North American Model of Wildlife Conservation

As early settlers made their way West, North America’s wildlife populations dwindled from overhunting and habitat loss. Many species – elk, pronghorn, bison and waterfowl included – went from countless numbers to just a few thousand at the close of the 19th century.

Beginning in the late 1800s, hunters and anglers such as Teddy Roosevelt realized they needed to set limits in order to protect rapidly disappearing wildlife, and assume responsibility for managing wild country. They pushed for hunting regulations and established conservation groups to protect habitat.

Their efforts are the backbone of the North American Wildlife Conservation Model, the only one of its kind in the world. The model’s two basic principles—that our fish and wildlife belong to all North American citizens, and are to be managed in such a way that their populations will be sustained forever—are explained through a set of guidelines, which having been refined and modified over time, may best be remembered as the Seven Sisters for Conservation:

1. The Public Trust Doctrine. An 1842 U.S. Supreme Court opinion, in Martin v. Waddell, established the legal precedent that it was the government’s responsibility to hold wild nature in trust for all citizens. The next three pillars reflect this fundamental doctrine.

2. Democratic Rule of Law. Wildlife is allocated for use by citizens through laws. This protects against the rise of elites who would appropriate wildlife to themselves (as occurred in Europe). All citizens can participate, if necessary through the courts, in developing systems of wildlife conservation and use.

3. Opportunity for All. In Canada and the United States, every man and woman has a fair and equitable opportunity under the law to participate in hunting and fishing. No one group, hunters or nonhunters, can legally exclude others from access to fame within the limitations of private property rights.

4. Commercial Use. Hunters and anglers led the effort to eliminate markets and commercial traffic in dead animal parts, which was a huge business in the latter half of the 1800s and the early 1900s. The market killing of birds and animals decimated many species and brought some to near extinction or extinction.

5. Legitimate Use. Although laws could govern access to wildlife and ensure that all citizens had a say in its protection, there had to be guidelines as to appropriate use. This is defined as killing for food or fur, self-defense, and property protection, categories that are broadly interpreted.

6. Science and Wildlife Policy. Interest in science and natural history was deeply ingrained in North American society, a fact reflected  in the emphasis placed on recording wildlife habits and diversity by almost every major expedition charged with mapping the continent, along with the enormous popularity of amateur natural history collections. Hunters and anglers are, by habit and inclination, naturalists. Science is identified as a crucial requirement of wildlife management. For this Aldo Leopold, in his 1930 American Game Policy, credited Theodore Roosevelt, explicitly stating that science should be the underpinning of wildlife policies.

7. International Wildlife Migratory Resources. The boundaries of states and nations are of little relevance to migratory wildlife and fish, and policies and laws for wildlife conservation have to address this reality. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 is an excellent example of successful international cooperation.