[Note: The following was first published as a series of three columns in the June to August 2011 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]
Copyright (C) 2011 Don H. Meredith
As part of the public debate on the Livestock Industry Diversification Amendment Act (Bill 11) that recently passed the Alberta Legislature, an argument against the bill was advanced that game ranches and indeed hunt ranches should be banned because they do not comply with the North American Wildlife Conservation Model that specifies wildlife to be a public resource that should not be commercialized—an argument I have often advanced on these pages. But just what is the North American Wildlife Conservation Model?
Touted as “the most successful wildlife conservation program in the world,” the North American Wildlife Conservation Model is often described as the prime reason why today we enjoy healthy populations of fish and wildlife on this continent. Indeed, it is the model that was used in the mid-20th century to establish fish and wildlife conservation agencies in jurisdictions across North America. It also was used to establish similar hunting and fishing laws and regulations across those jurisdictions. However, recent government decisions (e.g., in Alberta, Bill 11 and the Wildlife Diversification Act it amended) and the opinions and attitudes of many both inside and outside the hunting and fishing community indicate use of the model to conserve wildlife is fading, and as a result, our fish and wildlife populations might well be at risk. Why is it fading? Because other than wildlife and fisheries biologists and hunters and anglers active in conservation, most people have never heard of the model; and of those who have heard, far too many do not understand it. So, it is no wonder our politicians “know not what they do.”
For that reason, I am starting this series of columns on the model to help AO readers understand its history and significance to fish and wildlife management and perhaps persuade others of its importance to the survival of not only our fish and wildlife but our very connections with the land and environment.
I must give credit where it is due. Perhaps the most helpful articles I’ve read about the model are the series Shane Mahoney wrote for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s Bugle magazine in 2004 and 2005. Also quite helpful were the technical papers Mahoney wrote with Valerius Geist and John Organ in the Transactions of the North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference in 2001 (66:175-185), Geist wrote with Organ in Northeast Wildlife in 2004 (58:49-56),and an opinion piece (“The Antler Religion”) Matt Knox wrote for the Wildlife Society Bulletin (35:45-48) in 2011. The latter was the catalyst for this series (thank you, Bill Samuel).
A Very Brief History
The model cannot be understood without first understanding the environment that caused it to be created in the first place. As I and others have related in these pages and elsewhere, wildlife was in big trouble in North America at the turn of the 19th to the 20th centuries. Large numbers of fish and game species were under threat of extinction because of uncontrolled hunting, commercialization and habitat destruction.
It was concerned anglers, hunters and trappers that first raised the alarm in the 1800s as they saw expanding industry and settlement destroying habitat and displacing many species. They created new publications to spread their concerns, such as Forest and Stream (later changed to Field and Stream) and American Angler. As well, they formed the first conservation organizations to lobby governments to take responsibility for managing the resources and ensuring there would always be fish and wildlife to enjoy. Many of these people were immigrants or the progeny of immigrants and did not want to see fish and game and their habitats controlled by private landowners with the resultant loss of access, as was the case in much of Europe.
Prevailing notions among the people during these times (and still held by some, today) were that resources were inexhaustible; all human activities to increase settlement, industry and wealth were good, and the resultant impact on the environment was negligible. Outdoors people were seeing this was not true but it wasn’t until George Marsh published his book Man and Nature in 1864 that decision makers began to take notice. Marsh argued that many ancient civilizations had collapsed as a result of degradation of their environments through overexploitation. He pointed out that deforestation led to erosion and loss of soil productivity. Marsh showed how this was happening in many places in North America. He argued there are limits to what our environment can handle, that exploitation must be controlled and that our own self-interest should prevent short-sighted wasting of resources.
These were powerful words, backed up by considerable evidence, and they influenced the minds of many budding conservationists, including Gifford Pinchot (early pioneer of the U.S. Forest Service who created government forest reserves), Theodore Roosevelt (founder of the Boone and Crockett Club and President of the United States), John Muir (naturalist whose writings helped establish the national park system in the U.S. and the need to set aside wilderness from industrial exploitation) and George Grinnell (conservationist and hunter who helped turn the tide against many species facing extinction).
Although Canada, because of its much lower human population, wasn’t seeing as much destruction of fish and wildlife as the U.S. was in 19th century, what was happening south of the border was a concern to Canadian conservationists. As a result both countries set policies through law or court decision that established the basic principle that wildlife resources are owned by no one and governments hold these resources in trust for the benefit of all citizens, present and future. Governments therefore had to protect the resources and ensure their continuing viability.
As government agencies were created and people hired to do the work, it became apparent that good science was needed to provide the necessary information to get the work done. Thus, universities and colleges established new departments to educate biologists in wildlife and fisheries management. Likewise, in 1933 Aldo Leopold published his now classic Game Management which became the textbook establishing wildlife management as a science.
Such ground work in both the United States and Canada led to the development of what today is called the North American Wildlife Conservation Model. As currently defined by The Wildlife Society in 2007, the model contains seven components:
- Wildlife as Public Trust Resource—no one should own wildlife.
- Elimination of Markets for Game—no one should profit from the sale of wildlife, living or dead.
- Allocation of Wildlife by Law—wildlife use should be allocated by law.
- Wildlife should only be Killed for a Legitimate Purpose—either food, fur, self defence or property protection.
- Wildlife are considered an International Resource—and require international cooperation in law and regulation.
- Science is the Proper Tool for Discharge of Wildlife Policy—and should be independent of partisan politics.
- Democracy in Hunting—ensuring every citizen the right to hunt and access to hunting areas.
Wildlife as Public Trust Resource
Just who owns wildlife? Is it the land owner, the government or all citizens? That argument has been going on for millennia, ever since people stopped hunting and gathering as a way of life and began forming agriculture communities where the idea of someone actually owning a piece of land and controlling what is grown on it first came into play. If someone could own land to raise a crop, what about the wild land outside the croplands? Could someone also own it and the wild animals on it?
As communities coalesced into nations, the leaders of those nations often convinced their subjects they were special messengers of God, if not God incarnate, and could dictate who owned what. Thus, all lands within the nation were decreed the property of the leader (chief, king, queen, emperor) and were only granted to worthy citizens with the proviso they could just as easily be taken away. Similarly, when it was pointed out that wildlife freely passed from one piece of land to another, many sovereigns decreed that land and wildlife were separate entities owned by the sovereign, and he or she could designate who could hunt and who could not.
As pointed out by Aldo Leopold (Game Management, 1933), Roman emperor, Justinian (A.D. 527-565), is first recorded as decreeing that land owners had the right to prevent others from hunting game on their lands. King Henry VIII of England (1509-1547) took a particular interest in game management during his reign, for example decreeing that waterfowl and their eggs were not to be hunted from May 31 to August 31 for conservation purposes. He also placed bounties on certain predators to protect game and domestic stocks. Subsequent kings and queens of England expanded upon those decrees to 1) protect land owner rights, and 2) conserve wildlife for the benefit of the sovereign and his chosen associates.
Although these sovereigns established their authority over the allocation of wildlife, those allocations were usually made to privileged land owners at the expense of common folk who often worked for those land owners. Indeed, the plight of these peasants was often dire, and many were charged with poaching as a result of a need to find sufficient food to feed their families.
Such were the memories that many brought to North America when they immigrated here to escape harsh conditions in Europe. When they landed in the various colonies, they found seemingly unlimited resources, including fish and wildlife. They felt that access to these resources was a sacred right and wanted to ensure their governments would not restrict access just to the wealthy and well connected. However, it was not until 1842 that the United States Supreme Court began to establish the legal precedent that it was the responsibility of government to hold wildlife and wild lands in trust for all of society. As a result, most wildlife legislation and subsequent court decisions in the U.S. and Canada have since reflected this “public trust doctrine.” Wildlife is owned by no one, but government is responsible for keeping it in trust for the benefit of all citizens, present and future.
Obviously, a government allowing people to own wildlife by keeping it behind a high fence for the purpose of making a profit is an abrogation of its responsibility to uphold the public trust doctrine. Biologists, conservation organizations and concerned individuals made that point to the Alberta government back in the 1980s when game ranches were first proposed, and it was repeated time and again when game ranches got into trouble over tuberculosis and chronic wasting disease for example. However, it wasn’t until those ranches proposed to sell fenced hunts that the Alberta government finally got the message and belatedly stepped in to stop the canned hunting sacrilege. But game ranches remain a costly symbol of what has gone wrong with wildlife policy in this province.
Elimination of Markets for Game
One of the key factors that nearly drove much of our wildlife to extinction in the 19th century was the market hunting of animals for their hides, feathers and meat, which often involved a great deal of waste. Hunters and anglers were the first to see the problem and led efforts to eliminate markets by making it illegal to sell wildlife or their parts for profit. In other words, there should be no monetary value placed on our wildlife. Its value to us as a society is in how it enriches our life experiences.
This pillar of the conservation model goes hand in hand with the public trust doctrine to ensure there will always be wildlife. However, once again game ranches challenge this pillar. Corralling wild species to sell their parts or to offer unearned trophies to shooters cannot help but be construed as providing a commercial market for our wildlife. Now, we are witnessing the sale of elk and deer stock bred for superior antlers that would normally not be found in nature. Such practice and markets devalue the wildlife experience for all of us.
Allocation of Wildlife by Law
Eliminating markets for game did not include eliminating all wildlife use. People enjoy wildlife in many ways without trying to make a profit from it. Yet, some of those uses, if not regulated, could threaten wildlife’s existence. Thus, there had to be laws made to ensure use of wildlife did not threaten the resource. Once again, anglers and hunters led the charge to make sure such allocation was made to all in a fair and democratic manner, and did not revert to special, well-connected elites (as was the practice in Europe). Such democratic manner ensured that all citizens could participate in wildlife conservation and the forming of policy. As with most things democratic, citizens have to constantly be vigilant to ensure these rights are not taken away.
Wildlife should only be Killed for a Legitimate Purpose
It is one thing to allocate wildlife use but another to waste that use as was often the case in the 19th century when much game was killed “for sport” and left to rot. Such waste could not be tolerated if we were to keep our wildlife and benefit from it. But what is legitimate use in terms of killing wildlife? Over the years, such use has been defined in law and court ruling as killing for food, fur, self-defence and protection of property. Hunting for a trophy is not illegal as long as you also use the meat.
Wildlife are an International Resource
It is obvious that wildlife and fish do not recognize human-made borders. So if species are to be conserved, jurisdictions often have to cooperate. Perhaps the best example of international cooperation is the Migratory Bird Treaty that was negotiated between the U.S. and Canada in 1916. This was necessary at the time because many bird species had been driven to near extinction for their feathers to feed a fashion trend in hats. However, if the problem was only recognized in one jurisdiction and not in another, the effort to protect the animals could be futile. Thus, the two nations came together to pass legislation that ensured all migratory birds received protection on breeding as well as wintering grounds. The legislation allows officials to synchronise hunting and other regulations so that species are conserved.
Although international treaties are necessary, in most cases agencies can coordinate activities without having to go the political or diplomatic route. Meetings between respective officials to address specific issues often occur where problems can be solved under already existing legislation.
Science is the Proper Tool
Scientific study has long been the basis for wildlife management in North America, beginning with the early expeditions to explore and map the continent where naturalists were employed to document the plant and animal life found. As the numbers of game declined, it was hunters, fishers and trappers who demanded that science be used to set policy. Individual observations were one thing, but the proper assessment of a problem required rigorous scientific study where the extent and nature of the problem could be determined and effective solutions found.
Such study had to be free of political interference. Although it is politicians who make the ultimate decisions, often for political reasons, they should do so with the best information available. Proper science provides that information, although the conclusions may be ignored or distorted by the bureaucrat or politician receiving them. Such is the nature of our political process where many interests must be considered, for better or worse. However, a well informed public ensures that the politicians’ feet are held to the fire.
Democracy in Hunting
Fundamental to the North American model is that every citizen should have an equal opportunity to hunt and fish. You will note that of all the uses we make of wildlife, hunting was specifically singled out in the model. This is not surprising given that it was hunters and anglers who pushed to have fish and wildlife protected for future generations. They realized the experiences they were having in field and stream could easily be lost. They also did not want the European system that allowed hunting only to the land owner and privileged classes. By democratizing hunting, they ensured that every citizen would have a say in how fish and wildlife was to be managed, including non-game wildlife. In doing so, they also ensured that agencies provided information to the concerned user so that informed decisions both in and outside of government could be made.
It is adherence to these seven pillars of the model that are responsible for the abundance of fish and wildlife we enjoy today. Yet, each of these pillars is continually threatened by special interests who either do not know of or understand the model, or who choose to ignore it. Our human population both in Alberta and the world is exploding. Each new citizen requires certain resources to maintain life and even more resources to ensure a high quality of life. Fish and wildlife are often sacrificed to provide those resources, in effect reducing the quality of life for all.
I’ve already mentioned the example of Alberta’s Livestock Diversification Act and its amendments that in effect ignored the first two pillars of the model: Wildlife as a Public Trust Resource and Elimination of Markets for Game. But that’s just the most obvious abrogation of responsibility with regard to wildlife our short-sighted politicians have achieved.
For decades, the Alberta Fish and Wildlife Division was one of the most respected fish and wildlife agencies in North America. Today, it is a mere shadow of its former self. Continuous budget and manpower cutbacks have made it impossible for the agency to fulfill its mandate to conserve fish and wildlife for future generations. The reasons are obvious. As Premier Klein stated back in the early 1990s, Alberta is “open for business.” Fish and wildlife conservation got in the way of much of that business and the government turned a blind eye to any argument that such conservation was important to the long-term viability of the province. The long-term is not on the agendas of most politicians. Thus, the consequences of those decisions will be borne by future generations.
But must they? It was hunters and anglers that led the fight to establish the North American model. Will we fight to keep it? One thing is for sure, the playing field is a lot different than it was in the early 20th century when the model was being established. Many politicians hunted and fished in those days, and easily related to the issues their hunting and fishing constituents placed before them. Today, it is rare to find a politician that is sensitive to these issues. Instead they are influenced by lobbyists who bring convincing arguments about achieving short-term economic and political gains.
As well, it has been very easy for these same lobbyists to divide (either by design or circumstance) the conservation/environmental community over side issues, such as the grizzly bear hunt. I use the grizzly hunt as just one example of how easily we are side-tracked from what really matters—the conservation of the resource. In reality few people want to hunt grizzly bears, and much fewer were successful in the draws when the hunt was on. Yet, the much more numerous environmental constituency, that generally does not hunt, was successful in making the hunt a political issue that the government could not ignore. Meanwhile little was being done to protect grizzly bear habitat from human encroachment. We lost our focus, both hunters and environmentalists. We should have been working together to protect bear habitat. But it is much easier to find fault and give away the initiative to those who can’t look beyond their greed. The North American Wildlife Conservation Model is designed to look beyond the greed and focus on what benefits all!