Managers and policymakers need to get creative to solve 21st-century issues plaguing the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation.

By Dr. Russ Mason

For decades, the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation (NAM) and its’ seven foundational pillars have been the touchstone of conservation. Considered sacrosanct by agency managers, hunters, and anglers, the seven pillars are:

1. Maintaining wildlife as a public trust resource, entrusted to the state to manage.
2. Prohibiting deleterious commerce in dead wildlife products.
3. Regulating and defining appropriate wildlife use by law.
4. Ensuring wildlife can only be killed for legitimate purposes.
5. Recognizing and managing wildlife as an international resource.
6. Utilizing and safeguarding science as the appropriate basis for wildlife policy.
7. Protecting the democratic allocation of public opportunity to harvest wildlife.

NAM provides a coherent ethic for resource allocation and wise use (the essential definition of conservation). In practice, NAM is credited for the recovery of bison, moose, elk, deer, turkeys, and waterfowl, among other game species.

And yet, as the American conservation movement enters its second century, some now believe that cracks and deficiencies are beginning to show. NAM was explicitly designed to assure equitable distribution and maximize sustainable harvest; it’s undeniably (and unapologetically) utilitarian. But NAM is primarily silent on various topics, including, for example, the protection of non-game wildlife and species of greatest conservation need. It’s also silent on how to allocate resources to promote (and regulate) so-called non-consumptive use (e.g., birding).

Most importantly, the NAM does not address the emerging challenges of the 21st century (i.e., invasives, climate change or if you prefer, more severe and unpredictable weather and wildlife disease). Consequently, state fish and wildlife agencies have been left out of Congressional policy and budget discussions at a time when emerging challenges (particularly wildlife disease management) are consuming unsustainably large portions of steadily declining state agency fish and wildlife conservation budgets.

For over 100 years, the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (AFWA) has “represented the collective voice of state, provincial, and U.S. territorial fish and wildlife agencies to the federal government and Congress” (their motto).

In 2022, AFWA established a President’s Task Force to explore the role of member agencies as experts on fish and wildlife health and other benefits that state fish and wildlife management provide to “quality of life.”

These days, this grab bag of topics is collectively related to One Health.

The CDC’s definition of One Health is a “collaborative, multisectoral and transdisciplinary approach — working at the local, regional, national, and global levels — with the goal of achieving optimal health outcomes recognizing the interconnection between people, animals, and plants, and their shared environment.”

For AFWA, the focus was adapted into something much closer to a modernization of what Aldo Leopold called “The Land Ethic” (1949):

“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

Or again:

“The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land . . . [A] land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow members, and also respect for the community as such.”

In 2023, the Task Force presented 24 recommendations centered around four themes to the member agencies. The report was overwhelmingly accepted as a new organizing principle for AFWA and will be publicly available on the Association’s website. Here are my takes on the highlights of that report:

Theme 1: Legislative Affairs, Policy and Governance Strategies Designed to Guide AFWA Engagement on One Health.

AFWA will establish a One Health Committee with representation from state, federal, provincial, tribal, academic, and private organizations and explore opportunities for establishing a “center of excellence” to convene and support collaborations that benefit wildlife and ecosystem health.
More important, from a practical point of view, AFWA leadership will elevate fish and wildlife agency engagement in One Health policy and budgetary discussions in Congress.

Theme 2: Coordination, Collaboration Strategies to Guide AFWA Engagement on One Health.

AFWA will collaborate with The Wildlife Society and the American Fisheries Society to develop communications strategies to inform One Health practitioners in other sectors (e.g., human and animal medicine, agriculture) about the jurisdictional authorities and expertise resident in fish and wildlife agencies. The practice outcome of this objective is to ensure that the perspectives of fish and wildlife agencies are included in the ongoing development of a National One Health Framework.

Theme 3: Training Strategies Designed to Guide AFWA Engagement on One Health.

AFWA will develop instructional materials and training for fish and wildlife agency biologists and administrators to help them connect with practitioners across other One Health sectors and disciplines and to identify gaps and specific needs.

Theme 4: Science and Indigenous Knowledge Strategies to Guide AFWA Engagement on One Health.

AFWA will explore ways to make indigenous knowledge more available to agency biologists to combine relevant traditional knowledge with western empirical science in fish and wildlife management decisions. As well, AFWA will encourage engagement with tribes on shared interests, connecting people with wildlife and the environment and identifying evidence-based tools that quantify the role ecosystems and wildlife play in improving human health and the threats posed by zoonotic disease.

Perhaps most importantly, the report encourages AFWA to revisit the NAM to explore modifications that broaden it to include One Health as a 21st-century challenge. On this point, as it turns out, Leopold was crystal clear:

“I have purposely presented the land ethic as a product of social evolution because nothing so important as an ethic is ever ‘written.’ Only the most superficial student of history will suppose that Moses ‘wrote’ the Decalogue; it evolved in the minds of a thinking community, and Moses wrote a tentative summary of it for a ‘seminar.’ I say tentative because evolution never stops. The evolution of a land ethic is an intellectual as well as an emotional process.”

The gorilla in the corner, of course, is that evolution never happens for no reason, and when it comes to competent professional fish and wildlife management, there simply isn’t enough gas in the tank (or, if you prefer, charge in the batteries). New resources are a prerequisite to effective engagement. Important though they may be, mandates for effective disease management, invasive species control and enhanced climate resiliency are both wildly expensive and largely (or entirely) unfunded.

Consider wildlife disease or just CWD. Nationally, the total cost of testing alone per sample ranges from $80 (Oklahoma) to $500 (Wisconsin). Michigan’s cost is $167.64. If you were wondering why Oklahoma’s cost is so low (relatively speaking), it’s because, basically, they don’t test. More broadly, the 2023 survey of agency science and research needs for invasive species showed that 93% of agencies lack staff capacity, 73% lack funding, and 64% indicate that “other priorities” (aka, the usual suspects — regulations, infrastructure, equipment needs, etc.) take precedent.

When it comes to climate change (let’s call it increasing resilience to extreme storms, higher temperatures, changes in precipitation), 84% lack staff capacity, and 79% report that “other priorities” take priority.

Naively (just my perspective; I was around for “Teaming for Wildlife” in 2003), many in the conservation community thought Recovering America’s Wildlife Act (RAWA) would pass and get an appropriation.

Agencies and non-governmental organizations of every stripe vigorously supported the final bill because everyone knew that RAWA would provide desperately needed resources. But as we all know, RAWA didn’t get passed, and the inside dope is that the federal cavalry isn’t going to come to the rescue anytime soon.

A couple of weeks ago, at an international meeting, I talked with a former Director of the National Parks System and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service during the Trump Administration. When I asked about RAWA, her perspective was that RAWA wasn’t funded because when push came to shove, state-based natural resources conservation simply wasn’t a priority.

Today, the only two states that seem to have the resources to address both traditional customer interests and those of other resource users are Missouri and Minnesota. The reason is perfectly clear: both agencies receive state sales tax funding for fish and wildlife.
Many politicians and pundits claim that agencies can do more with less. They say it because it’s a popular thing to say. But the truth is, threadbare fish and wildlife agencies are being forced to do less with less.

Unless something changes, this fundamental economic reality dictates that conservation agency resources will continue to decline, hunter and angler dollars (and federal excise funds) will be spread ever more thinly, and management actions on the ground will become less responsive. The derivative is that since recreational quality depends on conservation, it will be impacted too.

Competent and effective fish and wildlife conservation is the infrastructure on which everything else depends, but deficiencies are typically addressed because of some crisis (because infrastructure is unseen mainly). Consistent with this, it’s abundantly clear that, historically, positive conservation change requires disasters.

Consider this: the Lacey Act and Migratory Bird Treaty Act were reactions to the near extirpation of multiple species. The Pitman-Robertson Act (the excise tax on firearms, ammunition, etc.) was largely a reaction to steep wildlife declines and habitat loss caused by the Dust Bowl.

Will our next big idea solve what is in front of us?