An elephant herd in Mikumi National Park, Tanzania.
CNN  — 

A team of conservation groups on Wednesday sued the Interior Department, claiming that the International Wildlife Conservation Council, which advises Secretary Ryan Zinke on trophy hunting, violates federal law.

The lawsuit alleges the council violates the Federal Advisory Committee Act in several ways, including by granting a large role on the committee to individuals who advocate for, or will profit from, international hunting of species such as lions, elephants and rhinos. The lawsuit also accuses the council of holding “secret” meetings that were not properly disclosed or open to the public.

Since the panel’s creation last fall, the conservation groups have criticized it as lacking balanced viewpoints. The council met for the first time in March.

“Allegedly designed to promote conservation, the Council actually exists to promote the antithesis of sound conservation policy: the hunting of imperiled species as a means to import their heads, hides, tusks, feet, and other body parts,” the lawsuit claims.

Interior Department spokeswoman Heather Swift said the council “looks at several big issues related to wildlife conservation including stopping illegal wildlife trafficking and poaching.” She referred questions regarding the lawsuit to the Department of Justice, which did not respond to a request for comment.

The lawsuit was filed Wednesday by Democracy Forward, a left-leaning advocacy and watchdog group that represents the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Center for Biological Diversity, Humane Society International and the Humane Society of the United States.

The lawsuit claims the council is composed “almost exclusively with individuals who retain personal and financial interest in reducing the cost of killing or importing exotic animals and their parts” and excludes scientists, economists and experts in wildlife conservation.

It notes that the group’s membership includes proponents of trophy hunting, including representatives of Safari Club International and the National Rifle Association.

Near the time the council was created, Zinke’s Interior Department announced plans to overturn a ban on elephant trophy importation instituted by the Obama administration. That decision was put on hold and a new permitting process instituted after President Donald Trump called trophy hunting a “horror show.”

The council has met publicly twice, and has a third meeting scheduled for the fall. The groups filing suit write that they are concerned the council is developing policy recommendations and they “can only conclude that they will be permanently shut out of Council business.”