January 12, 2022
I once threw a party and no one came.
I had reserved a banquet room with seating for 50. I had bought cookies and perked coffee. I had sent out invitations far and wide in my role at the time as information officer for Montana’s Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks.
But besides me and a half-dozen of my colleagues, only two guests came to the party, which was a biennial season-setting meeting for my region of the state, the opportunity for the public to comment on proposed regulations for deer, elk, pheasant and turkey seasons.
One guest mistook my meeting for a book club. The other wanted to know why game wardens had ticketed his son, and few of his comments were useful, or even printable in a family magazine.
I’m guessing that if you’ve been hunting and fishing long enough, you’ve been to at least one of these meetings. They’re a chance for biologists to explain fish and wildlife trends, to propose changes to the way fish and game populations are managed, and then to get feedback from the very people who participate in fishing and hunting.
I’m also guessing that you’ve seen the sort of sparse turnout I described. In fact, it’s a national trend. Hunters and anglers have a number of reasons why they don’t participate in these meetings, but when state agencies make decisions that the public doesn’t support, critics come out of the woodwork.
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That discontent is actually a good thing, because it’s an indication that the public cares about wildlife management and finds ways to make their voices heard.
That’s the North American model of wildlife conservation in action. Public input into hunting and fishing regulations, season structures, and even what species can be pursued is the very foundation of our citizen-based model.
We agreed a long time ago that our wildlife would be owned by no one and everyone at the same time, and this public resource should be equitably distributed.
This is the essence of what’s called the "public-trust doctrine," and it’s the mechanism that we’ve used to recover populations of depleted fish and game. It’s why we have licenses, bag limits and seasons that we agree are in the best interests of the fish and game.
We asked state wildlife agencies to be the "trustees" of this resource, and to use science—instead of politics or emotion—to guide their management decisions. Hunters and anglers (and also trappers, wildlife watchers and landowners) are the beneficiaries of this public trust. Wildlife agencies work for us beneficiaries on behalf of America’s fish and game.
We are obligated to hold up our end of the bargain: to speak up when asked. Every state agency has some opportunity for public comment.
Find it and use it. If you don’t speak up, then you can’t blame agencies for their decisions. But if you do speak up, then you’ve cast your vote not only for your opinion and perspective, but for the public resource at the center of the conversation, the fish and game that don’t have a voice.