America has the largest hunting culture on the face of the Earth. According to recent surveys there are 16 million licensed hunters in the United States. This is not a complete number. In many states hunters above and below certain ages are not required to purchase annual licenses…and there are many people who are hunters, but don’t participate every year. The total number is elusive, but there may be 20 million Americans who, by culture and interest, consider themselves hunters.
Sportsmen on other continents—and millions of city-dwelling Americans—are often astonished by these numbers. No other hunting society in the world comes close. There are reasons for this. Part of it is our unique concept of wildlife management. Part, too, must be attributed directly to the whitetail deer.
In 1900, when most North American big-game populations were at their nadir, our whitetail deer population was estimated at about 500,000. While it’s true that virulent epidemics (primarily Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD); and Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease (EHD)) have knocked down our whitetail numbers in some areas, recent estimates have placed North American whitetail numbers as high as 38 million. This makes the whitetail the most numerous large ungulate (Editor’s note: roughly defined as hoofed mammal) in the world, avidly pursued by 10 million American hunters. These hunters have important friends, too, in both the agricultural community and the insurance industry. Crop losses to wildlife depredation and damage from vehicle-animal collisions both run into the billions annually, with the latter the greatest road hazard on the continent.
Let’s get back to those 10 million deer hunters. Also by survey, the vast majority of American hunters never leave their home states to hunt. So most hunters pursue game that is available close to home. This varies. Throughout the East the whitetail is the most available game species. This certainly applies in Pennsylvania, with more than 600,000 orange-clad hunters taking to the woods in deer season. In my native state of Kansas deer were declared extinct in the 1920s. Sound management brought them back, with more than 180,000 deer licenses now sold annually. Even so, by hunter participation upland birds are more important. In California, the feral hog is the most important big-game animal, surpassing deer in hunter participation.
Now, let’s get back to those 38 million whitetails, many more than are believed to exist when the pilgrims landed. How, exactly, did we arrive at such plenty? To some extent we were lucky. The whitetail deer thrives on the edges, in and around the mosaic between agriculture and cover. With its crafty ways the whitetail is amazingly tolerant of man, and also very adaptable, occupying north to south a huge range from the Amazon Basin to Canada’s treeline; east to west, from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Whitetails are found in all U.S. states except Alaska, California, Hawaii, and Nevada; all Canadian provinces except Newfoundland; and all Mexican states.
Although the whitetail is our most numerous big-game animal, it isn’t just the whitetail that has prospered in the last century. During our settlement era virtually all of our native large animal populations were nearly wiped out. Hunting for food and market was unregulated, and the common belief was that wildlife needed to be eradicated in the name of progress. By 1900 extinction loomed for many species. We are fortunate that the conservation movement began when it did, led by Theodore Roosevelt and some of his friends when they formed the Boone and Crockett Club in 1888. On this continent no large mammal species were actually lost, although several races became extinct: Audubon’s bighorn, Merriam’s elk, and the eastern races of elk and bison. Lost, too, were the passenger pigeon and the heath hen. All else was saved. Pronghorn and bison recovered from what seemed certain extinction. Elk have recovered into the millions. Black bear now occupy all their historic range. The wild turkey is a success story rivaling the whitetail, not only occupying all former range, but introduced into and thriving in many areas that were never historic turkey range. The list goes on, but now let’s turn to exactly how this miracle was wrought.
THE NORTH AMERICAN MODEL
The way wildlife is managed in Canada and the United States is different from the way it’s done elsewhere in the world. Mexico is a bit behind—the Mexican revolution didn’t end until about 1922—but they’re catching up fast. We call our system the “North American Model of Wildlife Management.” It has created the plentitude of wildlife we enjoy today, and also the largest hunting culture on Earth. As we will see, that culture is essential for North American wildlife.
It is usually stated that the North American Model is based on seven key principles or tenets. The most common interpretation is given by The Wildlife Society of wildlife professionals.
Wildlife is a public trust resource. This is the lynchpin: According to our system, all wildlife belongs to all of us, with our governments charged as the stewards. Legally, it stems from an 1842 U.S. Supreme Court decision about rights to a fishery.
Elimination of markets for game. Because of what happened to the passenger pigeon, the bison, and so many species, we no longer sell wild game on this continent. If you see bison, venison, or “wild” fowl on a menu you can assume it was farm-raised for the table.
Wildlife is allocated by law. Game laws have generally evolved as the jurisdiction of states and provinces. This makes sense because conditions in New Brunswick are much different from Nevada. However, federal governments retain jurisdiction in issues such as endangered species and interstate issues such as migratory birds.
Wildlife should only be killed for legitimate purposes. For food and necessary management are good examples. However, the primary defining criteria of “legitimate purpose” is that there is a harvestable and sustainable surplus; and that hunting a given species in a given area is beneficial to the management of that species in that area.
Wildlife is an international resource. This is an extension of the first tenet, meaning that we consider all wildlife to be held in trust for all people. The basis comes initially from migratory bird treaties with Canada, and has extended to North American involvement in international initiatives.
Science is the proper tool for discharge of wildlife policies. Wildlife management is not perfect science, as it’s impossible to predict wildlife catastrophes such as drought, bad winters, or disease. Even so, science must be the tool for allowing harvests. A good example is that, in my youth, when deer populations were still recovering, it was almost unthinkable to harvest female deer. This stigma still persists among many older hunters. However, with many deer populations at or above carrying capacity science has long decreed that antlerless deer harvests are essential.
Democracy of hunting. Since wildlife is a publicly held resource, the privilege to hunt or fish is extended equally to all citizens in good standing. This probably seems at odds with private land use, and is indeed a dichotomy. Wildlife on private land is still a public trust resource; in North America wildlife on private land can only be legally hunted in accordance with all wildlife regulations. However, we also believe in the rights of landowners, so within those rules the landowner has the choice of whether or not to harvest wildlife…and whether or not to allow access.
On public land, which exists in the millions and millions of acres in both the United States and Canada, everyone is allowed equal access; in many cases hunting is simply a matter of obtaining a license. States and provinces, however, are allowed to establish different rules for residents and nonresidents; nonresident licenses may be higher in cost and fewer in number.
Nonresidents may also be required to hire a locally licensed guide or outfitter. Justified as a safety issue, this is seen in much of Canada, and is a partial rule in Alaska. Unguided nonresidents may hunt black bear, deer, caribou, moose, and small game in Alaska, but nonresidents must hunt with a licensed guide for brown/grizzly bear, mountain goat, and sheep. The mountain goat was a late addition to this list, added because too many mountain rescue operations were needed to pull out nonresident goat hunters!
A great example of the democracy of hunting in action is allocation of tags by drawing. Science-based management decrees that only a certain number of a given species should be harvested in a given area, traditionally managed by length of seasons, bag limits, what constitutes a “legal” animal, and harvest techniques. However, with some scarce resources a general season cannot be implemented, so limited permits are allocated by public lottery. Anyone can apply, but only a lucky few will win a permit.
HOW DOES IT ALL WORK?
There is another over-riding and all-pervasive principle that is not stated often enough. In North America, hunters and fishermen pay for wildlife management. This is true throughout most of the world that still retains viable wildlife to be managed, but done in different ways elsewhere. In North America this concept is codified into law. Theodore Roosevelt stated that hunters and fishermen should bear the brunt of funding wildlife management…and so it is today.
Initially we funded wildlife management through license fees, but in the early 20th Century, when wildlife was still recovering, this was not enough. In 1937 Franklin Roosevelt signed into law Federal Aid in Restoration of Wildlife. Known as the Pittman-Robertson Act, this law created a federal excise tax on firearms and ammunition. The Department of the Interior disburses these funds to the states for wildlife restoration and habitat improvement. Archery tackle was later included, and there is a separate excise tax on fishing tackle. By 2010 more than two billion dollars had been generated, and these taxes now raise hundreds of millions of dollars annually, legally earmarked for wildlife management.
Even this is not enough. Sportsmen and women contribute more hundreds of millions of dollars annually to private organizations such as Ducks Unlimited, National Wild Turkey Federation, Pheasants Forever, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Wild Sheep Foundation, and more…and to generally-focused organizations such as Boone and Crockett Club, Dallas Safari Club, Houston Safari Club, and Safari Club International…and to local organizations working on localized issues. You’ll find them in almost every state, primarily funded by sportsmen and women.
We as American hunters are among the most self-regulated special-interest groups in the world, not just willingly submitting to increased fees and more complex regulations, but in many cases actually proposing the rules that limit our activities. We are among the most generous, too, willingly supporting our wildlife so that it can be enjoyed equally by all: Bikers, campers, hikers, photographers, and all who enjoy our American wildlife.
We as hunters must understand that we bear the cost for our plentitude of wildlife so that all can enjoy it equally…including the anti-hunters who hate us. They’re outspoken, and probably cannot be dissuaded from their position. But there are millions of uncommitted, uninvolved non-hunters who don’t fully realize who is responsible for their ability to enjoy our wildlife. Non-hunters need to understand that we pay for all, and as they wrap their heads around this concept they need to consider the obvious corollary: There is no alternative funding!
So wildlife management in this country is tied irrevocably to a large and generous public of hunters and anglers, with no other option envisioned. The reverse is also true: The funding to manage our wildlife depends on healthy wildlife populations that allow a large hunting public. Our North American Model requires both: Hunters and wildlife. In the next issue of The Sear we’ll come back to our North American Model, but with a look toward how we’re doing.
About Craig Boddington
Craig Boddington is one of today’s most respected outdoor journalists. He spent the past forty years exploring our natural world as a hunter and sharing his knowledge and experiences in dozens of books and through thousands of published articles and essays. He’s a decorated Marine, an award-winning author, and continues to be a leading voice for conservation and ethical hunting around the world.