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Natural Resources Board learns about public trust
For wildlife conservation
Dr. John Organ
Dr. John Organ

WISCONSIN - In what was, perhaps, the most interesting part of their Wednesday, Dec. 14 meeting, the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board (NRB) heard an educational presentation entitled ‘The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation Introduction and Origins.’

The presenter was John Organ, of the United States Geological Survey (USGS) Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Units Program, and member of the Massachusetts Fisheries and Wildlife Board. Dr. John Organ is a Scientist Emeritus with the U.S. Geological Survey.

From 2014 to 2019 he was Chief of the USGS Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Units Program. Prior to that he was Chief of Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration for the northeast region of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a cooperative program between the Service and State fish and wildlife agencies.

His research efforts focus on wildlife conservation issues that involve multiple agencies and stakeholders in achieving solutions to conservation challenges

The information presented by Organ will be useful to the state’s natural resources policy setting body generally, and specifically in light of the controversy surrounding the state’s Wolf Management Plan.

“The North American model is unique, but it is not prescriptive,” Organ explained. “The term ‘model’ is really intended to mean ‘example.’”

Organ explained that as wildlife conservation emerged in North America, a distinct form developed. He said that the seven components, tenets or principles of the model are not necessarily unique to North America, but their collective association is.

“The purpose of the model is not to outline every conservation strategy and approach,” Organ explained. “The purpose is to highlight those legal and policy underpinnings that collectively make North American conservation unique.”

Model’s precepts

The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation’ precepts (a command or principle intended especially as a general rule of action) include:

• wildlife has value when it is alive

• uncontrolled use leading to decline and extinction is unacceptable

• wildlife is a public resource which governments conserve for current and future generations

• wildlife can be perpetuated with sustainable use.

Organ described the principles of ‘sustainable use’ of wildlife. He said that the use must serve a practical purpose, the species or population must not be threatened or endangered by the use, and methods of take of wildlife must be considered to be acceptable.

Conservation principles

The seven principles of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation include:

• wildlife is a resource that is part of the resources held in public trust

• elimination of markets for game, songbirds and shorebirds

• allocation of wildlife by law

• wildlife can only be killed for a legitimate purpose

• wildlife is considered to be an international resource

• science is the proper tool for discharge of wildlife policy

• democracy of hunting.

Public Trust origins

Organ explained to NRB members in detail the origin of the Public Trust Doctrine that is common in the United States. Ultimately, he says the doctrine has roots in Ancient Greek Natural Law, Roman law from the second century A.D., the English Magna Carta signed in 1215, and in a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1842.

In English Common Law, there were special kinds of property that were held by the King for the benefit of his subjects. These properties were owned by the King, but not exclusively for his use. Rather, the King was a trustee, owning property for someone else, and this was a special responsibility of his station.

Organ said that the Romans did not define a trustee like this. He said that this also differed historically in different countries. So, for example, in Spain and Mexico, a territorial governor and not the King was the trustee.

“In English colonies in North America, English Common Law was the law of the land,” Organ said. “However, after the Revolutionary War, when the colonies achieved independence from Britain, there was no longer a King to function as trustee.”

Confusion about how or if this role was to be discharged in a nation without a King, as in the United States, was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1842.

In the case ‘Martin v. Waddell,’ the court decided that trustee status properly belongs to the states. The legal principle that influenced the ruling is that “powers assumed by states are subject only to the rights surrendered by the Constitution to the general government.”

Inclusion of wildlife as a resource held in the public trust is also enshrined in the U.S. Constitution in the Commerce, Property and Supremacy clauses.  It was also reinforced in a subsequent case heard by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1896 – Geer v. Connecticut, which further supported the notion of the states as ‘wildlife trustees.’

Organ says that today, the authority to administer the trustee role for wildlife conservation is delegated to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and to state fish and wildlife agencies.

In Wisconsin, public trust is set forth in Wisconsin Statutes Chapter 29, Section 29.011. It states that “legal title to, and custody and protection of, all wild animals is vested in the state for regulating enjoyment, use, disposition and conservation. The legal title to any wild animal…remains in the state.”

The foundation

This Public Trust Doctrine is, according to Organ, the foundation of the ‘North American Model of Wildlife Conservation.’

Under this doctrine, resources held in the public trust are considered to be ‘property’ in case law, and they must be held available for general public use. Organ explained that traditional uses for wildlife resources held in the public trust are for recreation or as a fishery, and natural uses are often specific to the resource in question.

Organ said that what is needed to solidify the public trust are:

• concept of a public legal right

• that it be enforceable against the government

• that it be consistent with contemporary concerns.

Organ said that solidifying the Public Trust Doctrine necessitates the government’s general obligation to act in the public interest versus its greater obligation as a trustee. He poses the question, “does the Public Trust Doctrine equate to a judicially enforceable right?”

Elimination of markets

Organ said that the elimination of markets for game, songbirds and shorebirds, which is a principle of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, has its origins in the theory of the ‘commons.’ He said that woven into that is the fact that rapid declines in populations of wildlife are seen when a value is placed on dead wildlife, versus on living wildlife.

Allocation by law

Organ said that this principle is rooted in the idea that surplus wildlife are not allocated by market, birth right, land ownership or special privilege. He said that public input into allocation provides the opportunity for all citizens to be involved in wildlife management and secures the trust for future generations.

A legitimate purpose

Under the North American Model for Wildlife Conservation, laws define the acceptable purposes for the taking of wildlife. Organ said that the ‘Sportsman’s Code’ mandates use of the resource without waste for food, fur, self-defense and protection of property.

International resource

Recognizing wildlife as an international resource acknowledges that wildlife transcend national boundaries, and that one nation’s management can affect the other’s resources.

Science as proper tool

The notion that science is the proper tool for discharge of wildlife policy is rooted in the ‘Roosevelt Doctrine’ (Theodore Roosevelt), and in the writings of Aldo Leopold.

The ‘Roosevelt Doctrine’ recognized ‘outdoor resources’ as ‘one integral whole.’ The doctrine defines ‘conservation through wise use’ as a public responsibility, with ownership of the resource residing in the public trust. The doctrine states that science is the proper tool for the discharge of the public responsibility.

The notion that science is the proper tool for discharging the responsibility of holding wildlife in the public trust is rooted in the Prussian Forestry System, where a professional society establishes standards and university academics provide training. Through this means, government experts determine what is in the best interest of upholding the public trust.

Democracy of hunting

The principle of ‘the democracy of hunting’ establishes that the general public has the right to hunt regardless of land ownership, birthright or special privilege. Hunters are expected to abide by societal rules governing use of the resource, for example laws and regulations.

In North America, according to Organ, there is broad interest in maintaining wildlife, and all citizens are stakeholders.

Issues threatening the democracy of hunting include reduced access to land, increase in fee-based hunting, and shrinking societal support.

In summary

In summary, Organ said that the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation is a compilation of core principles and policies that together distinguish how wildlife conservation is discharged in North America.

“The focus moving forward should be to determine what further legal underpinnings are needed to meet emerging conservation challenges,” Organ said.