Saturday, February 7, 2015

What is the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation? Part I.

We're only five weeks into 2015, and across the country, state-level policy debates are raging over the role of recreational hunting and fishing in the public-funded management of wildlife species.   Anti-hunters include Maryland horse enthusiasts who wish to commercialize the sale of deer meat, and thereby reduce the deer population and Maryland hunters' numbers simultaneously.   Other anti-hunters include New Jersey liberals opposed to Sunday hunting - they believe that faith-based governance is unconstitutional, except for the Sunday ban on hunting, which was a parochial law intended to get people into church pews and out of the woods.

In the corner of more sane opinions on these topics are the hunting advocacy groups, who keep referring to how these anti-hunting positions are invalidated by "The North American Model of Wildlife Management."   While this sounds very good and official both to those who actually understand wildlife management (I happen to have a college degree in that field) and to conservative hunters who believe hunting is great, no matter what, we as hunters and wildlife ecologists have to understand that phrases like "The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation" sounds like this to anti-hunters and the like:

Not sure that Put Some Pearls On It's Vision is in Concordance with the NA Model of WC.....
Now, 53% of you see that picture and you're thinking, "HELL YEAH!"  Unfortunately (??), 47% of you are not.  And that's why spouting off nifty terms like "The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation" is counterproductive without some actual facts.   So what the hell is this model, anyway?

Market hunting ducks. Photo: Ducks Unlimited
First, let's go back in time, to an era before The Model.  Other than being banned on Sundays, hunting and fishing were generally unregulated activities (like today's target shooting, for example) prior to 1900.   Market hunting, also known as large scale commercial hunting, was rampant across the country.  Market hunting saw the decimation of the genetic stocks of many species from bison to American Robins (no kidding), but fortunately only definitively wiped out one species, the Passenger Pigeon.  Other species, including most fur-bearing mammals, Whooping Cranes, Canvasback ducks, Canada Geese,  many shorebirds, alligators, American Crocodiles, and many others, were brought to the brink of extinction by the ridiculous industrial-scale wildlife trade.  

Almost too late, state game laws (besides the Sunday hunting/fishing bans) began to address the public's distaste for the massive slaughter, shipment, and re-sale of what they understood to be "publicly owned" fish and wildlife. The laws were readily ignored and difficult to enforce, since market hunters simply iced their kills (sometimes in barrels) and put them on railcars for interstate shipment.    Frustrated by this development and the lack of change,  a Republican Congressman named John Lacey sponsored a successful law banning the interstate transport of illegally killed wildlife.  That law, now known as the Lacey Act, is the primary prosecution tool of the US Attorney General when pursuing federal-scale poachers or wildlife importers/exporters.

The highly endangered Whooping Crane, once slaughtered
for its feathers alone.  Photo: US Fish & Wildlife Service,
Region 6.
Other laws followed fairly quickly, including the Weeks-McLean Act, which prohibited spring hunting of birds and the feather trade (for fashion), and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which protected birds, eggs, and bird nests from both destruction and "harassment," subject to annually reviewed exemptions for sustainable recreational hunting. Starting in 1940, bald eagles enjoyed separate protection under the Bald Eagle Protection Act.

So those are cool laws, but as we've seen in the realms of narcotics and firearms, making something illegal and actually stopping it are two very different things.   As the science of wildlife biology started to build in the 1930s, tools became available for politicians and bureacrats to periodically adjust laws and regulations to the reality of wildlife populations (and hunters).   The legal backbone of wildlife protection allowed this periodic re-calibration to occur, and that's really the basis of the North American Model for Wildlife Conservation, which will dive into in Part II.

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