North American Wildlife Conservation: The Original Public-Private Partnership

The views presented in these blogs are those of the authors.

I recently attended the 100th North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference in Omaha. Colloquially known as “the North American,” the conference is one of if not the largest annual gathering of fish and wildlife management agencies and conservation organizations. Having been engaged professionally in conservation over two decades, I am keenly aware of the overwhelming importance of private landowners to wildlife conservation in the United States. I was thus somewhat amazed that my organization, Partners for Conservation, was one of the few, if not the only, private landowner-led organization in attendance.

Why would that be a surprise? Perhaps I should back up a moment and briefly touch on the legal framework and history of wildlife conservation in this country. The bedrock of wildlife conservation in the United States is known as the public trust doctrine. This doctrine, which applies to a number of natural resources, recognizes wildlife as a public resource that is owned by the public and managed by different levels of government (state and federal in this case, depending on the species) for the benefit of the public. The Public Trust doctrine and other principles of wildlife conservation in our country have been further described as the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation. The seven principles identified in this model seek to describe how wildlife has been managed since the nation’s founding. It is a descriptive, retrospective model of principles that have been consistent since the 19th century, but the model itself was only formally articulated during the last 25 years. The key principles are:

  1. Wildlife as Public Trust Resources
  2. Elimination of Markets for Game
  3. Allocation of Wildlife by Law
  4. Wildlife Should Only be Killed for a Legitimate Purpose
  5. Wildlife is Considered an International Resource
  6. Science is the Proper Tool for Discharge of Wildlife Policy
  7. Democracy of Hunting

The key point missing from the model, as well from participation in the recent conference, is the formal recognition that wildlife conservation is the original public-private partnership. Nearly all wildlife species are dependent upon habitat that is owned and managed by private landowners in working landscapes across the country. The daily management decisions of thousands of landowners have always and will continue to largely determine the future for wildlife in the United States, even though state and federal agencies are formally responsible for managing wildlife for the benefit of the public. It has been this way since the first wildlife conservation laws were passed and regulations enacted.

The private part of this equation is becoming even more important as the demands on our working landscapes continue to grow. Concerns related to the sustainability of wildlife habitat on private lands have largely replaced overharvest, wildlife disease, and commercialization as critical concerns for sustaining wildlife populations presently and into the foreseeable future. Regulations to “stop stuff” have historically been part of wildlife species recovery and have often been the first or only choice of agencies tasked with conserving wildlife. However, many of the issues faced by wildlife conservationists today cannot be addressed by regulations- they require active outreach and engagement leading to positive, affirmative actions by willing landowners (i.e., voluntary conservation).

To be sure, many if not most conservation agencies and nonprofit organizations recognize this connection. A number have very extensive landowner outreach programs that provide technical and/or financial assistance to landowners with a wildlife conservation interest. However, many efforts lack the level of engagement with private landowners necessary to ensure success. Many private lands programs, policies, and initiatives requiring active participation by private landowners are designed in a vacuum with little input from the intended audiences. This can lead to programs and efforts with little or no participation, or worse yet, strong participation but little progress towards programmatic goals. Engagement of private landowner partners--early, often, and with a real interest in information as opposed to confirmation --has never been more critical.

Having spent most of my career seeking to engage landowners in wildlife conservation efforts on behalf of agencies and nonprofit organizations, I firmly believe we can and must do better. Every landowner I’ve ever met bases land management and land use decisions on a combination of ecologic, economic, and social (family and community) concerns. The weighting of these concerns varies between landowners within the same landscape and often for an individual landowner over their lifetime. Public partners cannot hope to understand and leverage the dynamics of a place and the people within that place without open communication, productive relationships and eventually trust and understanding. These relationships are required for positive, affirmative things to happen at the necessary scale. This trust-building process is critically important but it takes time, effort, and commitment--all with no guarantee of success. And, like all productive relationships, it has to develop and move at the appropriate pace.

This can be a big pill to swallow if you are an agency administrator with a very specific and, at first glance, seemingly narrow mission. However, those individuals, agencies, and organizations that understand, embrace and incorporate into their programs the very real link between functional and sustainable working landscapes and sustainable wildlife populations have a much higher probability of success in delivering on the trust the public has placed in them.

Steve Jester is Executive Director of Partners for Conservation.