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The Problems of State Wildlife Management

The Elephant in the Living Room

No one wants to talk about the topic I raise here. It even sounds a bit wonky. But the long-term protection of our wildlife—including large carnivores—depends on reforming the institutions of state wildlife management. The fact is that delisting grizzly bears and wolves would not be such a serious issue in the Northern Rockies were it not for notoriously anti-carnivore states. 


Please note this section is NOT intended as a comment of the many dedicated individuals who work inside state government (themselves an endangered species), but rather the system of governance.


The states have long been at odds with the federal government over management of federally protected wildlife such as the grizzly bear. Since 1992, the states, led by Wyoming, have sought to return primary authority over managing grizzly bears from US Fish and Wildlife Service to the states. Thus grizzly bears have long been the center of a battle over who controls the resource.


Hunting grizzly bears was one of the factors that led to the listing of the grizzly bear under the Endangered Species Act. Hunting wildife lies at the core of the ethos of state wildlife management. If grizzly bears are delisted, the states of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming are committed to renewing grizzly bear sport hunting.


Management of wildlife by state agencies is almost wholly for the benefit of hunters and fishers, especially in the Northern Rockies. Hunters are a shrinking minority, not the majority of those who care about wildlife and places like Yellowstone. As the Tribes in the Northern Rockies are fond of saying, state wildlife management agencies represent a last bastion of the ethos of Manifest Destiny, which led to genocide and the destruction of ecosystems during the 1800s and early 1900s. (see GOAL website).


The primary and often stated goal of state management is to produce a “harvestable surplus” of hooved animals such as deer and elk for hunters to kill.  The primary ethos is one of domination, utilization, and objectification. Goals and problems are defined so that the solution is to kill something.  There is little or no room for valuation of animals or consideration of welfare and rights. Predators such as grizzly bears are considered to be competitors for opportunities to kill elk, deer, and other herbivores.  There is essentially little to no consideration given to other values, and virtually no credence is given to research showing the ecosystem benefits of healthy populations of large carnivores.


By design and by function, state wildlife management excludes people who care primarily about the welfare of grizzly bears and value them because they like to see bears in the wild.  These marginalized people constitute the majority in virtually all states where grizzly bears live, and this majority continues to increase every year.


The exclusionary nature of state wildlife management is sustained by culture, the makeup of governing commissions, and sources of revenue.  The vast majority of commissioners and agency personnel are self-described “avid hunters,” who tend to see wildlife in terms of opportunities to kill them for sport. This orientation, in turn, is economically sustained by the heavy reliance of state wildlife agencies on revenues generated from the sale of hunting licenses and from taxes on firearms and ammunition.


Hunter numbers continue to decline (as wildlife watchers increase) in the Northern Rockies. Some states with similar plights, such as Missouri and Minnesota, have responded by expanding the political and financial support base for wildlife. That has not occurred in the Northern Rockies, where radical right wing hunters continue to hold sway.


Key elements in state wildlife management reform include: 1. reforming finances; 2. better representation of diverse values among commissioners; and 3.changing the culture within the academic institutions that train wildlife managers.


This will only happen if a new constituency gets engaged.  

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