Debunking the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation

There is no “official” definition or recognized “keeper” of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation (NAM). The closest thing is probably The Wildlife Society, which defines NAM as “a set of principles that, collectively applied, has led to the form, function, and successes of wildlife conservation and management in the United States and Canada.”

Depending on who you talk to, NAM is either an historical account of how wildlife has been conserved in North America, a prescriptive model for how wildlife should be conserved in the future, or both.

The problem is that NAM falls short as either. It is both an incomplete framing of history which downplays the contributions of non-hunters and glosses over conservation failures, and an inadequate set of guidelines for preserving species and ecosystems in the face of the current mass extinction crisis. Nonetheless, it has been widely embraced within the hunting and traditional wildlife management communities.

Origins

NAM emerged at a time when efforts to equate hunting with conservation were gaining momentum in the mid-1990s in response to mounting challenges to the status quo in wildlife management. The number of hunters was declining, relative to the general population. Litigation by wildlife advocacy groups to protect species under the federal Endangered Species Act was on the rise. State wildlife managers viewed these lawsuits as a threat to their management authority.

This was about the time that the Ukrainian-born Canadian wildlife biologist (and hunter) Valerius Geist, at the University of Calgary, along with co-authors (also hunters) Shane Mahoney of the Newfoundland and Labrador Wildlife Division and John Organ with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, came up with the idea of NAM. As they described it in a 2001 article entitled “Why hunting has defined the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation,” recreational hunters in the U.S. and Canada (but not Mexico) were the ones who rescued wildlife from extinction, built the system of wildlife management we have today, and continue to make the most significant contributions to conservation. By implication, they suggested that the interests of hunters should be prioritized over those of other stakeholders.

Components

There are various versions of NAM circulating, but most articulations describe its foundational components (variously also known as “tenets,” “pillars,” “sisters,” etc.) in the following terms:

  1. Wildlife as public trust resources
  2. Elimination of markets for wildlife
  3. Allocation of wildlife by law
  4. Wildlife can only be killed for a legitimate purpose
  5. Wildlife are considered an international resource
  6. Science is the proper tool for discharge of wildlife policy
  7. Democracy of hunting

A more expansive (and grammatically correct) interpretation of these as prescriptive guidelines might be as follows:

  1. Wildlife has value to all people, should be conserved through public ownership, with government acting as the trustee of the resource.
  2. The commercialized use of wildlife should be prohibited.
  3. Permission to take wildlife for consumption should be granted according to regulations, established with public input, that apply equally to everyone.
  4. (This subjective principle is usually interpreted by NAM proponents to mean that wildlife can be killed for meat, fur, self-defense, and property protection, but not for solely for antlers, horns, feathers or fun.)
  5. Wildlife that cross national boundaries should be managed cooperatively.
  6. Science should be the determining factor in allocating uses of wildlife.
  7. All citizens should have the right and opportunity to hunt.

Problems with NAM

As a description of the history of wildlife conservation in the U.S. and Canada, NAM contains some elements of truth but is far from complete. It is true that recreational hunters such as Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot were leading advocates for game laws that resulted in the prevention of some game species from going extinct, such as bighorn sheep, pronghorn and bison (barely). And recreational hunters have financially supported efforts to restore game species through their purchase of hunting licenses. But NAM proponents tend to overstate those recovery successes. For example, while deer and elk populations have rebounded in many places, bighorn sheep have recovered to only about five percent of their mid-19th century numbers, while pronghorn are at about two percent and wild bison less than one percent.

NAM proponents also tend to ignore the model’s notable failures, such as the widespread eradication and continued hostility of many hunters and wildlife managers towards carnivores such as wolves. And they ignore the model’s failure to stop the ongoing decline of many species that are not hunted but ecologically important, such as bats, insect pollinators and prairie dogs.

Finally, it ignores the contribution of non-hunters (and non-whites and women) to wildlife conservation. Examples include: the women-led Audubon Society, influential non-hunters such as John Muir and Rachel Carson, and the environmental movement of the 1970s that led to passage of the Endangered Species Act.

NAM is also inadequate as a set of ethical guidelines for how to save wildlife today, for several reasons. First, it is grounded in the logical fallacy that because hunting played such an important role in conservation in the past, it should continue to do so today, even though the world has changed dramatically over the past century. Ecological understanding has progressed, public attitudes have evolved, and the number of hunters is declining. Secondly, it prioritizes consumptive uses and users over other ways of valuing wildlife. Four of the seven tenets address hunting. The model is silent on the intrinsic value of wildlife, the ecological role of species, non-consumptive uses such as wildlife watching, and traditional indigenous views of animals as “people.” Finally, it fails to recognize that the interests of hunters are often at odds with conservation, as discussed elsewhere.

While some of the tenets are reasonable in as far as they go, in general they are vague and inconsistently applied. For example, although the first NAM principle asserts that wildlife is a public trust that should be managed and protected for all, NAM proponents do not believe that some members of the public should have equal, or any, consideration in trust decisions. For example, they view the idea that animals have rights as a threat:

“Persons who accept an animal-rights world view categorically reject the concept of ownership of animals, rendering the central legal principles of the Public Trust Doctrine irrelevant.” –Organ, J.F. et al 2012. The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation. Technical Review. The Wildlife Society.

The principle that wildlife should only be killed for legitimate purposes sounds good, but begs the question of who decides what is legitimate? The groups and agencies that promote NAM are the same entities that generally approve of wildlife killing contests, trophy hunts, trapping and other activities that a majority of the public finds illegitimate.

The prohibition on the commercialization of wildlife is inconsistent with the many ways, also generally accepted by NAM proponents, in which wildlife is commercialized today, such as commercial fisheries, trapping for fur, for-profit outfitting and guiding businesses, private land tags that are sold on the secondary market, etc.

The dictum that science is the proper tool for the discharge of wildlife policy ignores the fact that most wildlife decisions include a value component. While science can inform decisions, it is incapable of telling managers what they ought to do when faced with competing values.

NAM as Ideology

Whatever its shortcomings as history or ethics, NAM has proven very useful as propaganda. It is widely used by federal and state wildlife managers, hunting groups and wildlife management schools to fuel the narrative that hunting is indispensable to conservation and to preserve the status quo in wildlife management.

NAM’s “founder” Valerius Geist has described the model as:

“…probably the greatest environmental achievement of the 20th century…[and] may be one of the greatest achievements of North American culture.” –The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation. 2006. In D.M. Lavigne (ed.) Gaining Ground: In Pursuit of Ecological Sustainability

(He has also said this about wolves, revealing a bias baked into NAM against carnivores: “I am here to tell you why the wolf does not belong in settled landscapes. Wolves do unbelievable damage to wildlife, they do great damage to agriculture, they pose a real threat to public health and safety, and they kill humans under now well-known circumstances.” –Big Game Forever Banquet and Wolf Symposium 2018)

Others have been equally effusive:

American sportsmen and sportswomen are the backbone of the North American model of wildlife conservation that is admired around the world.U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

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.Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies

The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation is the world’s most successful.Arizona Game and Fish Department

The Model is second to none and is the most democratic and sustainable system the world has ever seen.Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation

One biologist has said these collective promotional efforts:

“…represent perhaps the most widely disseminated, unified, and concerted messaging ever undertaken to convey a specific and narrow aspect of wildlife conservation in North America.” –Serfass, T. et al. 2018. North American Model of Wildlife Conservation: Empowerment and Exclusivity Hinder Advances in Wildlife Conservation. Canadian Wildlife Biology and Management

In summary, while there are some elements of truth to NAM as an historical description of wildlife conservation in the U.S. and Canada, it is ultimately an incomplete framing of history that serves to justify and perpetuate a system of wildlife management that privileges game hunting and hunters, administered by state agencies that are funded in large part by hunters, resulting in the marginalization and exclusion of other stakeholders and legitimate public interests in wildlife.

Wildlife advocates are encouraged to call for replacing the outdated and self-serving NAM with the public trust doctrine as a more robust, democratic and forward looking framework for saving wildlife and habitats.