The North American Model for Wildlife Conservation

After European settlement in North America, populations of wildlife started to dwindle because of over-exploitation (including market hunting) and habitat loss. Throughout the United States, Maine included), many species had dramatic declines in their populations, going from near countless numbers to near extinction. While it may be hard to believe, some of our common species in Maine suffered significant population declines, including deer, beavers, turkeys, wood ducks (and other waterfowl), and bear. Other species, like large carnivores (wolves and mountain lions), and heath hens (a species similar to prairie chickens) were extirpated from the State.

During the mid to late 1800s, hunters and anglers began to sound an alarm and advocated for the protection of fish, wildlife, and habitats. In 1842, a landmark case Martin vs. Waddell went all the way to the Supreme Court, and the court’s ruling ultimately set the bedrock for the Public Trust Doctrine, where fish and wildlife are owned by no one, but to be held in trust by state and federal governments for the benefit of present and future generations. These early efforts were essential to the development of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, the only system of its kind in the world.

The following core principles of the North American Model were solidified into the foundation of conservation principles in the United States and Canada during the early 20th century with the adoption of critical legislation and policies, such as the Lacey Act of 1900, the Migratory Bird Treaty Convention of 1916, the 1930 American Game Policy, and the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937 (AKA, Pittman-Robertson).

The Seven Tenets or Guiding Principles

1. Wildlife is a public resource and held in public trust.

In the United States and Canada, wildlife is considered a public resource. This means that care and management of fish and wildlife populations are entrusted to state and federal governments for the interest of all citizens. Further, no one individual or corporation owns fish or wildlife, even though they may own land where fish and wildlife live – it is owned by the public.

2. Markets for game have been eliminated.

This principle embodies the sentiment that unregulated economic markets for game and non-game fish and wildlife are unacceptable because they privatize a common resource and have historically led to significant population declines. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, market hunting and interstate commerce around fish and wildlife was a huge business that decimated many species. Hunters and anglers led the effort to eliminate these activities, and now the commercial hunting and sale of fish and wildlife is largely prohibited or highly regulated to ensure the long-term sustainability of these populations.

3. Allocation of wildlife by Law

Since wildlife is owned by the public, wildlife is then allocated (or the public is allowed access to wildlife) by legal mechanisms, as opposed to free market, landownership, wealth, or other personal or corporate status. Similarly, because this appropriation is done by the democratic process, then all citizens can participate in the determining the systems of conservation and use to ensure that access is equitable to all people (even if it is through the court system). These legal mechanisms include the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, Endangered Species Act of 1973, and setting of state hunting seasons, bag limits, or license requirements.

4. Wildlife should only be killed for a legitimate purpose

Wildlife is a shared public resource that must not be destroyed for frivolous reasons nor wasted, and the public develops guidelines for appropriate use of fish and wildlife resources. Some of the broad categories of currently acceptable use of fish and wildlife include providing sustenance or clothing, self-defense or personal protection, and property protection (i, e., domestic pets and livestock).

5. Wildlife is considered an International resource

Not all fish and wildlife exist within fixed political boundaries, particularly migratory bird species. Any regulations or policy that effect management of these species must consider international cooperation. Some examples of this successful international cooperation include the Migratory Bird Treaty Convention of 1916, and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

6. Science is the proper tool to execute wildlife policy

Theodore Roosevelt is credited with the advocacy of this principle and felt that only the best science available should be used to make critical decisions for fish and wildlife management. This was further solidified in Aldo Leopold’s American Game Policy drafted in 1930, identifying that science-informed management and decision-making should be facilitated by trained biologists using facts, professional experience, and a commitment to shared principles of conservation and management.

7. The democracy of hunting

Fair and equitable opportunity to hunt, trap, and fish should be afforded to all citizens regardless of wealth, landownership, class, or other privilege. There should not be a group of individuals that are able to exclude the access to fish and wildlife resources (with exception of private property rights) to other citizens.