WASHINGTON — Big-game hunters tapped by the Trump administration to help rewrite federal rules for importing the heads and hides of African elephants and lions as trophies defended the practice Friday, arguing that threatened and endangered species would go extinct without the anti-poaching programs funded in part by the fees wealthy Americans pay to shoot some of them.

The Associated Press reported Thursday that the International Wildlife Conservation Council appointed by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is stuffed with celebrity hunting guides, representatives from rifle and bow manufacturers, and wealthy sportspeople who boast of bagging the coveted “Big Five” – elephant, rhino, lion, leopard and Cape buffalo.

One appointee also co-owns a private New York hunting preserve with President Trump’s adult sons.

Retired Oklahoma Rep. Bill Brewster was unanimously selected as the board’s chairman. He said the fees and other costs paid by foreign hunters into African countries are essential to funding anti-poaching programs.

“As long as an animal has value, it will exist,” Brewster said. “Most of us in this room enjoy hunting. But first has to come conservation and habitat preservation. Without that, there is no hunting.”

Brewster is a lobbyist who has also served on the boards of Safari Club International and the National Rifle Association, groups that have sued the Fish and Wildlife Service to expand the list of countries from which trophy kills can be legally imported. An NRA profile lauded Brewster and his wife’s five decades of participation and support for hunting, and his purchase of a lifetime NRA membership for his grandson when the boy was 3 days old.

Also on the board are Safari Club president Paul Babaz, a Morgan Stanley investment adviser from Atlanta, and Erica Rhoad, a lobbyist and former Republican congressional staffer who is the NRA’s director of hunting policy.

Trump has decried big-game hunting as a “horror show” in tweets. But under Zinke, a former Montana congressman who is an avid hunter, the Fish and Wildlife Service has quietly moved to reverse Obama-era restrictions on bringing trophies from African lions and elephants into the United States.

No import permits for importing elephant heads, hides or tusks have been issued since a ban was lifted earlier this month.

But agency spokesman Gavin Shire said Friday that 37 permits for lion trophies from Zimbabwe and Zambia were issued since October, when they were first allowed.

As Friday’s meeting started, officials announced that Zinke was unable to attend the inaugural session of the council.

In a statement last year, Zinke said, “This council will provide important insight into the ways that American sportsmen and women benefit international conservation from boosting economies and creating hundreds of jobs to enhancing wildlife conservation.”