October 29, 2020
By Andrew McKean
The Montana rancher's message was blunt and abundantly clear. He would be attending the Fish and Game Commission's meeting on elk management in Helena, the state capital, but first he needed to find a place to dump the two cow elk he had shot out of his haystacks.
The elk season had long been closed, and the rancher's action normally would be defined as poaching. Only the man didn't shoot the elk out of any joy of killing, or for their trophy parts, or even as a covert crime. The rancher reported his action, after all. Instead, the act was interpreted as one more incident in a growing impatience with elk management in Montana.
In essence, there are too many elk in many places hunters can't access, and too few in the places they can. The condition is not unique to elk, nor to Montana. Whitetails are becoming overpopulated nuisances in many of America's suburbs. Wild turkeys can gather in bothersome, porch-roosting flocks in areas where hunting isn't allowed. Coyotes are showing up in urban parks, and mountain lions have been seen prowling around elementary school playgrounds.
That these surpluses of wild animals are not uniformly distributed is only part of the problem. Another is that when we have an overabundance of anything, from natural gas to tater tots, we tend to devalue the thing in excess. But when we become accustomed to a surplus of a good thing (again, tater tots), we tend to squawk when supplies start to decline.
Each of these dynamics is defining wildlife management in America right now. It's useful to look at each one to guide the future of conservation on a landscape that looks very different from the one familiar to our mothers and grandfathers.
Managing for 'Mutualism'
State wildlife agencies, the public bodies tasked with restoring game populations two generations ago, now have a lot more on their plates than simply managing buck-to-doe ratios. Now, your local wildlife biologist is responsible for ensuring that populations of non-game species like butterflies and songbirds are healthy, responding to landowners' complaints about game damage to agricultural crops, and inspecting commercial developments for impacts to wildlife habitat.
As long as populations of deer, turkeys, upland birds and waterfowl are abundant enough to hunt, biologists increasingly are turning their attention to species that are in severe decline, like those teetering on the edge of endangered species listing. That's despite the fact that most of these biologists are paid by license fees that hunters shell out to pursue game animals.
It's hard to blame field biologists or their managers for the shift of focus. A recent study by researchers from Colorado State University and The Ohio State University notes that Americans' values toward wildlife are changing. The study found that the number of people who define themselves as "mutualists," or people who believe that animals deserve the same rights as humans, is rising while the number of "traditionalists," who believe animals should be used for purposes that benefit humans, is declining.
That's probably not a surprise if you’ve been tracking the steady decades-long migration of rural residents to suburban and urban areas. But researchers noted that attitudes toward wildlife are changing more rapidly than other demographics.
"What's surprising is that the decline in traditionalists in some states is happening at a really rapid rate," said Michael Manfredo, head of the Department of Human Dimensions of Natural Resources at Colorado State and one of the study's authors.
Why is this an important trend? Because hunters who have become accustomed to getting the lion's share of resources and attention from wildlife agencies should expect less emphasis as "mutualism" replaces the traditional focus on game animals. Too, mutualistic-oriented wildlife managers may not appreciate the historic partnership that hunters and biologists have forged, and they may not care about declining deer populations, for instance, as long as there are still enough animals to justify a hunting season. On the other hand, mutualists consider surpluses of game animals as a sign that natural systems are out of balance.
Devaluing Abundant Wildlife
There's an equal and opposite trend firming up across much of America: the devaluing of wild animals as they become commonplace.
The Canada goose is a good example of this. Back when America's wildlife conservation movement was young, geese were so scarce and special that the Canada goose became a symbol of all that was wild and sacred. Now, geese are so common that there are special management seasons to suppress local populations. They have become nuisances on golf courses and municipal parks, where they've found such hospitable habitat that hundreds of thousands of them no longer participate in their historic continental migrations. "Flying rats," some people call them.
Instead of celebrating these common wildlife species as indicators of the success of conservation, we demonize these critters as nuisances, and game agencies are finding imaginative ways—special depredation seasons, liberalizing bag limits and methods of take—to keep their populations in balance with both available habitat and the public's tolerance.
The situation with elk in Montana, and in many areas across the West, is emblematic of this trend. Elk remain one of the most highly valued and sought big-game species, but they have become extremely responsive to hunting pressure. As elk herds have expanded in size and range, they spend increasing amounts of the year on private land with little hunting pressure.
There, they eat hay and other forage and become localized nuisances. Landowners want the elk gone, but many don't want public hunters to do the job, so they complain to wildlife agencies and ask for game-damage assistance. The answer is to focus hunters where the elk are, but private property rights preclude that as an option in the uncountable number of cases where landowners want fewer elk but even fewer hunters.
The Psychology of Scarcity
The opposite of abundance, of course, is scarcity. It's a term that's hard to apply to our most popular game species: whitetail deer, turkeys, pheasants, elk, pronghorn and Canada geese. These are all species that motivated an earlier generation of conservationists, American icons worth preserving, and an entire machinery of game restoration was built to bring them back from the edge of extinction. These are the stories we still tell new hunters around campfires.
But there's another story we need to tell: how we manage the abundant wildlife we recovered when populations start to return to a new normal. We're seeing this with wild turkeys recently, and we've seen it with local deer populations. We did such a good job of recovering these animals that they flourished, creating unprecedented hunting opportunities as they occupied all available habitat. Now that the restoration era is over, we're trying to figure out how to manage these populations, not at the peak of abundance, but somewhere down the continuum.
But for a generation, sportsmen and -women have become accustomed to artificially high populations of our favorite game animals. Now that they are settling into more sustainable levels, we complain that our turkey and grouse and deer populations are "crashing" when they're probably leveling at a new normal.
Psychologists call this "new scarcity," which occurs when our irrational desire for limited resources increases when we move from a state of abundance (historically high deer populations, for instance) to a state of relative scarcity (reduced doe harvests in certain zones). We freak out. We demand that extra resources be devoted to studying causes of the decline, and we call on state legislatures to get involved in wildlife management.
Those actions rarely yield productive outcomes, and usually sooner than later the pendulum swings back toward sustainability. And abundance.
That's the other lesson we need to continue to tell around our campfires: wildlife is resilient. As long as we make allowances for habitat, tolerate natural swings in game populations and support the wildlife professionals who manage them, our conservation story will remain the envy of the rest of the world.