A rather startling headline made its way around the internet last week regarding a staggering drop of almost 70 percent of all wildlife species worldwide over the past 50 years. Far beyond clickbait, the story detailed results of the Living Planet Report, an annual survey conducted by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Zoological Society of London, which showed declines on all major continents in the populations of wildlife since 1970. In the graphs contained within the report, it showed decreases of over 90 percent in Latin America and the Caribbean, 66 percent in Africa, and 55 percent in the Asia-Pacific region. North America exhibited a similar drop of 20 percent in its wildlife populations in that five-decade span.
However, the one line that stood out from the others was that graph for North America. While it too declined over the past 50 years, the notable change was in the last five. There was an evident upturn of about five percent in the past several data points of the survey, indicating that population losses of wildlife species throughout the continent weren’t as bad as elsewhere in the world, and the gradient was not nearly as steep during the last half century.
To be certain, even the loss of a fifth of the birds, mammals, insects, fish, and other species on our continent is a tragedy. We’ve witnessed some of these firsthand in the declining populations of songbirds at an alarming rate, including the North Dakota state bird, the western meadowlark, by more than 75 percent in that time. Just recently, drops in the Alaskan snow crab populations from an estimated 8 billion in 2018 to just 1 billion this year have shuttered that harvesting season for the first time in its history. Both on the long-term and short-term scale these should be considered travesties, and points of serious concern. However, in the data for North America included in the annual survey, there is reason for optimism and a possible solution for conservation problems elsewhere in the world.
Unlike most of the other countries that make up the survey, the United States and Canada, which comprise the bulk of the continent, are host to a unique conservation model that is powered by hunters and anglers. The North American Conservation Model is exceptional when compared to the rest of the world, where in many cases wildlife, hunting and angling are privatized and pay-to-play pastimes. Here, however, more than a century ago, when wildlife declines were as steep and severe across North America as what the Living Planet Report details today elsewhere, sportsmen and government worked together to pass legislation to protect hunting and fishing opportunities, and detail perpetual funding for them generated primarily through excise taxes on hunter and angler expenditures that would flow back from the federal government to the various states and further support the North American Conservation Model.
The seven basic tenets of the North American Conservation Model are:
– Wildlife is a Perpetual and Public Trust Resource. The federal and state governments are charged with protecting and managing wildlife for future generations.
– Commerce of Wildlife is Prohibited. The sale of illegally taken wildlife is prohibited, and the Lacey Act of 1900 has mandated this for over 120 years.
– The Rule of Law Prevails. Regulations developed by the federal and state governments will guide the proper use of wildlife-related resources, prevent exploitation, and protect species.
– Hunting and Fishing are Public Opportunities. Unlike many other countries, all citizens of the U.S. and Canada can hunt and fish, most waters are considered public, and many such hunting areas are available too.
– Harvesting of Fish and Game Must be for a Legitimate Purpose. Wanton waste of game and harvest solely for horns or feathers is prohibited. The legal taking of game for food, fur or in rare instances of self-defense are allowed.
– Wildlife are considered an International Resource. Due to the migratory nature of certain birds, such as the ongoing fall waterfowl migration, and the easy crossing of both state and federal boundaries by species such as catfish and lake sturgeon down the Red River into Canada from the U. S., fish and game are treated as an international resource.
– Wildlife Populations are Managed through Science. Only through surveys, studies, and the scientific analysis of trends involving fish, game and other wildlife can populations of species be sustained and managed for future generations.
In conjunction with that model, hunters and anglers took it upon themselves – and their own pocketbooks – to reverse the sharp declines of wildlife, fish and huntable game 85 years ago. Through the Pittman-Robertson Act in 1937 and the Dingell-Johnson Act in 1950, excise taxes on firearms, ammunition and other hunting-related goods, and fishing tackle, equipment and boating gear, respectively, went into funds to help improve hunting and angling opportunities, each paying out billions since their inception to improve habitat, increase access, and buttress the seven pillars of the North American Conservation Model in the U. S. These efforts came about through an impressive organization of hunters and anglers coming out of the depression era when the need for conservation practices was most evident.
Additionally, other acts since that time have helped with conservation of wildlife and access to it, including the Land and Water Conservation Fund which utilized funds generated by leases on offshore gas and oil drilling to acquire and improve access to public lands and waters. These funds, totaling more than $900 million each year, were further preserved through the Great American Outdoors Act which was signed into law in 2020. Currently sitting before the senate and awaiting a final vote is the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, which would provide funding and technical assistance to the states to help protect threatened and endangered species, and prevent further listings, through grants for more and better habitat for those species of wildlife most in need. While even this brief detailing of the important foundation that has helped limit the downturn in wildlife and biodiversity is long, it is important to the future of hunting, and providing an example to the rest of the world as to the most successful conservation of wildlife, based on the results of the Living Planet Report. Those efforts undertaken in the last century in the U. S. should not be taken for granted, either.
There are forces at work that would undo more than a century of conservation, including more than 50 ill-informed co-sponsors of the so-called “RETURN” Act which would eliminate the Pittman-Robertson dollars – which again, sportsmen voluntarily lobbied and pushed for eight decades ago. Such legislation would start an erosion of conservation precedent when it comes to hunting and fishing in the U. S., with both being activities protected, preserved, and advocated for by the sporting public.
To keep the trendlines of wildlife loss in North America from a steeper downward gradient – or to even reverse them in what is certainly a time of conservation crisis elsewhere in the world – will once again come down to hunters and anglers and the model we have set for the globe to follow. This means knowing what we have stood for, what has made our model successful, and the sacrifices and science required to make it work in a new century. Most importantly, it will require us protecting it with our voices resonating from Washington D.C., to the various state capitals, down to the most favorite little corners of conservation where we love to hunt and fish…in our outdoors.