It’s Time for a Revolution in State Wildlife Governance
By Kirk Robinson, Western Wildlife Conservancy
“Hunting is conservation!” This slogan seems to be omnipresent lately. It is clearly meant to pair the ideas in people’s minds so that the idea of hunting will benefit by association with the idea of conservation. After all, hunting involves killing, which not only evokes negative sentiments in people’s minds but would seem to be the very antithesis of conservation.
Hunters (as a group) are quick to retort that conservation depends on hunting because, first, it was hunters the likes of Teddy Roosevelt who started the conservation movement way back when, and second, because hunters, unlike non-hunters, pay to ensure that there are wild animals to hunt. They think this shows they deserve privileged treatment when it comes to saying how wild animals should be managed. In practice, their influence invariably results in the killing of large carnivores, such as cougars and wolves, in the belief that it will result in more deer and elk to shoot. After all, in theory fewer carnivores should mean more herbivores. Even Aldo Leopold thought so 100 years ago when he was young and very little was known about predator-prey ecology.
The admission that hunters have played a role in wildlife conservation ought to be coupled with the admission that they had an even greater role in causing the demise of many species in the first place: passenger pigeon, bison, beaver, gray wolf, grizzly bear – none of which are really doing that well today as a matter of fact. At most, hunters as a class have made partial reparation for the sins of their past, which hardly warrants granting them special rights.
But what about all the money hunters spend in excise taxes on hunting gear and for hunting licenses – money that is used to ensure plenty of animals to hunt – doesn’t that merit special rights? (We should note in passing that much the same reasoning is employed by livestock growers and farmers – they sometimes suffer economic loss because of wild animals eating their sheep or melons, so they are in effect subsidizing the very existence of wildlife through their economic loss.)
A good way to examine this question is to look for a clear example where paying for something gives a person a special right with regard to it, then compare the two cases to see how closely they align. For example, I paid for my car, so I alone get to say what I do to it. I might treat it badly, but the car is mine, so I am entitled to do what I want with it so long as I don’t break any laws.
Contrary to philosopher René Descartes’ belief that non-human animals are insensate natural machines, wild animals and cars are no more alike than cars and clouds. Arguably they are even less alike because animals are living, sentient members of complex interdependent biotic communities. They enjoy pleasures and suffer pains. They seek some things and try to avoid others. Many species experience emotions and think. Cars are mere machines; deer and wolves are not.
Also, wild animals are not really owned by anyone. They are self-willed beings living out their lives in part of a much larger, evolving system – a complex system of interactions and interdependencies that also produced Homo sapiens. From this scientifically grounded perspective, the idea that one species or creature owns another is absurd. In fact, the very idea of ownership of anything is a human fabrication. To the extent that humans “own” anything, they appropriate or make it and defend their possession of it, that’s all. Similarly, the cougar “owns” its kill until a pack of wolves usurps it.
The claim of special right for determining how wildlife is managed is propaganda. A particularly glaring illustration of this is the Western Hunting and Conservation Expo, now the largest annual convention in Utah (given the recent departure of the bi-annual Outdoor Retailers Show for a friendlier state). The Expo proudly proclaims “This is Conservation!” There are stuffed wild animals galore and every kind of hunting and trapping device on display. Expensive permits to hunt trophy animals are sold and the profits shared by the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, the sponsors of the Expo, private land owners (if the hunt occurs on private land), and hunting guides. The Expo glorifies killing and promotes the commodification of wildlife. (http://kutv.com/news/local/allegations-of-corruption-surround-utah-hungtin-and-conservation-expo). Ironically, Utah’s slogan is Life Elevated!
You may have heard of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation – or NAM for short. It purportedly guides contemporary wildlife management and is often cited by hunters and the Expo sponsors as justifying their claim to special rights when it comes to wildlife management. The NAM has seven tenets:
- Wildlife Resources Are a Public Trust
- Markets for Game Are Eliminated
- Allocation of Wildlife Is by Law
- Wildlife Can Be Killed Only for a Legitimate Purpose
- Wildlife Is Considered an International Resource
- Science Is the Proper Tool to Discharge Wildlife Policy
- Democracy of Hunting Is Standard
All of these tenets sound good, but 1, 4, 6 and 7, in particular, are problematic because of how they are interpreted and applied.
Let’s group 7 with 1 and consider the problematic ones in reverse order starting with 6. What does it mean to say that science is the proper tool to discharge wildlife policy? For that matter, what role should science have in making wildlife policy in the first place? In practice, what state wildlife management of game species comes down to is the application of models to data in order to determine how many hunting permits can be issued for this or that species without jeopardizing its future or future hunts. At a recent Utah Wildlife Board meeting on black bear, the reason given by the Division of Wildlife Resources for proposing an additional 102 permits was “There is evidence that the population is increasing.” So much for scientific guidance.
Further, it is obvious that science alone can’t tell us what is ethical or moral or what we should value. As philosopher David Hume pointed out more than two centuries ago, true factual descriptions never logically entail a moral prescription. Something else has to do the work of bridging the logical gap between “is” and “ought”; and that something else is sentiment. In other words, it all comes down to how you feel about the facts. If you are a sadistic psychopath, you might see an opportunity to inflict suffering as something positive. And if you value animal trophies and abundant ungulates over ecological integrity, you might view killing wolves and cougars as good.
What counts as a “legitimate purpose” for killing wildlife? Self-defense comes to mind. Subsistence hunting might qualify too, at least in cases of necessity. We might even countenance sport hunting of ungulates as legitimate, though there is no necessity in it, so long as the meat is used for subsistence. But what about the practice of bear baiting, where the hunter attracts bears to stinky garbage dumped in the forest and then shoots the unsuspecting visitor from a tree stand? This doesn’t even qualify as “fair chase”, a supposedly time-honored hunter ethic, yet it is still a common practice in many states. Or what about coyote killing contests? Apparently, the prevailing ethic is “The only good coyote is a dead coyote.” So much for legitimate purpose.
This brings us to the public trust and the idea that democracy should prevail in wildlife management – or at least in hunting. What does this mean? The plain meaning is that state wildlife management agencies have a duty to manage wild animals for the benefit of the public – the entire public. So how then does it happen that hunters, especially big-spending trophy hunters, are the primary clientele of state wildlife management agencies? After all, they comprise a relatively small percentage of the citizenry. Yet the big spenders get the best hunting opportunities; and hunters as an interest group dominate state wildlife management. Public opinion surveys have repeatedly shown that most citizens (even in Utah!) oppose hunting black bears or cougars with hounds and disapprove of bear baiting. Furthermore, there is a growing body of research showing that wolves and cougars not only control their own population sizes without the help of hunters, but preferentially select sick and infirm prey animals, thereby controlling the spread of diseases such as deadly chronic wasting disease – a disease that is quickly advancing westward in the Rocky Mountain States and threatening to ravage deer and elk herds. To remove wolves from an ecosystem is analogous to inflicting an autoimmune disease on the land. So much for honoring the public trust.
Here’s the bottom line: State wildlife management agencies and the special interests they serve function as a cartel to protect their grip on wildlife management at the expense of the integrity, stability and beauty of biotic communities and in violation of the public trust. This needs to change. A revolution in wildlife governance is called for.
WHAT YOU CAN DO:
- Read your state code on wildlife management to learn how wildlife is governed in your state.
- Attend state Wildlife Commission meetings both to observe how wildlife regulations are made and to express your opinion to commissioners regarding matters of interest to you during the public comment period.
- Become educated on the issues and write letters to the editors of newspapers expressing your views regarding wildlife management – especially the hunting of large carnivores such as bears, cougars and wolves.
- Support non-profit wildlife conservation organizations with volunteer assistance and money.
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.
The Rewilding Institute (TRI) mission is to explore and share tactics and strategies to advance continental-scale conservation and restoration in North America and beyond. We focus on the need for large carnivores and protected wildways for their movement; and we offer a bold, scientifically credible, practically achievable, and hopeful vision for the future of wild Nature and human civilization on planet Earth. Subscribe | Support