North American Wildlife Conservation Model
By Eric Aldrich
There’s nothing quite like it anywhere else in the world: a system that keeps wildlife as a public and sustainable resource, scientifically managed by professionals – thanks to hunters and hunting.
Hunting, as some folks tend to forget, has been a human activity for a long, long time…as long as there have been humans.
But something happened to hunting around the late 1800s and early 1900s that changed it forever. It became regulated. The relatively new profession of wildlife biology supported those regulations with science. License fees and excise taxes—paid for by hunters themselves – supported the enforcement and the science. Money was also set aside to protect habitat, conduct research and teach hunters to be safe and ethical. At the time, those visionary moves were essential because of the pathetic status of North America’s wildlife population. In Delaware, white-tailed deer, beavers, wild turkeys and many waterfowl species were few in number at the beginning of the 20th century. Now, throughout the continent, many species are back for all to enjoy, not just hunters.
Why Do We Mention This?
Because sometimes we forget. Sometimes, we get so accustomed to the way things are that we forget how they used to be…and what it’s like elsewhere in the world.
There’s a fellow in Canada’s Alberta Province who wants to remind us that hunting is THE reason for conservations’ success in North America. He’s Valerius Geist, a German native who immigrated to Canada as a young teenager in 1953 and began hunting two years later.
Geist studied wildlife biology, earned a doctorate in animal behavior and wrote several books on big game mammals of North America. By the 1980’s he could see that his own co0llegues (wildlife biologists for the most part) had forgotten what their predecessors had built: a phenomenal environmental success story, the restoration of wildlife in North America.
“When I came over here from Germany, it was a real eye-opener,” Geist said. “Hunting is different. Conservation is different. The whole model here that ties hunting and conservation together is unique and very successful.”
It’s called the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation. There’s nothing like it elsewhere in the world. And hunters – whether they’re in Delaware, Alberta or Oregon – are the system’s backbone of success.
To remind biologists (and anyone else) about why this model is unique and successful, Geist and two colleagues presented a paper at a recent North American Wildlife Management and Research conference. The other co-authors are Shane P. Mahoney of the Newfoundland and Labrador Wildlife Division, and John F. Organ, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Hadley, Mass.
“We wrote this for the simple reason that what is so obvious has been forgotten by many people,” Geist said. “Even our own colleagues had forgotten the history of the wildlife conservation movement here.”
What is the North American Model?
The North American model has endured despite widespread changes in society, technology and in the landscape of the continent. It has become a “system of sustainable development of a renewable natural resource that is without parallel in the world,” Geist said. Furthermore, it has benefited not only huntable wildlife, countless species of songbirds and shorebirds are protected, becoming specifically designated as nongame species. Seven features make the North American model distinct.
Hunting is the Glue
“In much of Europe, hunting is landowner-based,” Geist said. “Areas are essentially leased for hunting, and hunters are responsible for the management of species on that piece of land. It’s an elitist system.”
What developed in North America is what Geist calls a populous system. “It appeals to everyone, blue-collar and white-collar alike” and was championed by the likes of Theodore Roosevelt.
In Africa today, efforts to stop poaching have led to programs that direct economic returns on hunting fees to rural indigenous people. Now, they have a reason to stop poachers.
According to Geist, the glue that holds this unique North American model of wildlife conservation together is hunting.
Wildlife should be a publicly-owned resource not only as a food source but also to help foster the American “pioneer spirit,” he said. “The ability for all North Americans to be able to cultivate these pioneer skills through sport hunting meant that there could be no private ownership outside of the public trust.”
Threatening that public trust were the markets for wildlife that were driving some species toward extinction. The strongest proponents for eliminating market hunting were the organized sportsmen and sporting publications. The Boone and Crockett Club and Forest and Stream magazine rallied against market hunting, resulting in many state and federal laws ending the practice.
Without the markets, there were game surpluses which became allocated by law. Those allocations should not jeopardize the sustainability of wildlife for future generations. Sportsmen became the biggest advocates of maintaining sustainable numbers of wildlife.
As ranching increased as a way of getting meat to the table, hunting strictly for food became less important. Thus grew hunting’s emphasis on the chase, not the kill, while still retaining the need to use as much of the wildlife killed as possible.
Would Wildlife Survive Without Hunting?
One of the biggest threats to North America’s model of wildlife conservation is efforts to commercialize wildlife. Those efforts take many forms, notably game ranching and fee hunting, according to Geist.
Since the days when North America’s approach to wildlife conservation was developed, populations of many wildlife species (mostly game species) have gone from seriously in trouble to abundant. Now some species, such as white-tailed deer, are seriously in trouble of becoming too abundant in places. Deer are eating up farm crops and suburban gardens and shrubs all over the Eastern seaboard.
“As certain species become common enough to cause conflict with humans, will humans value them less?” wonders Geist.
Actually, hunters could play a key role in alleviating such conflicts. They can help keep wild animals wild. As fish and wildlife agencies figure out what to do about local over-abundances of deer, they can look to the public – hunters – as part of the solution.
“This may have to be combined with other management alternatives,” says Geist, “but hunting and its advocates can again be the force that ensures sustainable wildlife resources are a priority for society.”
Formerly with the New Hampshire Department of Fish and Game, Eric Aldrich is now Communications Director for the N.H. Chapter of the Nature Conservancy.
Contributions of Hunters by the Numbers
? Total U.S. retail purchases by hunters in one year (1996) on hunting equipment, travel, license fees, etc.: $1.725 billion. Total economic impact to U.S. of $60.9 billion and 704,601 jobs. ? Total retail purchases by Delaware hunters in one year (1996) on hunting equipment, travel, license fees, etc.: $28 million. Total economic impact to Delaware of $148.7 million and 1,607 jobs. ? Total U.S. hunters’ annual dues to conservation and related organizations, such as Ducks Unlimited: $296 million. ? Total in resident and nonresident hunting license fees and permits to the Division of Fish and Wildlife in fiscal year 2002: $569,000 ? Total amount of Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration to the Division in fiscal year 2002 (from excise taxes paid by hunters/manufacturers on hunting equipment and distributed to states: $1.24 million ? Division of Fish and Wildlife management areas permanently protected for wildlife and recreation by Federal Aid dollars and hunting license revenues: 15 areas and 56,000 acres. ? Partial list of species restored to Delaware, thanks to license fees, Federal Aid dollars and good management: wild turkey, white-tailed deer, many waterfowl species. Many nongame species also have benefited from habitat protected by hunters’ dollars.
In 1994, just 106 years after Theodore Roosevelt and George Bird Grinnell created the idea of fair chase, helping to change free-for-all market and subsistence hunting into a regular sport, “Teddy Roosevelt and the Hunting Heritage” author Jim Posewitz, published Beyond Fair Chase.
The former wildlife biologist and one of the founders of Orion, The Hunter’s Institute, a Montana organization devoted to fostering ethical hunting, reiterated what many had said before – stalk close, shoot well, make every effort to track wounded game – but also added a new dimension to the notion of respect for wildlife. Posewitz said trophy scoring and big-game contests sometimes crossed the line of proper ethical practice. “Trying to take a trophy to get your name in a record book,” he wrote, “is taking a fine animal for the wrong reason.” Downplaying the idea of competition in hunting, whether for money or ego. Beyond Fair Chase is now used across North America in hunter-education classes.