The NM Game Commission, like most state wildlife commissions, has been dominated by hunters and livestock interests. Photo Joe Newman.

Trapped in the Past:

The states are failing our wildlife when we need them the most

State wildlife management is in crisis.

Wildlife agencies in almost every state face shrinking budgets, a public that is fed up with decisions that ignore science and majority opinion, limited authority to protect their state’s biodiversity, and internal resistance to change.

This was a serious problem before the election, but is especially urgent now. The days when the federal government could be counted upon to protect our nation’s most vulnerable wildlife may be coming to an end

With Republicans gaining control of the White House and Congress, the only thing standing between a repeal of the nation’s most effective bulwark against extinction—the federal Endangered Species Act--is a filibuster by Senate Democrats.

An outright attempt to overturn the popular law is unlikely to succeed, but opponents have other ways of gutting it. We can expect to see a deluge of legislative “riders” attached to unrelated bills that exempt particular species from the law’s protections or weaken its core provisions. Under a Trump administration, many of these will probably be signed into law.

Working at the state level makes sense for wildlife advocates. The states, not the federal government, have primary jurisdiction over most wildlife within their borders.

Federal authority is limited mostly to species protected under the ESA, as well as migratory birds, marine mammals, eagles, and species traded among states and internationally. (The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that federal agencies such as the Forest Service have extensive power to manage wildlife on lands they manage, but this power has seldom been exercised.)

The states have sovereign authority to manage, in trust for the benefit of their residents, all of the other types of wildlife found within their borders.

An iron triangle

Wildlife policies and institutions in most states still reflect the historical dominance of “consumptive users” (i.e. hunters, anglers, and trappers) and agricultural interests. Management tends to focus on producing as many game animals as possible, such as deer and trout, while reducing the numbers of predators such as wolves and cougars, which are seen as competition for game animals and a threat to livestock. Wildlife managers generally ignore science and public opinion when either conflict with these goals.

Most Americans do not hunt or fish. Only about 6 percent of Americans hunt, according to a 2011 national survey. Far more people enjoy wildlife for other reasons, such as wildlife watching and intrinsic value. Why, then, do hunters and anglers continue to enjoy a disproportionate influence over state wildlife decision-making?

A big reason is money. The main source of income for most state agencies is the sale of hunting and fishing licenses, along with federal excise taxes on guns, ammunition, archery equipment, fishing tackle, and motorboat fuel. This promotes an agency culture in which consumptive users are viewed as the most important “customers.”

It has also helped create an iron triangle of interests that benefits legislators, agencies, and their primary constituents--hunters and livestock producers--but not necessarily wildlife or the general public. Agencies promote policies that maximize hunter success and keep agricultural producers happy. Lawmakers are content because they don’t have to allocate scarce tax dollars for wildlife management. Satisfied hunters and anglers continue to buy licenses that generate revenue for the agencies, and so the cycle continues. 

Pressure to change

This status quo is increasingly untenable, however. For one thing, the budgets of wildlife agencies are shrinking as the number of hunters and anglers declines relative to the general population.

Secondly, the widening gap between wildlife policies and public attitudes calls into question the legitimacy of state wildlife institutions. To cite just one example, most people are appalled by wildlife killing contests, yet these remain legal in every state. (California’s Fish and Game Commission banned the awarding of prizes, but not the contests themselves.)

Finally, the lack of a broad mandate in state laws to protect all species, and the exclusion of the non-hunting public from decision making are at odds with the states’ responsibilities under the public trust doctrine to preserve wildlife for all their residents, including those yet to be born.  

Needed reforms

In almost every state, the solutions are the same but won’t be easy. Additional funding sources need to be developed so that the burden of funding wildlife conservation falls on everyone. Institutions need to be democratized and insulated from undue political influence, so that decision-making is responsive and accountable to the general public. Finally, a mandate to protect all wildlife species, not just game animals, needs to be incorporated into state wildlife laws.