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Sunday, August 04, 2013

Why Wildlife Thrives in America

by Steve Sorensen (Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, August 3, 2013.)

Passenger pigeon… gone. Billions once darkened the sky. A person has to wonder how they found enough food, and how they kept from turning the nation into a reeking pigeon coop.

American bison… almost gone. These enormous bovines thundered across America from the eastern woodlands to the Great Plains, but as man pushed westward they were slaughtered almost to extinction.

People think hunters are the 
biggest threat to wildlife, but 
nothing could be further from the truth.

Unregulated hunters are correctly blamed for the demise of the passenger pigeon and the near demise of the American bison. Unregulated hunting has caused the extinction of a few species, but we can be thankful that the North American model of wildlife conservation has replaced unregulated hunting.

Many people think hunters are the biggest threat to wildlife, and voices who opposed hunting stopped the slaughter. Nothing could be further from the truth. It was modern hunters themselves who organized to protect wildlife, and ended the indiscriminate killing of wildlife. Since then, not a single species has been threatened by regulated hunting, and hunters have proven themselves the greatest conservationists the world has ever seen. The proof is that every hunted species in North America is thriving.

That might seem counter-intuitive, but we have abundant wildlife today because of the North American model of wildlife conservation. What’s that? And why is it so effective? Good questions. It’s remarkable that while the nation fought a Civil War, reconstructed the South, settled a continent from shore to shore, and industrialized a rapidly growing society, it also developed a policy that provided for wildlife conservation in the midst of all that – a policy the world had never before seen.

The North American model of wildlife conservation rested (and still rests) on two key principles:  
1.  fish and wildlife are for the non-commercial use of ordinary people, and  
2.  game animal populations should be managed in order to sustain optimum levels forever.

These principles are new with the New World. In the Old World, wildlife had been the property of the landed gentry, and they could do what they pleased with the animals that lived on their land. That’s why, in the Old World, hunting was primarily a pursuit of the wealthy classes.

In America, no societal barrier exists that prevents anyone of any class or race from hunting. But if everyone is free to hunt, how are hunters prevented from killing everything? And how can the second principle – sustaining wildlife at optimum levels – be possible?

For one thing, the idea that fish and wildlife are for the non-commercial use of people put an end to market hunting. If these principles had been firmly in place in the late 1800s, regulated seasons, bag limits, and hunting methods would have kept the passenger pigeon thriving.

These principles came along just in time for the American bison, putting that national icon off limits to hunters while their herds rebuilt. 

For another, the North American system clearly differentiates between hunters and poachers. It made game laws possible and desirable, so any violation – whether bag limits, hunting without a license, or hunting out of season – carries an enforceable penalty. Hunters are a healthy and necessary part of this system. Poachers are outside the system just as surely as bank robbers are outside the banking system.

Another benefit of the North American model is that it has given hunters a high stake in wildlife management decisions. Measured by the money hunters put into wildlife conservation, as well as their time and energy and knowledge of wildlife, no one else cares about wildlife as much as hunters do.

On a once wild continent man has now tamed, no other system will let so many people enjoy so much wildlife – whether that enjoyment is the harvesting of game animals, or the pure pleasure of simply watching wildlife.

Out of the two principles of wildlife conservation have come seven specific tenets by which wildlife is managed across the United States and Canada. They’re often called the “Seven Sisters” of conservation. Next time, I’ll share them and explain what each of them addresses.


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