Thursday, May 03, 2007

The North American Fish & Wildlife Model - A Heritage in Peril by Jim Posewitz

I want to thank Jim Posewitz for allowing me to republish the articles on their website because the information is invaluable in understanding the current conservation landscape in America today.

Read on and visit Orion

Prepared by Jim Posewitz
Orion The Hunters’ Institute
December 2004


Two hundred years ago Lewis and Clark marveled at the wildlife abundance of Montana. Thomas Jefferson was our president.

One hundred years ago our continent was stripped of its big game and other wild animals were under duress. Theodore Roosevelt was president and he and associates introduced a nation to conservation and began the process of wildlife restoration. They began by shutting down the commerce in wildlife, setting aside conservation lands, committing to public education, and protecting the democracy of hunting.

Today our wildlife abundance exceeds anything that any other human culture has been able to achieve. Our effort was unique in that wildlife attached, not to property but to people. Each state has a conservation record consistent with the national achievement and rich with its own stories of a conservation ethic embedded in its people.

The Current Problem

When fish and wildlife conservation was born late in the 19th Century the first requirement was to end the commerce in those resources. As the 21st Century begins, a new version of the buffalo hunters are back with a new business model and it features privatizing public resources. We are once again at a critical crossroads in fish and wildlife conservation. For more than 150 years, fish and wildlife in American have been a resource belonging to all the people, judicially designated a public trust. This management system, the most successful fish and wildlife conservation model on earth, has been eroding for the last 30 years. Today’s abundance of fish and wildlife has again caught the attention of commercial interests. As those interests secure privileged access to these public resources, the public faces growing limitations.

The Consequences

The North American Model of Fish and Wildlife Conservation is unique in that fish and wildlife attach to the people rather than to property. This democratic feature requires that for all Americans to share these resources, a conservation ethic had to be embedded in our culture. That was accomplished a century ago during the presidential tenure of Theodore Roosevelt. For over a century, a conservation ethic permeated the development of our nation. While this ethic spread broadly through our culture, its birth can be traced to sport hunters and anglers of the late 19th Century.

As we diminish the people’s opportunity to relate to conservation through hunting and fishing we risk diminishing the conservation ethic of the people. This has occurred in other cultures where fish and wildlife attached, not to the people, but to property. England is a good example where six major mammals that would qualify as game animals are now extinct, poaching was often identified as the number one rural crime, and Parliament recently voted to ban the traditional fox hunt. Some observers describe that act as a continuation of a class struggle. The losers are the people and the wildlife.

The Neglect

Those seeking to commercialize fish and wildlife in America have been able to compromise the traditional democratic allocation of these resources. They did this because the trustee of these resources (the state) was generally unaware of responsibilities associated with a public trust. Although present in fish and wildlife litigation since 1842, the International Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies only formally recognized the public trust principle as part of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation in 2002. There is little evidence that the concept is embraced by fish and wildlife agencies and less evidence that state political leaders are aware of its significance. Thus, through the concentrated influence of active commercial minorities, the broad interest of hunters and anglers continues to be compromised.

The Symptoms of Neglect

Symptoms of favoring interest groups who would privatize fish and wildlife resources are many. A few symptoms are: hunters complaining of loss of access; diminishing participation; commercial interests clogging prime fishing streams; stream and public land access issues intensifying; privileged access to hunting licenses are sought; traditional wildlife management strategies become dysfunctional; and a new class-system emerges within our traditionally democratic outdoor heritage.

In Arizona, recent litigation over access to wildlife resulted in federal courts ruling that wildlife management now had to conform to the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution and could not discriminate against non-residents. The same issue went before the U. S. Supreme Court in 1978. They ruled that Montana could discriminate because conservation required it. That case was brought under the privileges and immunities clause of the U.S. Constitution. The difference may well be the negligence of the states to separate the conservation of fish and wildlife from the commerce in those same resources. New challenges to state licensing systems that favor resident hunters and anglers can be expected. This time they will be brought under the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution. Its impact could be enormous. Arizona never made a public trust argument in their defense – possibly because they couldn’t.

The Solution

What the North American fish and wildlife conservation ethic needs at this point in history is public interest leadership. Since these resources are still a public trust held by the states, leaders at the state level could be effective. An example from history was the model fish and game commission system that emerged in Iowa in 1931. It was widely copied and successfully followed throughout the nation. Today, states are in a position to assert a similar leadership while protecting themselves from litigation spinning out of the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution. The steps necessary would include:
1) a political commitment to resident hunters and anglers;
2) selection of natural resource commissioners consistent with that commitment;
3) accepting the state’s public trust responsibility by including language to that effect in legislation affecting those resources;
4) sponsor legislation declaring fish and wildlife a cultural amenity; and, specifically not a commercial commodity;
5) direction to state fish and wildlife agencies to initiate an education program relative to the North American Model of Fish and Wildlife Conservation as adopted by the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies;
6) recommend that number 5 above be addressed in university system curriculums in fish and wildlife biology and management;
7) formation of a select committees to study means of separating conservation of fish and wildlife from the commerce in those resources; and,
8) opposing any legislative efforts giving privileges that contribute to commercializing fish and wildlife.

The Achilles Heel of Reform

Making a commitment to resident hunters and anglers in general and to restoring or protecting their access to fish and wildlife will have detractors. The ammunition of detraction is almost certain to include anecdotal stories of bad hunter behavior. Thus it is essential to also make a commitment to address that issue through hunter education. The current program of entry-level hunter education is already excellent. What is needed is an option for continuing hunter education for adults (as a voluntary program). This was recommended by Hunter Behavior Advisory Group in various states and by the International Hunter Education Association. It would need to be specified that person to person contact (live instructors) be in the design.

The resistance to expanding hunter education is probably based on allocation of financial resources. Entry level of hunter education is currently the country’s biggest bargain (virtually all volunteer). Continuing education can follow the same model, but it will mean a reallocation of some resources ($) within agencies. The goal is to give landowners and others an assurance that while the interests of resident hunters and anglers are being protected, the state’s intent includes improving their knowledge, stressing their responsibilities, and strengthening their ethical sensitivities. The program would be voluntary, but it would give landowners a choice should they elect to grant access. Perhaps most important it will reflect a genuine state concern for the behavior issue.