May 28, 2020
By Andrew McKean
If you haven’t heard of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, then at least you’ve heard of its antithesis. “The King’s deer” is how the European model might be distilled. From the days of Robin Hood’s Merry Men until now, the public doesn’t own wildlife in Europe; the landowner does, and often the landowner bleeds royal blood.
But in North America, wildlife is owned by the people, whether you buy a hunting or fishing license or not, or whether you have royal pedigree or not, or whether you own the land on which it lives or not. Many court cases have confirmed this status and cemented a further detail: Wildlife is managed in trust by states and provinces, not the federal government. The idea is that state governments are more responsive to the people and can make better decisions about how to manage species that don’t cross state lines.
As a consequence of this arrangement, wild things are managed by public professionals employed by state and provincial wildlife agencies, and we hunters and anglers get to pursue them only after we enter into a contract with the public. We call those contracts hunting and fishing licenses.
The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation isn’t a formal document. Instead, it’s a way of explaining all the measures that have been taken over the past century that have culminated in the healthy surplus of wildlife that we currently enjoy, and which we distribute according to democratic principles and a user-pays model of funding. But time and circumstance have changed some of the ways we value and distribute wildlife, and it’s worth looking at a few of the pillars of the model to see if they’re as relevant as they once were.
Wildlife Belongs to the People
This is the foundation, the notion that wild animals in America cannot be privatized. Their management falls to public officials whose work is governed by boards and commissions that seek and follow public input.
That sounds lovely as a principle, but what about whitetail deer that live all their lives on big private properties where public access is not allowed? Are those deer public? And are they managed according to the public’s interest? In theory, yes. But in practice, wildlife that lives exclusively on big estates isn’t that different from the King’s deer in England.
The second leg of the public-wildlife pillar is that in order for wildlife to be effectively managed by the public, access needs to be democratically distributed. But our long tradition of private property rights combined with the high perceived value of some wildlife species complicates that access expectation. Our system still works well where the public has access to public wildlife. It’s more complicated in instances where the public is prohibited from accessing its resource.
Wildlife Management Is Guided by Science
This is another pillar of the model, that we leave management of wildlife to trained biologists. I’d argue that’s the case in most states and provinces. There are exceptions, and they’re almost universally ugly. Those are cases when state legislatures have stepped in to manage wildlife because an issue became too politicized for civil servants.
Example: Wisconsin’s legislature cut funding for CWD management because the state’s deer hunters balked at biologists’ recommendation to kill an extreme number of deer in the affected area. Many Badger State hunters now look back on that decision as a bad one, because it allowed CWD to spread far beyond the area of the original outbreak.
Only Legitimate Use of Wildlife Will Be Tolerated
You could reword this to the “waste not, want not” provision of the model. The mandate that wildlife not be wasted is the basis for thousands of venison chili recipes. I’d argue this is one provision of the model that’s being upheld in the finest fashion. We have lots of new hunters and anglers entering our ranks because of their interest in harvesting wild, honest food. But we need to be vigilant about this one, and ensure that our friends and hunting partners don’t waste the game that we worked so hard to earn.
The Commercialization of Wildlife Is Prohibited
This one has its roots in the market-hunting days of the last century, when many species were hunted nearly to extinction by the commercial value of their meat, feathers or fur. I maintain that we’re doing a good job of keeping market forces out of wild meat, but the case is a little less clear when it comes to the market value for trophy parts.
There is a lively and very lucrative trade in world-class buck racks, and in the biggest and most unique sets of other antlers, horns and hides. If we’re truly following the precepts of the North American Model, then we should find ways to discourage the economy in trophy wildlife parts obtained by hunters.
The Foundation for Conservation in the Future
Given all these expectations of how we are to manage wildlife in America, are we living up to the spirit of the model? I’d argue that we’re doing a pretty good job. We have abundant populations of many game animals, plus many more non-game animals. We have functional wildlife management agencies. We participants feel like we’re an important part of the wildlife management process.
Yes, there are some holes in the otherwise durable model, and some of its pillars are shaky. But as long as we keep our eye on the outcome—that wildlife is owned and managed by a public that has access to this public resource—then the North American Model can adapt with the times.
The alternative, after all, is pretty grim. Just ask Robin Hood.