The World's Best Model for Wildlife

By Dale Humburg

A century after the nation’s first conservation summit, today’s natural resource leaders are exploring ways to strengthen North America’s unique wildlife conservation model.

How would Theodore Roosevelt judge our conservation progress, hunting ethic, and use of natural resources today, a century after the 1908 Conference of Governors? In his opening address, “Conservation as a National Duty,” President Roosevelt spoke to governors, policymakers, scientists, and industrialists as he framed the challenge:

“Recently I declared there is no other question now before the nation of equal gravity with the question of the conservation of our natural resources, and I added that it is the plain duty of us who, for the moment, are responsible to take inventory of the natural resources which have been handed down to us, to forecast the needs of the future, and so handle the great sources of our prosperity as not to destroy in advance all hope of the prosperity of our descendants.”

Over the last century, there has been an emerging recognition that the themes of the 1908 conference and our conservation efforts since then represent a unique framework—a model—for natural resource management. The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation is predicated on principles of public “ownership” of wildlife resources and management to sustain their long-term welfare. The North American Model reflects a collective response to the unsustainable use of wildlife and other natural resources during the 1800s, the awakening of a conservation ethic, and a gradual emergence through the 20th century of public support and professional wildlife management.

Although forest conservation was emphasized in 1908, many resource issues such as wetlands conservation have yet to be adequately addressed 100 years later. For example, the impact of what was termed “wetland reclamation” was not understood a century ago—and still may not be widely recognized today as issues of flooding, water quality, and water supplies remain. George Pardee, former governor of California, cited events from 1904 still familiar in 2008:

“Both above and below Sacramento city and on the San Joaquin at and above its mouth, there is a stretch of very fertile land, about 1,500,000 acres in extent, about one-fourth of which has been reclaimed. Owing, however, to the partial choking of the bed of Sacramento river, these reclaimed lands are in annual danger of flooding. A levee-break four years ago caused damage to the extent of over $1,000,000. Plans are being considered for the combined action of the United States, the State and the landowners to avert this annual flood-danger.”

In many respects, the challenges to conservation of forests, wildlife, water, and soil at the turn of the 21st century remain the same—only exaggerated due to growing populations and demands for resources. In 2005, 83 percent of the U.S. population lived in metro areas, explaining, in part, the trend away from nature-based recreation of almost all types. Richard Louv, in his recent book Last Child in the Woods, called this “nature deficit syndrome.” President Roosevelt saw the same change in national awareness at the turn of the 20th century:

“He lives in big cities. He deals in industries that do not bring him in close touch with nature. He does not realize the demands he is making upon nature. For instance, he finds, as he has found before in many parts of this country, that it is cheaper to build his house of concrete than of wood, learning in this way only that he has allowed the woods to become exhausted.”

Our commitment to the outdoors through hunting is central to the success of the North American Model.  It is an important part of our conservation heritage and an essential ingredient for success in the future. For many, it is essential for quality of life as noted at the 1908 conference by William Black, president of Missouri Valley College:

“So far, the argument is utilitarian. But hunting and fishing are our finest forms of recreation, and thousands of lives are bettered by the open air, the change of scene, the mental excitement, and the good fellowship of hunting and fishing. Does not our President enjoy the chase, and did not Mr. Cleveland angle with delight? . . . It will be a sad day when men can neither hunt nor fish.”

In this regard, it is important to remind ourselves of how unique the North American Model is compared with the European system of private control of wildlife and comparatively limited access to hunting. In North America, access to hunting and fishing opportunity is commonplace. And in turn, hunters and anglers provide support through excise taxes on sporting goods and by purchasing licenses and stamps. Further support is through membership in organizations such as Ducks Unlimited, which has conserved more than 12 million acres over 71 years. Other organizations like the Boone and Crockett Club (established in 1887), Trout Unlimited (1959), National Wild Turkey Federation (1973), Pheasants Forever (1982), Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (1984), and many more represent a diverse and essential basis for perpetuating the North American Model.

Through the Sporting Conservation Council (which advises the Secretary of the Interior on hunting and conservation issues) and with a range of other conservation partners, Ducks Unlimited has been involved in helping prepare for a White House conference this fall prompted by President Bush’s executive order in August 2007. The North American Wildlife Policy Conference will set the stage, a century after the 1908 Conference of Governors, for ensuring that the North American Model is maintained and strengthened.

Diverse talents, bipartisan support, and lasting commitment will be essential for this to occur. Patience, tenacity, and commitment were evident for most of the century before the 1908 conference in the investigations of John James Audubon, the writings of Henry David Thoreau, the foresight of George Perkins Marsh, the determination of Gifford Pinchot, the intellect and influence of George Bird Grinnell, the competing views of John Muir, and, of course, the leadership of Theodore Roosevelt.

One wonders if Roosevelt would have stood by today and relied on small increments of conservation progress in the midst of substantially greater resource demand. Or, would he have thrown a political wrench in the legislative gears and prompted sufficient dialogue and discussion to result in action? Hopefully, as a result of this fall’s conference, we will learn from the past, take action today, and set the stage for the future of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation.

Dale Humburg is chief biologist at DU’s national headquarters in Memphis.