The Wild Side: The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation
Continuing my July series on wildlife and a young nation, I thought I would talk about the evolution of North American Model of Wildlife Conservation. The founding fathers travelled to the colonies primarily from Europe, especially England. At that time, British wildlife was considered the property of the landowner, and land ownership was limited to gentry, nobility, and monarchs. Wildlife in the colonies was likely treated as an endless commodity, as was timber and other natural resources.
When the colonies became the United States of America, wildlife was not considered in the Constitution or its amendments. As the boundary of the nation expanded westward, the need to explore new country was coupled with the opportunity to learn about this continent’s plants and animals. The Lewis and Clark expedition left from St. Louis in 1803, headed west using rivers and waterways in an attempt to find a trade route to the Pacific coast. They returned in 1806, successful in their mission. They hauled journals, sketches, live animals and animal skins and mounts halfway across the continent to meet the expedition’s mandates placed by President Thomas Jefferson. This was an era of exploration and manifest destiny-man was conquering the wilderness and discovering what wildlife was in it for his use.
This nation’s wildlife was exploited throughout the 1800s. Buffalo were slaughtered, skinned and left to rot. Migratory birds, such as ducks and passenger pigeons, were shot in large masses, and shipped by the barrelful on rail back to the east coast to feed people and hogs. Animals we now refer to as big game, such as wild turkey and deer, were treated as the property of the landowner, and often squandered. Any animal that was thought to have even a hint of a negative impact on humans or livestock were shot for a government bounty, including wolves, bobcats and coyotes.
At the same time, a kind of upper class had developed, and many had a desire to make hunting a sport and treat animals with care and restraint. A Supreme Court decision on a case in 1842 became a foundation for the Public Trust Doctrine, which stated that this country’s wildlife resources are owned by no one, they are to be held in trust by government for present and future generations. Canadian officials saw this wildlife conservation ethic develop, and the ensuing treaties and cooperative efforts gave birth to the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation.
The North American Model considered wildlife an international resource, and eliminated markets for game, calling for the allocation of wildlife by law (such as licenses, closed seasons and legal forms of take.) It further stated that wildlife is a public trust resource, and should only be killed for a legitimate purpose. For the first time, biological science was called to task when the model stated that science is the proper tool to carry out wildlife policy. Over decades, the model was further refined and put into practice.
President Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency, 100 years after the Lewis and Clark expedition, was when significant wildlife policy implementation began. Decades later, during Franklin Roosevelt’s administration, the 1937 Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act (or Pittman-Robertson Act) was passed. In an era where the country was struggling mid-recovery from the Great Depression, the Aid in Restoration Act was a self-imposed federal tax on sportsmen who purchased hunting equipment. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Restoration Act, and the Wildlife Restoration Program which it created. During those 75 years, Wisconsin has received almost $200 million for wildlife habitat development, land acquisition, wildlife health, research, hunter education, restoration of wild turkey, fisher, gray wolf, trumpeter swans and more.
The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation has been heralded as the world’s most successful policy and law system developed to benefit wildlife and their habitats, with an emphasis on sound science.
To learn more, visit the celebratory anniversary website at wsfr75.com.
Jeremy Holtz is a wildlife biologist with the Wisconsin DNR in Rhinelander, and writes a weekly column in the Star Journal. To contact him, call (715) 365-8999.