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North American Model of Wildlife Conservation (Fisheries too...)

The North American Model of Wildlife (and Fisheries) Conservation is unique and has evolved over time to be how we manage fish and game today. Not that the model works perfectly but as the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (AFWA) writes on their website on the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation,

"The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation is the world's most successful system of policies and laws to restore and safeguard fish and wildlife and their habitats through sound science and active management."

While they are the organization that represents state agencies responsible for managing fish and wildlife resources, I think it is pretty hard to argue otherwise. Like most every social system, understanding a bit of history is important to understanding how the North American model came about and how it has evolved. It is not as if early settlers of North America came up with this system of wildlife and fisheries management at once. Certainly this is evidenced by the extirpation of species like elk, bison, wolves, turkeys, and others from Wisconsin and the extinction of Passenger Pigeons, Carolina Parakeet, and a number other now extinct or highly endangered species. It is not perfect but as we will see, it is probably the most egalitarian wildlife and fisheries management strategy of any nation.

Quoted lines below are taken from the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (AFWA) website on the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation.

Wildlife resources are conserved and held in trust for all citizens.
Commerce in dead wildlife is eliminated.
Wildlife is allocated according to democratic rule of law.
Wildlife may only be killed for a legitimate, non-frivolous purpose.
Wildlife is an international resource.
Every person has an equal opportunity under the law to participate in hunting and fishing.
Scientific management is the proper means for wildlife conservation.

Together, these are how wildlife is (supposed to be) managed in North America. The first of these is probably the most significant. In many countries, the landowner owns the wildlife which means that rich people owns the fish in the water and the wildlife on the land and in the air. Unlike in "the old world", wildlife is for all to enjoy. You don't need to be rich to be able to hunt or fish in North America (though it does still certainly help).

Private lands leased for public fishing
Much of the access to waterways are on private lands that have public access easements.

Those a bit familiar with the history of North America know that these principles evolved over time and were not the law of the land when Europeans first visited and established colonies in North America. As is common, regulation of human activities come about reactively, not proactively. Early fisheries were often overharvested, non-native fishes were widely stocked, and environmental degradation, lack of fish passage, and non-native species introductions caused the decline of many native fish species. Arctic Grayling in Michigan, Brook Trout across much of their range, the Blue Walleye once endemic to the Great Lakes, a number of Western trout and salmon species and subspecies, and a host of other fishes have been extirpated or seen great declines. Again, the North American modes is far from perfect but, like democracy, it beats the other options.

Much of earliest westward exploration and expansion occurred because we chased beavers (Castor canadensis) across the continent as they were commercially extirpated from the eastern North America. And we continued to commercially extirpate them as we continued westward. It was our destiny, or so we thought. Much of our natural resource management history are lessons in "screw ups" and us learning from them. That tradition largely continues today.

Below are the principles that have evolved over time to be what they are today.

Wildlife resources are conserved and held in trust for all citizens.

They're all big but this one is the big one! In many countries wildlife "belongs" to the landowners and/or "the crown". When Queen Elizabeth II passed away in 2022, the new King, Charles III, became the Seigneur of the Swans and (sort of) quite literally owns all of the swans in Britain (NY Times article). It is not uncommon that in Europe that the landowner owns the wildlife and laws protect the landowners rights, not wildlife. Though, this is certainly more than a bit of a simplification as North America "borrowed" and expanded upon the UK's public trust doctrine.

Source: Live Science

As you probably know from your experiences, each state has their own public trust doctrine and they vary quite significantly. The public trust doctrine largely regulates navigable waters - and the definition of navigability is also a state by state. Here in Wisconsin, we have public trust docrine that is relatively generous to the public (but not as generous as it used to be).

What is different in North America is that the government is charged with protecting wildlife for everyone. This system has lead to our state and federal lands, to state and federal agencies charged with fish and wildlife conservation, and laws like the Endangered Species Act of 1973. The date is another piece of evidence of how our laws and the "North American Model" have evolved over time. While the ESA has not been perfect, we have seen a number of species benefit greatly from the law's protections.

Commerce in dead wildlife is eliminated.

As mentioned above, it took us some time to get to this one. Our history is full of stories of market hunting - ducks and other waterfowl and prairie chickens and many other species. And given commercial fishing, it is only sort of true that commerce in dead wildlife is eliminated. You can't legally sell your catch but commercial fishers can. With proper licenses, there are plenty of exceptions around wildlife like furbearers, selling minnows, selling of taxidermy specimens, and a host of other exceptions (see links below for laws). You can gift wildlife and fish but can not barter for them - a pretty fuzzy line, I'm sure. Is it bartering if I receive access to private lands and give them a couple of fish that I caught? Or a pound or two of cheese, a six pack of beer? And us fly tyers have a number of wild game species in our tying materials.

But all these fine points really disguise the bigger picture - market hunting, once common, is now illegal. Probably the best known stories are those around Buffalo (American Bison) and how the were nearly extirpated due to market hunting. Waterfowl, prairie grouse, and a number of other species were similarly impacted. Punt guns could kill 50 ducks at a time - often drawn within range by live decoys. The Lacey Act and subsequent Migratory Bird Treat Act date back to the early 1900's.

Wildlife is allocated according to democratic rule of law.

Democracy is far from perfect - and go to one of the "spring hearings" and you might question a bit if everyone should have a voice - but we all do. We all fund wildlife conservation - though if there is an issue I have with how we fund conservation, it is that we should all have a much larger stake in paying for conservation. Conservation is largely paid for by hunters and anglers - and yes, you can argue it is a bit self-serving. However, we all benefit from public lands and you don't need to have a hunting license to access public hunting or fishing grounds, you don't need to buy a duck stamp to use National Wildlife Refuge, or to benefit from any number of other ways hunters and anglers have paid for land and wildlife conservation.

The more important idea here, however, is that everyone has the opportunity to hunt and fish. This was not and often still is not true everywhere. Hunting and fishing is often historically a rich man's game. In North America, we have large amounts of public lands that are open to everyone. There are still advantages to having money but it is not a requirement to hunt or fish in the U.S. or Canada.

Wildlife may only be killed for a legitimate, non-frivolous purpose.

Another principle that is maybe not always consistently applied - or at least poorly defined. What is legitimate and non-frivolous about prairie dog shoots? Of course, one can argue that prairie dog hunting provides a service for ranchers. And we have laws about non-native / invasive species that promote their killing without a use for the carcass. However these things are rare exceptions and the killing of these organisms serves a non-frivolous purpose.

Probably a more important idea is that wanton waste laws exist. That is, in Wisconsin:

"No person may damage or attempt to damage any natural resource within the state”. Describing the word Damage. – “Damage” means to commit a physical act that unreasonably destroys, molests, defaces, removes or wastes. This could mean damaging and/or wasting everything from a tree to a black bear as this law is written."

More practically, it means it is illegal to kill fish or wildlife and not make use of them. This includes "filling the freezer" and not using those animals. Wanton waste laws are also in place for public relations. While growing up in Wisconsin makes things look differently, only about 6% hunted in 2022 and 15% fished (USFWS press release). It will be interesting to see how our country's attitude towards hunting and fishing as the percentage of people that hunt and fish continues to decline.

Wildlife is an international resource.

Wildlife does not know borders and management must be done through cooperation among countries. Most obviously, migratory birds are managed between many different countries because what one country does has an impact on that species throughout its range. Waterfowl hunters understand this well.

There are international wildlife laws - Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS), the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the Ramsar Convention, and the World Heritage Convention (Trouwborst et al. 2017) - agreed upon by much of the world. However, most wildlife conservation occurs at the state (or similar political division) and federal level.

Every person has an equal opportunity under the law to participate in hunting and fishing.

Wildlife is for everyone. As presented above, relatively few actually hunt and fish but those that do, disproportionately fund wildlife conservation. Quite honestly, this is a bit redundant with a few of the above principles so I'll give it less attention other than to say, we take our public lands pretty seriously here in North America - and we should!

Scientific management is the proper means for wildlife conservation.

Like democracy, science doesn't always get it right but it is - without question - the best way to understand our natural world. And, over time, science will get it right. We manage wildlife based on the best available science - and a whole lot of public opinion. I'll certainly delve deeper into this at some point in time but trying to keep things short, MeatEater is a good place to get started, "What does it mean to "Follow the Science" with Wildlife Management?"

The Wrap-Up

I am more than a bit outside of my comfort zone. Laws around fisheries and wildlife are complex and full of exceptions. And quite often, they are international in nature. But, as always, I am more than happy to provide links to those that know more.

We - that is the US and Canada, in particular - have not gotten it all correct but we have done better than most. Much of it has been reactionary and these laws continue to evolve. The principles are good and we generally abide by them. They're not perfect but we tend to do it better than most anywhere else.

Links and Resources

Literature Cited / Peer Reviewed References

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You never mentioned the upland trees and the riparian zone trees the number one concern for wildlife in the United States. The trees control the climate, the main food source for the majority of wildlife in the forests and streams, river, and lakes. Science has introduced most diseases that have cost the demise of many different species of trees causing many species to go extinct, endangered, or threatened. The science personnel given the responsibility of stream restoration are totally ignorant of the riparian zone trees along our streams, rivers, and lakes.

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