Wildlife Conservation

Does It Have a Heart?


Wasn’t it but a decade or so ago when words had generally accepted meanings when facts were facts? Now we have ‘alternative facts, and words with fuzzy definitions.  

Perhaps it is no coincidence that controversy and bemusement exist about the meaning of conservation as it pertains to wildlife management.  

Organizations struggle with a definition or avoid one entirely. Elephant hunters call themselves conservationists. Those who oppose trophy hunting and the frivolous killing of wildlife think of themselves as conservationists.  

How can killing a wild animal be called conservation? How is hunting conservation


image: courtesy of the National Park Service

Aside from arguing that fees and other expenses paid by those who kill wildlife somehow contribute to the furtherance of conservation efforts, what other justification can be offered? Aren’t we now in the era where wildlife is demonstrably worth more alive than dead?

While we all agree on the importance of habitat, ecosystem integrity, effects of climate change, and the like, what is missing in most definitions of wildlife conservation is any appreciation for the intrinsic value and worth of the life of individual animals.

In Nevada, we have a black bear hunt in the fall from mid-September to the end of November. After 80 years of not hunting bears, the Nevada Board of Wildlife Commissioners (NBWC) in 2010 caved to pressure from hunters and established a hunt.

Black bears live primarily on the Sierra Front along the Nevada/California border. The size of black bear population on the Nevada side is limited to a few hundred animals. 

NBWC claims Nevada’s bear population is functionally larger because California’s larger black bear population can, perhaps by osmosis, resupply our bear population if needed. However, adult black bears are territorial, have home ranges, and do not randomly wander across state lines. If removed from their home range, black bears make every effort to return.

There is no management issue to be resolved by our bear hunt…no need to kill bears to avoid ‘over-population’, to produce ‘fear of humans’…as is sometimes offered to defend hunting.

The season kill quota….20 bears…with limitations on number/age of females to be killed…speaks to the tiny ‘boutique’ nature of this hunt. The only justification for the bear hunt is to offer a handful of hunters, lucky enough to draw a tag, a chance to kill a bear. The sentient nature and value of the bear’s life goes unrecognized.  

Therein lies a rub

Bear hunting is trophy hunting for the most part. So is the hunting of mountain lions, grizzly bears, bighorn sheep, and even wolves. According to information obtained by the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (AFWA), the public thinks poorly of trophy hunting.  

Even more striking, a national survey of the public’s wildlife values conducted by AFWA, shows a substantial majority believes wildlife has sentient features.  

This comes as no surprise to anyone who has ever had a domestic pet (even a goldfish) but is bad news for fish and wildlife agencies. Proudly and resolutely, they stand behind the assertion that they only manage populations. 

Worrying about the worth and value of individual lives of large, scarce, charismatic omnivores and carnivores like wolves, bears, and mountain lions is, in their view, beyond their job description and, one suspects, well beyond their concern. 

A recent survey in Nevada regarding wildlife values found that 44% of respondents were Mutualists, defined as those who regard wildlife as an extension of their social network, compared to Traditionalists who regard wildlife as worthy of domination, a commodity or management opportunity for human benefit. Pluralists, representing about 20% of our citizenry, can be of either view, depending on circumstances. 

Given this large discrepancy between the agency’s view…it’s just a numbers game…and the public’s belief that (at least some) wildlife have sentient qualities…. what should the public expect from its fish and wildlife agency? Should the management agency recognize shifting public opinion and adjust where it can?

Is wildlife conservation just a matter of letting hunters skim off surplus animals without damaging the base population (e.g., deer hunting)? For wildlife species that live in a manner resembling a domestic livestock herd, (e.g., mule deer, elk, pronghorns), that management posture might be easier to defend.

image: courtesy of Project Coyote

What about species that are not herd animals, that live in a complex social (pack) structure, that have self-regulating reproductive capability, low reproductive rates, and a multi-year maturation process for the young (e.g.., bears, wolves, mountain lions, coyotes, and others)? Is their management just a numbers game as well? Shouldn’t the public demand a different style of management that recognizes the highly sentient nature of these species?

These days, it’s a hard sell to claim that killing an animal is conservation. Wildlife watchers dwarf hunters in numbers and economic benefit to the community, a gap that will further widen. While Cecil the Lion provided a trophy hunter a new rug or mount for which he paid some fees to the local economy, many years of wildlife viewing with Cecil, alive and well as a major draw, would have easily eclipsed what the hunter contributed. 

It’s beyond the scope of this discussion to suggest ways in which fish and wildlife agencies might adjust their management approach to account for the public’s belief in the sentient nature of wildlife. Should agencies find themselves devoid of ideas, others stand ready to offer suggestions based on current research as well as simple obvious suggestions long overlooked by the agencies.

image: Don Molde

What is clear is that the meaning of wildlife conservation can no longer be solely defined as a numbers game……managing for surplus animals.

I’m not sure about the best definition of wildlife conservation. Clearly, it will have complex, carefully crafted clauses, and qualifiers no matter which side drafts its version. 

Those who kill wildlife will tilt their language in the direction of economic benefit, carrying on a tradition, claims of management benefit, and Traditionalist values of utility.

Those with Mutualist/Pluralist leanings will counter with ecosystem importance, benefits to the human spirit, and the need for democratic management. They will also insist that no definition will be sufficient or complete unless and until the sentient nature of wildlife is recognized.

Fish and wildlife agencies do have a challenge ahead if they want greater public involvement and financial support for their important activities. There are many ways their management techniques could be improved.  It is a matter of attitude and commitment which recognizes the public’s growing recognition and appreciation of the sentient nature of wildlife.

Don Molde is a 50-year Reno resident, retired psychiatrist, co-founder of Nevada Wildlife Alliance, former board member of Defenders of Wildlife, and former board member of the Nevada Humane Society. He has been active in wildlife advocacy for 45 years. Support Don’s work here. 

The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of the Sierra Nevada Ally. Our newsroom remains entirely independent of our opinion page. Published opinions further public conversation to fulfill our civic responsibility to challenge authority, act independently of corporate or political influence, and invite dissent.

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