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North American Model of Wildlife Conservation: Will It Be Enough?

It is the foundation of the most successful wildlife conservation management programs on earth. The question is whether it can adapt.

North American Model of Wildlife Conservation: Will It Be Enough?
Photo by Ken Dunwoody

The last passenger pigeon, named Martha, died of natural causes in a Cincinnati zoo in September 1914 at the age of 29.

She was the final example of a population that numbered in the billions of individuals -- flocks so large, their passing would blot out the sun at noon as if it were an eclipse and last for hours. The noise of those flocks was described as being like standing next to a locomotive.

But unregulated market hunting, along with the clearing of many of the Eastern hardwood forests, the immense colonies used for roosting, contributed to the passenger pigeon's subsequent extinction in the early days of the 20th Century.

But passenger pigeons weren't the only species to feel the consequences of the rise of humans, not only in the East but in the newly-discovered western half of the young America.

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From the Missouri River to the Atlantic, wood ducks, prized for their beautiful feathers as well as their excellence on the table, were numerically threatened.

Elsewhere, American bison, whitetail deer and wild turkeys were eliminated entirely from much of their native range.

All had become less and less common, again in part due to unregulated hunting, and in part because of the habitat loss at the hands of the ever-swelling ranks of people. The country was changing ... evolving ... expanding.

This growth was having an adverse effect on many wild populations, and something had to be done. Soon.

In the late 1800s, a contingent of the U.S. citizenry began to call for conservation-oriented change. It became obvious, at least to some, that maintaining the status quo would have dire, irreversible consequences to many important American wildlife species.

Laws were passed during this first half-century aimed at protecting any number of species from commercial, as well as individual, exploitation, and ensuring the preservation of vital natural habitats at both the state and federal levels.

"Wood ducks are a prime example of the model at work," says one expert. (Shutterstock image)


These included The Lacey Act of 1900; The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918; The Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp Act of 1934, known today as the federal migratory bird, i.e. duck stamp; and The Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, better known as the Pittman-Robertson Act in 1937.

As a very brief overview:

  • The Lacey Act (1900): Prohibits trade in wildlife, fish and plants that have been illegally taken, possessed, transported or sold.
  • The Migratory Bird Treaty Act (1918): With current membership including the United States, Canada, Mexico, Japan and the former Soviet Union, this act made it unlawful to take or attempt to take any number of species designated as migratory birds. Exceptions, notably those species designated game birds, do exist.
  • The Migratory Bird Stamp Act (1934): Signed by the then-acting late President Roosevelt, the act served to raise funds for wetland conservation and related projects, with monies going into what's known as the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund.
  • Pittman-Robertson Act (1937): The P-R Act, as it's known, established an excise tax on the sale of firearms and ammunition, which today includes handguns, archery equipment and hunting accessories, with funds being distributed by the Secretary of the Interior to the states, the amount being based on a formula involving state size and number of licensed hunters.

From these earliest laws, enacted to ensure the maintenance of wild populations and the habitat so essential to their continued existence, came the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation (NAMWC).

In its most elemental form, the NAMWC provides a framework by which conservation agencies may or should conduct their wildlife and habitat management efforts. NAMWC principles tend to result in managing wildlife in a sustainable way, so that it is maintained for future generations, but also so that it can be used by a wide variety of people — including hunters and anglers.

The evolving development of NAMWC over the last 100 years or so guided game laws and conservation programs that saved large populations of white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, ducks and other game animals.

But the most oft-asked question concerning the NAMWC today isn't "What is it?" or "Where has it been?" Rather, questions range from "Where is it going in the 21st Century?" to "What are the challenges faced by wildlife management professionals and the agencies for whom they work in this new world?"

And "As the human population continues to increase, as funding sources become less and less reliable, and as a majority of people turn their attention from hunting to the non-consumptive use of our natural resources, how is the NAMWC evolving to meet the wants, needs and desires of the modern age? Or is it?" 


Game & Fish Magazine spoke with several top wildlife professionals from around the nation to get their thoughts on what the future might hold for the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation.

"What we found ourselves in was a position of the exploitation of our wildlife resources during the 1800s as the population grew," said Blake Henning, who has been with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF) for the past 18 years. Currently, he serves as the agency's chief conservation officer, largely responsible for overseeing conservation and natural resource programs involving, in part, land acquisition, hunter access and habitat stewardship programs. 

"You have people like Teddy Roosevelt and then, in the 1930s, Aldo Leopold and other conservation-minded people who advocated certain ways of managing our wildlife. They championed issues like regulatory take (harvest) and conservation," he continued. "The Public Trust Doctrine is one of the core principles of the NAMWC, one that goes back to (the tenet) that wildlife is for all people to use and enjoy. We've maintained these principles as wildlife managers and we, along with the federal agencies, have worked to conserve wildlife populations up to the current day." 

Today, there's an almost endless list of wildlife-management success stories involving both game and non-game species across the United States. Many of these tales, like the one spotlighting the wild turkey, hold as their foundation the tenets of the NAMWC. 

"There are a number of principles of the NAMWC that have contributed to the restoration of the wild turkey in North America," said Becky Humphries, chief executive officer for the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) in Edgefield, South Carolina.

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A trained wildlife biologist, Humphries worked with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources for 27 years, including time spent as the director of the agency before joining Ducks Unlimited and eventually moving to the NWTF in April of 2017. "The NWTF was instrumental in brokering deals with (several) states so that we could live-trap turkeys in a state that had residual flocks and move them to another state with suitable habitat. As you can't do commerce in wildlife, one of the principles of the NAMWC," she continued, "the NWTF brokered deals with the states so that they weren't paying for the wildlife (turkeys), but rather trading goods and services between agencies."

The state of Missouri, for instance, traded Eastern wild turkeys to Kentucky in 1982 and, in return, received river otters, which were released in an effort to establish wild populations in select portions of the Show-Me State.

Wood ducks are another success story, one of a conservation organization working with the NAMWC as a foundation in order to bring a species back from the proverbial brink. 

"Wood ducks are a prime example of the model at work," said Dr. Tom Moorman of Memphis, Tennessee. Moorman spent more than a quarter century with Ducks Unlimited and now serves as the chief scientist for the well-known and well-respected organization. 

"But honestly, if you look at the years after market hunting, the development of the model, and waterfowl populations across the board," he continued, "you'll find several species that have enjoyed a tremendous recovery. Trumpeter swans are one; not one that we harvest, but one that's certainly benefitted from many, if not all, of the tenets of the model including the Public Trust Doctrine and (scientific) management." 


Year to year, everything changes; very little, it seems, stays the same. But change, often radical change, comes faster nowadays. Some of the basic tenets of NAMWC were argued for by Teddy Roosevelt more than 100 years ago, and all of the tenets finally were codified in 1990, more than a quarter-century ago now. 

The country has changed. Habitat has changed. And the way people view and use natural resources have changed. With these changes come challenges, not only for the NAMWC to maintain its relevance, but for wildlife managers to evolve and meet the needs, wants and desires of this ebb and flow of modern humanity. 

"We have a vastly different landscape out there today than we did 50 to 100 years ago," said Henning. "There are so many more people in the country. More and more, they live in urban areas. They don't hunt. They may enjoy wildlife," he continued, "or they may know nothing about wildlife. And so, the model is under pressure to stay relevant, and to adjust to the changing demographics."

As Henning suggests, urbanization and the rapid encroachment of tens of thousands of citizens into suburban areas that were once — and, in some instances, remain — critical wildlife habitat is a priority concern for managers and their agencies, both on the state as well as the federal level. 

Is there a strategy, then, for controlling, per se, this overlap of humans and wild populations? 

"The NAMWC is a reflective model," said Humphries. "It was created long after many of the elements (tenets) came into place. So, it's only been in recent years that we've actually labeled these tenets as the North American Model. That was the first step. If we get into situations where we have urban populations of wildlife, it's going to require us to make hard policy decisions; however, these decisions must be based on hard science. We don't want these populations that belong to all the people to lose value because they've become too numerous and have become a nuisance. It means," she finished, "wildlife professionals need to manage them so they don't get to that nuisance level."

Whitetails, like several other animals, were once nearly eliminated from their native ranges. (Photo by Ron Sinfelt)

White-tailed deer in suburban areas are just one example of Humphries' comments regarding a potential clash between people and wild populations. But there are others, more visible. 

"Canada geese," said Moorman, "are responding to habitat conditions created in the cities — metropolitan parks and golf courses, for instance. But they're also responding to hunting pressure as well, getting into these metropolitan areas where they're invulnerable. The overabundance of something like Canada geese can't necessarily be attributed to the model, but it becomes more difficult to figure out within the context of the model and  how to use the tools we do have to stabilize these populations. And I'm not sure how we're going to solve these sorts of issues." 

But sufficient funding, pure and simple, is the biggest challenge faced by wildlife management professionals. Since the Pittman-Robertson Act of '37, hunters and recreational shooters have borne the brunt of the financial responsibility for funding the country's wildlife-management programs. Anglers, too, have provided a pocketbook, via the Dingell-Johnson (Wallop-Breaux) Act of 1950, which placed similar excise taxes on items pertaining to fishing, with those monies being earmarked for financial assistance to the individual state's aquatic-management programs. 

Today, the problem for the NAMWC  is two-fold: fewer hunters providing less annual revenue, and more non-consumptive users (non-hunters/non-anglers) vying for an equal piece of the outdoor pie (without contributing to the coffers). 

"Today's challenges are putting a strain on wildlife managers," said Henning. "The model has evolved over the past century, but still at the core are hunters and anglers who purchase equipment and pay excise taxes on that equipment. And with a declining number of hunters, we're at a point where funding isn't keeping up with what we need to do in terms of wildlife management. The public is demanding we manage all (game and non-game) species out there. State laws and constitutions dictate we should manage all wildlife. But the question is," he continued, "how to move from this consumptive user-based system and get those who aren't necessarily hunting to be involved. And involved with their pocketbook."

Fortunately, progress is being made in this campaign to get everyone  involved financially. 

"I think every state is having discussions on how best to fund wildlife programs within their state," said Henning. "Washington State's example (Discover Pass) is a great one. And, several years ago (1984), Missouri passed a 1/10th of 1 percent sales tax, with monies going to natural resource conservation in the state. And there's a big effort gathering steam to look at the billions  and billions of dollars in oil and gas royalties in the federal coffers by many of the agencies to inquire as to whether we (the states) can get a piece of that for wildlife." 

So, where is the NAMWC headed? Will it falter? Will it fall, perhaps, by the wayside in lieu of something less consumptive based?

Humphries is optimistic about the future in summation. 

"I really don't see the model changing radically," she said. "I think the model is part of who we are as Americans here in the United States. We've actually seen an increase in recent years in public acceptance of consumptive use, despite the fact the number of hunters is declining. People recognize the fact that we (hunters) value wildlife, that we can use that wildlife today and, yet, manage those same populations to be sustainable into the future. So, I think the model will remain a very viable method," she said in conclusion, "by which we manage our landscapes into the future, both consumptively and non-consumptively."

Because wild species can and do migrate, they are deemed an international resource. (Shutterstock image)



The seven tenets, or principles, often referred to as the Seven Sisters, constitute the bedrock of the NAMWC. Together these principles balance the needs of people to enjoy and use wildlife and natural resources with the needs of the wildlife itself. The ideal is that all citizens can use wildlife and enjoy nature and, at the same time, manage wildlife to maintain their numbers or increase their populations for future generations. The seven principles evolved over time and, in 1990, were codified as follows:

1. Wildlife is held in the public trust

The natural resources, including wildlife, on the nation's public lands are to be managed by governmental entities with the intent that these resources and populations continue for the public good.

2. There shall be a prohibition on commerce involving dead wildlife

Commercial hunting and the subsequent sale of meats resulting from such practices is illegal, thus promoting and ensuring the sustainability of wild populations.

3. Democratic rule of law

The laws governing the legal use of wild species are to be approved by the people in a democratic process.

4. Opportunity for all citizens

Every citizen of the United States is afforded the opportunity to legally hunt.

5. Non-frivolous use

In North America, it shall be legal to harvest certain wild species for food or fur, or in the act of self-defense or the protection of personal property. Restricted or prohibited in their entirety are acts of wanton waste, or the harvest of wild species solely for such things as feathers, antlers, horns or internal organs (for example, bear gall bladders).

6. International Resources

Because wild species can and often do migrate across state, provincial and international borders, they are deemed an international resource and managed cooperatively as such.

7. Scientific management

 Sound scientific techniques and tools will serve as the cornerstone for decisions involving state, federal and international wildlife management practices and policies.

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