A Philosophical Critique of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation
Featured image: Bighorn sheep © John Miles
By Kirk Robinson
Abstract: I start from the recognition that wildlife management is an evolving practice, not something permanently fixed in a set of unalterable tenets. Among other things, I present and argue for a reformulation of tenets of the NAM that will result in a more consistent and coherent set of ideas that, if put into practice, will result in wildlife governance that is more democratic, more ethical, better scientifically grounded, and that better promotes wildlife conservation. The key is the elimination of trophy hunting. One of the tenets of the NAM is #2: Elimination of markets for game. This prevents a repetition of tragedies such as were inflicted on the American bison and the passenger pigeon. The next big step should be the elimination of trophy hunting, which, as it happens, is also a kind of market for game. KR
The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation (NAM), first published in 2001, was written by three white male hunter-biologists: Valerius Geist, Shane Mahoney and John Organ. It consists of seven principles or tenets which the authors claim have guided wildlife management in North America since early in the 20th century and are the bedrock of wildlife conservation. State wildlife management agencies and sportsmen’s organizations now enthusiastically tout the NAM as both guiding and justifying what they do.
I want to look into this, with a focus on three of the seven principles. These principles are fundamentally prescriptive. They purport to state how wildlife management ought to be conducted to best promote conservation. My aim is to get clear about the prescriptive content of these principles and to evaluate this claim. I shall not address here the grossly overblown view that wildlife management through hunting accounts for virtually all wildlife conservation in North America—a view that has been exploded by numerous critics.
#1. Wildlife is a public trust resource.
#4. Wildlife may be killed only for a legitimate purpose.
#6. Science is the proper tool for discharging wildlife policy.
#1: “Wildlife is a public trust resource.” At first glance this looks like an explicitly descriptive statement owing to the copula is. But surely it is meant to have prescriptive force, viz: Wildlife is to be (= ought to be) managed as a trust for the benefit of the beneficiaries—in this case, all citizens in perpetuity. #1 implies that wildlife conservation is imperative.
#1 also identifies wildlife as a resource, as if, like minerals, wild animals are to be used for the benefit of human beings but possess little or no independent value. This way of valuing wildlife, which I shall refer to as resourcism, is the heart and soul of the NAM. It underlies the idea that hunting is an essential tool, and perhaps the only really necessary one besides habitat protection, for promoting wildlife conservation.
These two ideas—wildlife as a public trust and wildlife as a resource—are not incompatible. At one extreme there are people who value wildlife strictly as a resource and who believe the proper goal of management is to provide for sustainable exploitation of the resource with a minimum of constraints. At the far other end of the spectrum are people who believe that wildlife possesses such great intrinsic value that it should not be exploited at all. I shall refer to this way of valuing wildlife as protectionism. Between the two extremes are people who believe appropriate constraints will allow for exploitation of the resource while also protecting it.
Within this broad class of people, I distinguish between those who value wildlife (including ecosystems and the land generally) primarily as a resource and those who value it primarily for its intrinsic value. One value is prioritized over the other. If one is thinking in terms of means and ends, the one group values wild animals primarily as a means, while the other group values them primarily as ends in themselves (to use Kantian terminology).
Wildlife management agencies use the inapt terms “consumptive user” and “non-consumptive user” to cover what is in reality a wide range of differences in how people value wildlife. Obviously, a person can be a hunter and also enjoy watching wildlife—can be both a consumptive user and a non-consumptive user. Recently, social scientists coined the more nuanced terms “traditionalists” and “mutualists” to try to capture a distinction that is not so exclusive.
There is no sharp division between traditionalists and mutualists. What distinguishes them is the value they prioritize. Traditionalists give priority to exploitation, and hence are resourcists; mutualists give priority to protection, and hence are protectionists. While these labels are imperfect, they are perhaps adequate to capture various admixtures of differences in people’s sentiments, values and attitudes regarding wildlife.
Wildlife management agencies are decidedly traditionalist. They focus on protecting some species (boreal toads, for example), that people aren’t interested in exploiting and that are at risk. Other species are managed as resources for hunting (including trapping and fishing). These latter include ungulates, such as deer and elk, and large carnivores such as cougars and wolves. However, while both are valued primarily as a resource, they are not valued equally. Ungulates are valued more highly than carnivores.
#4: “Wildlife may be killed only for a legitimate purpose.” This statement is explicitly prescriptive. It means that wildlife ought not be killed for an illegitimate purpose. But what counts as a legitimate or an illegitimate purpose?
In practice, what counts as a legitimate purpose is a matter of tradition: trapping beavers and bobcats for fur is considered a legitimate purpose in most states, as is hunting deer and elk for meat (with a trophy as a byproduct). Killing cougars for trophies, and only for trophies, is deemed legitimate in most states where there are cougars. Even killing for the sheer fun of it is in some cases considered legitimate. For example, coyotes are considered vermin in most states and have no legal protection. People can kill them by just about any means, for any reason or no reason, then dump the carcasses. There are even contests in which people compete for prizes to see who can kill the most coyotes (see Project Coyote’s film Killing Games). These examples show that under state wildlife management different species of animal are relegated different status depending on which values prevail.
On a resourcist view of wildlife, the value of wild animals is something bestowed on them by humans, who may value them however they wish, so consistency across species isn’t an issue. Ungulates such as deer and elk are valued more highly than the animals that prey upon them, so management attempts to maximize the number of ungulates in part by reducing the number of carnivores.
How wild animals are procured, or “harvested,” as agency personnel like to say, should be mentioned in this connection too. For example, is killing a black bear over bait a legitimate way to “take” a black bear? What about all the techno-gadgetry employed in hunting nowadays, such as range finders and GPS collars on dogs—is it legitimate? More to the point: ought it be deemed legitimate?
Notice that there is no logical consistency among these examples of “legitimacy,” no general principle or rule of reason that circumscribes and justifies them all. Anything might count as a legitimate hunting purpose or method or technology, depending only on what the state-approved authorities decide. Ethics need not enter into it and rarely does.
Wildlife managers will probably disagree. For example, in some states where bear baiting is permitted, the taking of lactating sows is prohibited in order to avoid orphaning cubs, the idea being that this makes killing bears over bait more moral. (It is worth noting that it also serves to sustain a population “surplus” for future exploitation.) While this is true as far as it goes, it also misses the more basic point that rarely is the ethicalness of bear baiting seriously questioned in the first place. Never mind that baiting would clearly seem to violate the hunter “ethic” of fair chase and that it results in the killing of a sentient being—something that cries out for moral justification. On the resourcist view of wildlife, ethical considerations governing exploitation of wildlife, such as they are, are grounded in arbitrary preferences, not in ethics.
Moreover, no justificatory reason for bear baiting (for just one example) is ever adduced that is consistently applied to management of other species. For example, if killing bears over bait is deemed ethical, and therefore a legitimate killing of wildlife, what is it about bear baiting that makes it ethical whereas baiting deer and elk with salt blocks is not? In the contrapositive, what is it about deer and elk baiting that makes it illegitimate whereas bear baiting is legitimate? Whatever the considerations may be, I dare say they are not of the ethical kind. Again, none of this really matters from the resourcist perspective.
Other considerations aside, does the hunter’s skill and commitment of time and resources justify the killing and the method used? It is distressing how many people think so. Obviously, skill and commitment of time and resources are rationales for hunting that ignore the interests of the animals as entirely irrelevant to the question of justification. These rationales suggest that animals have no interests of their own—no legitimate ones anyway—and are properly considered a mere resource for satisfying human wants, however frivolous. This is completely at variance with what a growing body of science informs us about animal minds, as well as with how people think of their pets. The 17th century philosopher René Descartes thought that non-human animals have no souls, and hence are not sentient and cannot experience pain, let alone have interests. It takes hyper-abstract cogitations to arrive at a conclusion so far removed from common experience. You can be sure Descartes never had a pet dog or cat. Unfortunately, Descartes’ unrealistic view lives on in the resourcist view of wildlife.
Some hunters insist that they love the animals they pursue and kill. (Wolves are the most prominent exception, hated by many as the incarnation of evil.) Does the hunter’s alleged “love” for a cougar or bear he or she intends to kill justify the killing? No. Such claims are probably sincere, but they mask a deep confusion. More likely, the sentiment is admiration that is mistaken for love. In any case, it is patently obvious, upon reflection, that the alleged love of the quarry pursued by the trophy hunter is really self-love that is both inflated and masked through self-identification of the hunter with the defeated quarry. If the defeated quarry is loved, the love is secondary to and dependent upon the ego-gratification obtained by conquering and destroying it. And the greater the challenge (or the perceived challenge), the greater the conqueror is presumed to be. It is like cage fighting, where the object is to beat the daylights out of an opponent. The more difficult the challenge, the greater the glory and status of the victor among peers and fans. But cage fighters at least have a say in the matter. They don’t have to fight if they don’t want to. Furthermore, the rules give opponents a “fighting chance” and the outcome is generally not lethal. True love of a wild animal would be best shown by leaving it alone, not by killing it; and certainly not by shooting it point blank in a tree.
#6: “Science is the proper tool for discharging wildlife policy.” Notice first that, like #1, #6 is superficially a descriptive statement, but that the clear intent is prescriptive, as shown by the word ‘proper’. In other words, science ought to be used to discharge wildlife policy.
However, you can’t discharge a policy that hasn’t been formulated any more than you can fire a gun that isn’t loaded. This implies that while science might be the proper tool for discharging wildlife policy, something else or something more is required for forming wildlife policy. What is this something?
Answer: particular values and the sentiments underlying them. Facts alone do not dictate any course of action. Indeed, the only bridge from factual description to ethical prescription and consequent action is sentiment. If a person feels strongly that trophy hunting grizzlies is wrong, he or she will not engage in trophy hunting of grizzlies even given the means and the opportunity to do so. One can say of such a person that he or she values live grizzlies over hunting them for trophies. The predominate value guiding contemporary wildlife management of ungulates and carnivores alike, on the other hand, is the utilitarian value of resourcism: Manage wildlife so as to ensure a maximum sustained yield of preferred species while taking care not to drive other species to extinction. This is what the NAM is all about. It isn’t hard to see that its primary purpose is to serve the hunting culture, which happens to consist mainly of older, white men. Conservation from this perspective is for the sake of hunting opportunity. (Of secondary importance, state wildlife management is intended to serve the interests of farmers and ranchers.)
Also, shouldn’t science be used in the formation of wildlife management in the first place, especially if the management is meant to promote conservation to counterbalance resource extraction? Or is policy strictly a political matter, with science to be used solely as a tool for determining how to discharge policy most effectively so that it accords with wildlife valued chiefly as a human resource? This aside, #6 neglects the fact that in order to best promote wildlife conservation, application of science to wildlife management is more relevant at the policy formulation stage than at the policy discharging stage. #6 needs correction to acknowledge this fact.
The sciences that are most important in this regard are evolution, ecology and conservation biology because they inform us about how biological systems actually work, which ought to be considered the guide to how they work best. And this in turn should have a major influence on our sentiments and values. Instead of managing wildlife like farm animals, managers should manage ecosystems so as to restore and preserve wild processes.
State wildlife management has not caught up to this truth yet. It is not surprising, then, that state wildlife governance—the system of laws that governs management—largely ignores the interests of people who value wild animals in ways that are at variance with the bias, as well as the interests of wild animals themselves. Wildlife boards and commissions, like the authors of the NAM, are almost invariably white males steeped in the resourcist culture. Because of various accidents of history, they came to be in control. Understandably, they are determined to retain control even as society increasingly values wildlife for its own sake. The historical trend, however, is ineluctably toward greater appreciation of the intrinsic value of wild animals. Protectionism is gradually replacing resourcism.
Now for a proposal. Because we value a pluralistic society with some semblance of democracy and equal representation, it surely behooves us all to seek ways of accommodating each other even when we disagree. What implications does this have for formulating and discharging wildlife management and conservation policy? Here’s a suggestion that I think has considerable merit: Trophy hunting, understood as hunting where typically the procurement of a trophy or any kind of personal satisfaction is the chief purpose, must be regarded as illegitimate.
This would eliminate general hunts for large carnivores and retain hunting of species where the primary goal is food procurement. It would also permit some important secondary purposes of hunting, such as achieving intimate contact with nature and obtaining a memento of the experience. Further, it would provide wildlife management and governance a more ethical unifying rational basis for wildlife management policy. Not to be overlooked, it would also accord better with NAM principle #1 by better discharging the trust to preserve ecological processes. It would have the benefit of making the concept of “legitimate purpose” at the core of tenet #4 more principled and coherent. Most important, this change would have the benefit of helping maintain, or in some cases restoring, healthy functioning of ecosystems, thus better serving an appropriately reformulated tenet #6.
In this connection, the science of ecology teaches us to think of the land broadly as a kind of organism. Carnivores and other “strongly interactive” species are critical to the healthy functioning of the land organism. Among other things, they act as a kind of immune system to check the spread of diseases such as chronic wasting disease (CWD) and brucellosis. While it is perhaps not yet proven that large carnivores in ecologically effective populations will prevent or slow the spread of these diseases, there is ample reason to think they will. Their evolutionary endowment of keen senses and powers of observation enables carnivores to detect those prey animals that are easiest and safest to kill. This promotes the survival of carnivore species and also promotes the fitness of prey species. Which is exactly what we should expect given what we know about the processes of organic evolution. Since all of us presumably want healthy functioning ecosystems, this is one value we might all be able to agree on, eventually, as people’s sentiments adjust to the dictates of reason. (It is worth noting in this connection, that CWD, which is rapidly sweeping westward through Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and Utah, is virtually absent where wolves are abundant.)
Not hunting or trapping carnivores will have the benefit of keeping populations of other animals within a narrower band, thus preventing wild swings in population sizes and consequent habitat destruction. All worries about carnivores becoming too numerous and getting “out of control” if not subjected to hunting ought to be allayed. A growing body of scientific research instructs us that populations of large carnivores such as cougars, wolves and bears are self-limiting. If left alone, their numbers will automatically adjust to what the food base can support.
Another growing body of scientific literature indicates that hunting carnivores is more likely to cause conflicts with humans, e.g., livestock depredation, than prevent them. Not least, hunting large carnivores prevents the normal cultural transmission of knowledge to future generations—knowledge of where to go, and when, to find natural food sources, and of successful hunting and foraging strategies.
Meanwhile, it must be acknowledged that a necessary step toward a resolution of competing values of wildlife must be the reformation of state wildlife governance. This will require wildlife boards and commission members who are educated in the relevant sciences and who are independent of special interests. Equally important, if not more so, it will require that wildlife boards and commissions more accurately represent the diversity of values and opinions of all citizens, not just those relative few who have a strongly vested personal interest in maintaining the status quo. How this will come about is a further question.
Kirk Robinson is the founder and executive director of the Western Wildlife Conservancy. He lives in Salt Lake City, Utah. Prior to founding Western Wildlife Conservancy, Kirk earned a Ph.D. in philosophy and taught courses at universities in Montana and Utah for 15 years. His favorite activities are exploring the wildlands of the American West and trying to learn to play fiddle tunes on acoustic guitar. Kirk is a charter member of TRI’s Rewilding Leadership Council.