The Why of the Way

Maybe the North American Model isn’t perfect. It’s just better than any other system in the known universe

By Rob Breeding

It’s not always clear to folks why we manage wildlife the way we do in the West. The basic framework is defined by something known as the North American Model. It’s both unique to our part of the world, and wildly successful. Here’s why.

First the unique part. The North American Model works so well in the West due to a confluence of factors unique to place. We’ve got abundant public land that is great habitat for wildlife. We also have a large population of human hunters, and an even larger population of non-hunters who support hunting. There’s a symbiosis here: lots of public land and game means lots of hunters.

Try hunting in Europe, where game is owned as private property and there’s just a fraction of the public land we enjoy in the states. The folks supporting the transfer of federal lands to the states really need to get out more, especially when you consider the long history of states transferring land to private ownership.

Public lands are an essential component of hunting.

But why the success? For starters we have the aforementioned set of conditions: land, game, people. These are just the necessities for successful wildlife management: The right conditions aren’t enough to ensure success. This is where the North American Model comes in. At least since the early 20th century and the development of modern hunting ethics, hunters have been conservationists first, users second.

I’ve always enjoyed reporting how in the early 20th century elk were reintroduced to parts of the West where they had been eliminated in the market-hunting era of the century before. For market hunters game was a commodity. Elk were killed to feed railroad camps, miners and other folk working the land.

This hunting went completely unregulated and resulted in the extermination of some subspecies such as the Merriam’s elk of the Southwest.

The restoration movement was the result of hunters working with state wildlife managers in the nascent stages of wildlife conservation in this country. The contribution of hunters was both selfish and selfless. Sure, they wanted game to hunt, but were also motivated by the understanding all hunters share that the absence of game leaves wild places incalculably less magnificent. It’s not just a matter of being able to march out and kill something that motivates us. It’s also the understanding that when game is absent there is a void that diminishes even the grandeur of Western landscapes.

There are a few basic tenets of the North American Model: science-based management of wildlife; wildlife held as a public resource managed in trust for all, yet owned by none; and fair chase standards for hunting.

Also, there is the funding model. Hunters and anglers contribute directly to wildlife management through excise taxes on firearms and fishing equipment, and in paying fees for licenses and tags. As do all other citizens, hunters also pay taxes to fund federal land management agencies and contribute to private wildlife conservation organizations such as the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and Ducks Unlimited.

It’s the dollars hunters and anglers pay because of the Pittman-Robertson and Dingell-Johnson acts, along with licenses, which are the game changers. Because of this legislation wildlife management has a direct source of funding that operates outside the normal budgetary channels of government.

Legislators would love to get their claws into wildlife and the funding hunters provide, but the law works to protect these funds. We’ve all seen fish and game commissions make bad decisions so it’s not news that the system isn’t perfect. But imagine an alternate universe, where the same dudes who foisted Montana Power deregulation on its unsuspecting citizens were in charge of wildlife management.

Maybe the North American Model isn’t perfect. It’s just better than any other system in the known universe.