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Ballot Initiatives Are Hurting Wildlife
Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Those of us who care about the conservation of wildlife can no longer afford to ignore the challenges voter ballot initiatives are exerting on the decision-making authority of federal and state wildlife agencies and legislators. The Boone and Crockett Club believes some of these ballot initiatives actually harm wildlife populations, as they place at risk the most successful system of wildlife conservation in the world that is directly responsible for the abundant and thriving wildlife populations everyone values.

The history of American conservation rose out of crisis after the Era of Extermination and began with the acknowledgment that a new human-natural resource relationship was needed. By the end of the 1800s, a few concerned citizens, mostly sportsmen, began to organize. One group that was formed was the Boone and Crockett Club, founded by Theodore Roosevelt in 1887. Roosevelt and the members of this new coalition of sportsmen promoted a new concept they called conservation and defined it as, "wise and prudent use without waste."

For more than a century, sportsmen have worked alongside government agencies and scientific groups to establish the principles and mechanisms of conservation. This system was entirely new and built from the ground up to include laws, legislation, and the regulated use of wildlife through public hunting that were in line with wildlife recovery and sustainability. The science of wildlife management was added to direct critical decision-making. Expert agencies with trained wildlife professionals were also needed to oversee and manage our wildlife, which remains a public trust resource.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service emerged, as did state fish and wildlife agencies. These agencies of government were entrusted to use the best science to manage our wildlife resources and regulate their use. The results were the greatest reversal of fortune man has done for the natural world. Wildlife, many species of which were teetering on the brink of extinction, recovered to robust populations even in the midst of rapid habitat loss to human development.

Wildlife management--maintaining sustainable populations within the capacity of available habitats and to levels people will tolerate--is normally handled as an expert process administered by wildlife professionals. Scientists provide technical understanding, data, expert judgment and predictions of the outcomes for alternative scenarios. Citizens contribute their values, interests, and preferences in informal settings and through administrative channels. Wildlife biologists and managers then strive to make sensible decisions based on some acceptable--though changing--combination of science, economic feasibility, and social/political acceptability.

Some people who have emotional qualms about wildlife being managed, relocated, trapped or hunted under these programs are increasingly attempting to use the ballot process to stop these activities. By taking decision-making power out of the hands of professional wildlife managers, well-meaning voters often produce unintended results that do not benefit wildlife or people.

Making decisions that truly benefit wildlife requires knowledge of science, ecosystems, historical context and public policy. Voters rarely get the accurate information they need, and instead, are swayed by emotional arguments and sound-bite science. Consequently, it is common for voters to vote on initiatives that are based on emotion and easily package into a campaign but--in practice--are counterproductive, reactionary measures that ultimately block the conservation of wildlife. Ballot initiatives are inherently easily abused, creating an avenue for strategic manipulation by groups looking to promulgate their agenda through uninformed voters.

A good example is an initiative on the November ballot in the Club's home state of Montana. Voters are being asked to decide to prohibit all trapping on public land, which represents nearly 40 percent of Montana's total area. Those promoting I-177 are telling voters that Montana's hunting tradition calls for "Fair Chase" and respect for animals, something the Club is very familiar with because it established this code of ethical hunter conduct and has promoted it for the past 129 years. The voter's pamphlet goes on to read that, "trapping has no fair chase" and therefore is an activity that should be banned. Trapping is not hunting. The motivations, purpose, and benefits of trapping are different, as are its principles, laws, and ethics. This language in the pamphlet is misleading and confuses voters by trading on Montana's broad public support for fair-chase hunting.

Many ballot initiatives also ignore the ecological realities of wildlife management. Wildlife managers seek to strike a balanced ecosystem, which includes keeping animal populations within the carrying capacity of a given area. Uninformed voters do not understand the intricacies of managing an ecosystem and only see an opportunity for more animals, which they see as a positive. In reality, an overabundance of animals in a given area is more destructive than too few.

With the belief that wildlife would be better off left to fend for itself and the goal of ending the public use of wildlife or its management by government agencies, some animal-rights and anti-hunting groups are setting emotional traps for the public. Many of these organizations are nothing more than political machines that raise and spend their significant budgets on time-consuming litigation and political action, not on actual animal welfare. They have directly or indirectly taken on the task of undermining many constructive and useful wildlife management programs, especially those that involve hunting. Whether deliberately or through ignorance, these groups distort the intent and objectives of wildlife management and discredit the accomplishments of the conservation movement.

A significant portion of the funds used by agencies to conserve wildlife is derived from hunters. Ballot initiatives that ban hunting or a form of hunting, or other method of population management will not save animals from the certainty of death but will remove a substantial amount of the funds for managing wildlife and habitat. Wildlife managers will still be required to keep wildlife populations within the limits of their habitats and at socially acceptable levels--it will just be with smaller budgets and through other lethal means.

The ability for people to hunt, fish and trap, if they choose, creates an advocacy state for wildlife from those who enjoy these activities. Hunters, anglers, and trappers benefit from healthy wildlife populations and habitats, and work to maintain the status of each. In addition, these people are consistently in the outdoors and provide valuable observation-based input to wildlife managers. A resource people can use is a valued resource, which is conservation at its core. Besides these contributions to conservation, these activities also satisfy basic human needs such as procuring healthy food, sharing this food and an outdoor tradition with family and friends, and active participation in the natural world, which humans are a part of.

Ballot initiatives--not because wildlife populations are being threatened, but because some people do not like seeing wildlife managed, used, trapped or hunted--threaten to unravel more than a century of successful conservation. The science of wildlife management administered by our expert agencies has a proven, successful track record. Rather than blocking proven wildlife management programs through ballot initiatives, organizations and citizens concerned with the welfare of wildlife should focus their efforts on funding habitat conservation and educational/outreach activities that enhance wildlife conservation.

About the Boone and Crockett Club

Founded by Theodore Roosevelt in 1887, the Boone and Crockett Club promotes guardianship and visionary management of big game and associated wildlife in North America. The Club maintains the highest standards of fair chase sportsmanship and habitat stewardship. Member accomplishments include enlarging and protecting Yellowstone and establishing Glacier and Denali national parks, founding the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service and National Wildlife Refuge System, fostering the Pittman-Robertson and Lacey Acts, creating the Federal Duck Stamp program, and developing the cornerstones of modern game laws. The Boone and Crockett Club is headquartered in Missoula, Montana.

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