Conservation Unraveling:
Three Threats to Wildlife

By Valerius Geist

We worry today about what free trade with the United States might do to our environment. And rightly so. However, we must not lower our guard and lose sight of joint achievements from the past that currently are being eroded. One of these is North America’s system of nature and wildlife conservation. We all have taken it so much for granted that even most wildlife managers do not know how and why it operates, while some are innocently or blindly contributing to its demise. In fact, the framework that supports our conservation efforts has grown very sick from neglect through ignorance. Should we fail to rally, we may have to fight all over again the bitter battles of 80 years ago, with wildlife taking a terrible beating.

On the face of it, wildlife conservation is a healthy thriving enterprise. The success of North American wildlife conservation is staggering, and the self-congratulatory notes struck up by the National Wildlife Federation on its 50 anniversary this year are fully justified. However, we take our way of operating so much for granted that we have long forgotten why we do things as we do, why we are successful, and how we differ in our approach from other systems of wildlife management and nature conservation.

Like any illness that creeps into a healthy body, the cancers we must deal with have deep roots and have had time to get well established. To grasp the illness I must go first to the forgotten policies on which our way of conserving and managing stand – policies we have failed to teach wildlife managers and the public alike. If I had my way, every school child would learn them as part of our history, a part to be truly proud of.

North America’s success in wildlife conservation is based on three primary policies. These mighty pillars support the superstructure of laws, regulation, beliefs, and attitudes. The are:

(1) The absence of a market in the meat, parts and products of vulnerable species of wildlife (and plants). This is the most important pillar. It was established some 70 years ago after grim, bloody battles on behalf of wildlife.

(2) The allocation of the material benefits of wildlife by law, instead of by the marketplace, birthright, land ownership, or social position. It is a complementary policy arising from the first, which automatically places wildlife into the public domain, making the state the owner, guardian and manager of wildlife resources. This vital policy, which made every citizen a “shareholder” in wildlife, insured broad interest at the local level in wildlife and its conservation. It generated both the public sympathy for protecting or fostering various species, and the political clout on behalf of wildlife that is virtually uniquely North American;

(3) The view that wildlife is a food resource to be cropped annually for subsistence purposes, making wildlife management a form of food production. This idea generated a broad public consensus for the active management of wildlife and its harvest, by hunters and nonhunters alike.

Today these three pillars are severely weakened, so much so that actual collapse is possible within a generation.

The first policy is being eroded by the most shortsighted of efforts to “game ranch” wildlife so that venison can be sold in retail outlets, while velvet antlers, sex organs, glands, and sundry parts of game animals can be sold in a lucrative Oriental market for folk medicine.

The second policy is eroded by hunting leases, shooting reserves, private trophy fees, trespass fees, and game management “Texas style”, all of which involve the selling of access to hunting.

The third policy is eroded by the notion that hunting is killing for “sport” or “fun,” and is, therefore, frivolous blood-sport, and that wildlife is primarily a “recreational,” and not a food resource.

Let me in turn deal with these three issues.

“Game ranching” is being advertised as a most efficient, superior means of raising superior meat. Even more tempting are Oriental markets in various wildlife parts, such as the velvet antlers, tails and sex organs of wapiti, the gall bladders of bears, as well as bear paws, claws and teeth. “Bear ranches” are being contemplated. Market hunting of caribou is being promoted in Quebec and Labrador, so as not to “waste” the George River herd, now 400,000 strong. Game ranching interests today insist that their desire is strictly to raise deer in close confinement, but a few years ago they argued differently. They wanted to make “marginal” land productive, and to give “land to the landless;” that is, they had their eyes on Crown land and the alienation of it from the public, just as was done in New Zealand which expropriated deer from public in favour of private users and disallowed the public access to large tracts of public land.

Game ranching and market hunting of ungulates, however, is not compatible with predators. New Zealand has no deer predators! Neither does Argentina or Scotland. Germany, where most of the landscape is managed akin to a game ranch, has eradicated predators, as have other European countries, in order to protect moose, red deer or reindeer. Venison markets supplied by Quebec and Labrador caribou, will lead ultimately to “caribou ranching” from Gander to Old Crow, and the extirpation of barren-ground grizzlies, black bears, wolves, wolverines, and even eagles and ravens, much as in Finland today.

Most insidious is the need by potential game ranchers and market hunters (who commercially hunt natural populations of wildlife) for a market in venison and in wildlife parts. When meat of wildlife is openly marketed, when various parts of deer and bears fetch high prices, when retail outlets multiply, and when an infrastructure of producers, buyers, inspectors, and consumers develop, it attracts a multitude of criminals. Historically, this has happened everywhere, and protecting wildlife against illegal killing and marketing requires rigorous policing activity. Very few Americans remember that during the heyday of market hunting, when wildlife was rapidly being decimated, the United States Cavalry was called upon to protect Yellowstone and other national parks. We owe the U.S. Army a continent-wide vote of gratitude for their sterling efforts on behalf of wildlife, for they stood on guard for it in Yellowstone from 1886 to 1918. They only left after venison markets were outlawed.

The West Germans are even more Draconian. They make every lessee or owner of a hunting territory a deputized policeman with a right, in law, to shoot to kill in cases of justifiable doubt. There are 65,000 of such armed wildlife protectors for 85,000 square miles of land (divided into 40,000 hunting territories, according to 1985 data). Moreover, any of the remaining 190,000 of West Germany’s tested, registered hunters can be so deputized by any of the 65,000 primary deputies. There are also about 1,000 professional hunters employed full time to manage and protect hunting leases of wealthy lessees, while on state land foresters are charged with the duty of wildlife protection. The foresters and professional hunters not only carry rifles, but are usually accompanied by dogs. Like any registered hunter they may carry hand guns concealed on their body. Together with stiff food-protection laws, an army of food inspectors with police powers to control the flow of wildlife to the retail market, and stiff gun-control laws, the Germans have succeeded in keeping a market in venison with poaching kept to a minimum.

How many game wardens guard the wildlife in your province? In my home, Alberta, we have 115 unarmed wardens for 258,275 square miles of land.

The New Zealanders did not even wait for poaching to begin. Together with the 1977 Wild Animal Control Act, they passed legislation giving their state foresters new police powers that exceeded those of New Zealand’s regular police forces.

All this means that if a venison market becomes established in North America, the life of our deer – no matter where – is not worth a plugged nickel. How stocks of public and private wildlife can coexist in the presence of a lucrative market in venison or, worse still, in antlers, glands and sundry parts, is hard to imagine. One thing however, is clear – it is only possible with severe and expensive police powers.

If you think that a market in wildlife venison is a distant threat, you err. The remorseless agitation of game ranching interests working on uninformed, well-meaning civil servants and politicians has gone a long way. Not only is there officially sanctioned, funded research into game ranching in Canada, via the National Science and Engineering Research Council, not only have agricultural ministries sneaked in and begun elbowing wildlife interests aside, not only are there on this continent organizations in support of game ranching, not only are there “experimental game ranches,” but in Alberta a wildlife act (Bill 85, Chap. W.91 of the Statutes of Alberta) was passed in 1984, laying the basis for an open market in venison and wildlife parts. In Manitoba, even without such legislation, more than 100 applications for game ranching are pending. The Manitoba minister responsible for wildlife, Leonard Harapak, is facing a grassroots rebellion against game ranching in his very own riding! There, in the town of Swan River, nonhunters, hunters, businessmen, farmers, doctors, teachers, housewives – in short, a broad cross section of society – have united into an “Amalgamated Anti-Elk Ranching Group,” have pooled financial resources and have gone after game ranching. In southern Alberta a similar citizen coalition is being formed.

The Canadian situation is grim! Behind the back of the voters, having convinced conservation groups with seemingly reasonable arguments, game-ranching interests have endorsed game ranching in a document signed in 1980 by all provincial and federal ministers responsible for wildlife. It is called “Guidelines for Wildlife Policy in Canada.” The Canadian Wildlife Federation (CWF) endorsed wildlife ranching, but to its credit its provincial branches in Alberta and Manitoba reversed their position as the consequences of game ranching sank in. Now the CWF itself is reviewing the whole matter. Some of the most determined support for game ranching comes from unexpected quarters: wildlife biologists and professional wildlife managers. I know. I was one of them!

In the 1960s I fell for game ranching, and it took me eight years to recognize its damaging consequences. With Dr. F. Walther, then of Texas A&M University, I organized a large conference in 1971 which dealt in significant part with game ranching. It attracted more than 250 big-game biologists, as well as game ranchers from Texas, South Africa and Rhodesia. Even then it took a year or two before I realized how unacceptable the consequences of game ranching were. I regret that I failed to speak out against it then, before matters reached the stage they have now.

We need a continent-wide reaffirmation that there will be no markets in venison and wildlife parts. It will not be easy, for “creeping marketeering” has infiltrated many U.S. states and several Canadian provinces, and illegal markets (such as restaurants) in urban centres show the public that wildlife is available without the effort of hunting it. Professional gangs are already “deantlering” Yellowstone Park elk and killing park grizzlies for paws, claws and gall bladders. The casualties of markets in venison and in parts of wildlife will be large carnivores, vulnerable species on public land, the security of our conservation officers, and the traditional attitude of the public that wildlife is not so many dollars on the hoof or wing.

Nearly as vicious as the consequences of venison markets are the long-term consequences of lease hunting and paid hunting to our system of wildlife conservation.

This is what history teaches about the consequences of lease hunting. Very slowly, paid hunting concentrates access to wildlife in favour of a smaller and smaller segment of increasingly affluent and politically powerful people. These now use wildlife as a symbol of their social status. This excludes an ever larger segment of the general public from benefiting directly from wildlife. In rural areas, it brings about resentment and envy directed against the privileged land owners; in urban areas it creates a sentiment against hunting fuelled by questionable “sporting” activities of the privileged few. And it redirects sentiments for wildlife conservation into the hands of “romantics.” In the long run it alienates the public slowly but surely from wildlife altogether, since wildlife becomes a symbol of detested privilege and power. This has, historically, led to certain consequences.

First of all, significant segments of the public are not happy with that curtailment and illegally enter on the path of wildlife acquisition. They poach, less for gain than for spiting the privileged and for the thrills involved. Poaching now, however, has the support of the public! Now poachers are local folk heroes, Robin Hood style! Landowners, jealous of their valuable wildlife and privilege, respond, usually with Draconian measures. They protect their land and wildlife with force of arms. Inevitably, it does lead to bloodshed. In the long run, an alienated public, unpracticed in regarding wildlife as theirs to cherish, use and protect, exterminates it the moment the powers of the owners slackens. Unless strenuous efforts somehow restore effective protection, the country remains depopulated of wildlife, with citizens killing it competitively, devoid of conservation considerations.

The above story is recorded in history again and again. It has happened so often that “normally” wildlife exists solely for the enjoyment of the privileged few. It has happened in Europe, in Asia, and it is happening today in the southwest of the U.S., in Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico. The remorseless grinding of events have gone a long way to make wildlife in vast stretches of North America the de facto property of a few, of the very powerful. Not only wildlife conservation stands to lose dearly from the current drift of events, so do all the many industries that support so many jobs is not mentioned by promoters of venison markets.

The third threat to wildlife conservation arises from the notion of sport hunting. That hunting is “sport” is a medieval European idea, although similar views existed in all civilizations where hunting rights were restricted to the ruling minority. Originally, sport hunting has none of the notions of “honourable” and “fair” conduct we associate with it today. Medieval nobility were not “sportsmen” in our sense. They practiced very little ‘sportsmen-like’ restraint with the wildlife they so brutally perused and slaughtered for pleasure. Unfortunately, the notion of hunting as “sport” spread because the poorer classes tend to imitate the rich and powerful, no matter how unworthy the values. The idea of honorable conduct towards wildlife, the idea of noble, self-imposed restraint, the very idea of “sportsmanship” is of fairly recent vintage, but also of upper class origin.

To the public, however, sport hunting means killing for the pleasure of killing, not hunting in order to feed a family. Subsistence hunting the public accepts; it also accepts agriculture’s arguments that it fulfills the “noble role” of food production, and excuses the ecological havoc raised by modern agriculture. By insisting that hunting is a “noble” form of “recreation,” a “sport,” the old North American idea that hunting is food harvesting is losing ground. Hunting for fun offends the Protestant work ethic; killing a deer for the family table does not.

However, sport hunting does worse things than create a lease hunting market and trespass fees. It alienates broad segments of an urban, wildlife loving public from good wildlife management and wildlife conservation. Killing beautiful creatures just for the fun of it and flaunting trophies as some sort of a sporting achievement will of course generate revulsions in people that like wild thing. It creates the passionate “antis,” and the conservation “romantics” who see no place for wildlife at all on the dinner table. Many of these people have not experienced personally the process of food production that feeds them, and have suppressed successfully in their heads the realization that humans, in order to live, must kill. They have suppressed the recognition that every potato chip they munch is a dead slice of a once living organism, that granola bars are the crushed children of beautiful plants, that the raw cabbage they eat was a living, breathing organism.

The conservation romantic who would rather eat beef or who has turned vegetarian, in reality, denies deer – and all things wild and beautiful that go with deer – a place to live. There is no vacuum on land! Unless there is local political support for deer and deer habitat, forestry, agriculture, mining, transportation, and urban sprawl take over and destroy wildlife habitat. When cattle replace deer, the coyote and black bear that preyed on deer fawns no longer fail to attract attention when killing calves. The conservation romantic is happy that deer are alive and well if some survive in a national park; a hunter conservationist is livid if he does not have deer close by, and has lots of them. That is a very crucial difference!

The strength of North America's system of wildlife conservation, that we all enjoy, was built and is still maintained by the efforts of local conservationists with a real, very personal stake in wildlife – namely a part of the wildlife harvest. It gives him a stake in wild lands and he is more likely then not to assume the role of a concerned guardian. Deny the harvest, and the hunter conservationist loses interest or turns into the romantic conservationist – and wildlife is the loser. No matter how much he denies it, the romantic conservationist stands ultimately for brutalized landscapes and wildlife depleted and squeezed into tiny, protected enclaves overrun by people – our national parks. That’s the long-term cost of making a “sport” of hunting and of restricting public access to the harvest of wildlife for food.

We have to get back to wildlife as food and wildlife management as food production for the benefit of all, and to forget the statistics of “recreation days” and other detractors from the worth of wildlife. I sympathize with those who ask themselves, must we kill wild things? No, we must not, but the options are to hand over the land to degradation by agriculture, forestry, urban sprawl, etc.; while wildlife, abandoned by the public, becomes a ward of wealthy land owners and exclusive users, or a ward of agriculture to be raised and bred into grotesque forms while predators are eradicated, the public loses interest. The North American system of conservation, based on the politically active “small shareholder” is virtually unique and is a proven success.

Markets in venison and wildlife parts, lease hunting and trespass fees, hunting for frivolous fun – these are three grim horsemen of destruction riding down on the best system of wildlife and nature conservation devised to date: the North American system. We’d better be prepared to meet them!

Dr. Valerius Geist is a professor in the Faculty of Environmental Design at the University of Calgary.

Related Topics: Hunters’ RightsHuntingIllegal Wildlife TradeWildlifeWildlife/Commercial UseWildlife EcologyWildlife HabitatWildlife HuntingWildlife Trade