fatima Hussein in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at; Chuck McCutcheon at; Anna Yukhananov at