Less than a week after presiding over Florida’s mass slaughter of its iconic black bears, the Chairman of the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), Brian Yablonski, penned a press release that sung the praises of the hunters who had answered the State’s call to kill non-aggressive, gentle animals who had only recently been removed from the State’s list of threatened species. Entitled The Hunter Conservationist Paradox, Yablonski’s screed exhibited an arrogance reminiscent of George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech,1 which crowed prematurely about American victory in Iraq while completely ignoring the death, dismemberment, and displacement of countless (and uncounted) Iraqi civilians who posed no more danger to Americans than black bears minding their own business in the middle of the Ocala National Forest. With much of the state still reeling from a body blow to its sense of decency, love of wildlife, and belief in democracy, Yablonski sprinkled himself with the holy water of imagined approval from legendary figures like Theodore Roosevelt2 and John Muir, and asked Floridians, in a nauseatingly phony spirit of reconciliation, to recognize that hunters are in fact our country’s greatest conservationists. That’s right: after sponsoring barbarism on a scale many Floridians previously regarded as inconceivable, the government told us to be grateful to the killers.
In its own way, and partly for less obvious reasons that we are about to explore in some detail, Yablonski’s press release deserves even more opprobrium than the off-the-cuff remarks of his predecessor, Richard Corbett, to the effect that Floridians opposed to bear hunting were excessively attached to their teddy bears.3 One has to wonder, therefore, why Mr. Yablonski would fail to learn from that episode. Yablonski, let us not forget, is External Affairs Director for Gulf Power – a PR man, a professional propagandist for big business. While Corbett’s ill-advised remarks could be dismissed as the sort of incendiary spark that regularly flies off his fellow real-estate mogul, Donald Trump, Yablonski’s decision to publish such inflammatory words was calculated and intentional. He chose to apply the philosophy that the best defense is a strong offense and came out swinging, repeating the shopworn mantra that hunting is a time-honored component of responsible wildlife management and, critically, telling the agency’s core constituency and most cherished stakeholders that he had their back. The general in the plutocrats’ war on wildlife, knowing that he will need his troops again, boosted their morale in the most convincing way possible by sticking his own head above the parapet. For now, he believes that no volley from outside the cultural fortress of the FWC can touch him. He, like G.W. Bush before him, may turn out to be mistaken.
The Conservation of Mythology
The proposition that hunters contribute more, as a group, to our nation’s conservation efforts is an idea that genuinely deserves to be taken behind the woodshed and put out of its misery. Chairman Yablonski, ever the professional, is clever in not making too sweeping a numerical statement, but the implication is both pellucid and pernicious:
And it is these hunter conservationists who are underwriting and supporting politically a large part of wildlife conservation in Florida and the nation. Enjoying wildlife and its habitat is free to all, but the programs providing habitat conservation are not. Florida hunters specifically pay for managing wildlife through the licenses and permits they buy. For instance, all adult waterfowl hunters purchase a federal duck stamp. It’s a program the hunters helped create in the 1930s. Considered one of the best conservation tools ever, 98 percent of the duck stamp’s purchase price goes to acquire and protect wetland habitat not just in Florida, but throughout North America for migratory birds and other wildlife. Hikers, paddlers, campers and all who love wildlife benefit from the millions in conservation dollars generated by hunters….
Today, in the tradition of TR, many sportsmen and women contribute their time, money and effort to conservation organizations such as Ducks Unlimited, National Wild Turkey Federation, Quail Forever and others. These organizations are dedicated to on-the-ground projects and advocacy that benefits wildlife, including purchasing lands for a wide array of species beyond animals that are hunted.
So there you have it: those of us who enjoy wildlife without killing it are just a bunch of free-loaders. We should be grateful to hunters not just for being manly enough to shoulder the responsibility of managing our unruly wildlife but also for treating us to tickets into nature’s theme parks. And we are not going to be granted a seat at the grown-ups’ table as long as they do so much more than us.
This nasty little complex of myths has proven so enduring in American wildlife management that killing it requires the deployment of a large-caliber weapon. (We can use our hand guns on the corpse, just for fun, after the brute has been felled.) The question of who actually pays for conservation was the subject of a thorough study (link to pdf here) by Mark Smith and Donald Molde of Nevadans for Responsible Wildlife Management. The study, completed in 2014 but updated in 2015, concluded that “approximately 95% of federal, 88% of non-profit, and 94% of total funding for wildlife conservation and management come from the non-hunting public.” Because wild animals need habitat, Smith and Molde look at all the federal agencies involved in the management of public lands available to wildlife, as well as the large private land trusts. Federal activities are overwhelmingly supported by general revenue from personal and corporate income taxes, of which hunters pay only a small percentage, being a (declining) minority of the national population. While some of the non-profit land trusts are almost entirely hunter-supported (Ducks Unlimited, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation), most of the other large non-governmental (NGO) land trusts are not.
On the question of Duck Stamps specifically, Smith and Molde are actually more generous than some other observers. According to the federal government, only 1.9% (that’s one point nine) of the acreage in the National Wildlife Refuge System was purchased with revenue from Duck Stamps (90% of which are purchased by hunters). Everything else was paid for with general revenue, to which the hunter contribution is 4.6% (four point six). See Table 2, below. Chairman Yablonski’s more selective rendering reminds us of the saying that there’s lies, damn lies, and statistics.
Another source of “underwriting” often cited by hunters, though not by Chairman Yablonski in this particular piece of propaganda, is the excise tax on firearms and ammunition and similar taxes on fishing equipment and certain boating activities. The former are directed by the Pittman-Robertson Act (PRA) to be used by the USFWS for wildlife management, hunter management, and hunter education; the latter were directed to the same purposes by the Dingell-Johnston Act (DJA). Analysis of these revenue streams is complicated and requires certain assumptions, but it is clear that even here the bulk of the revenue comes from non-hunters. (For example, sales of most pistols and related ammunition are for those interested in self-defense and target practice.) Smith and Molde conclude that 14.5% of these funds come from hunters, a figure that they believe is probably too generous because much of the money is used for other purposes besides habitat management.
Smith and Molde did not examine state wildlife agency funding in the same detail, but report that these agencies typically receive about 70% of their revenue from federal transfers. This is the case in Nevada, the state with which they are most familiar, but that fact did not prevent the director of Nevada’s Department of Wildlife from claiming that 79% of the department’s operating budget came from “sportsmen.” The reality is that license and similar fees paid by hunters is nowhere near enough to pay for wildlife management; therefore, “state-level funding can reasonably be classified as hunting or sportsmen services rather than wildlife management.” (Florida’s budget can be seen here. Very large amounts are obviously federal money, but the complete federal/state breakdown is, conveniently, omitted.)
The influence that hunters enjoy over wildlife-management decisions is based on a lie. Since non-hunters are the real supporters of conservation, it is long past time for them to have not just a seat at the table, but most of the seats. And, it turns out, those seats rightfully belong to the public no matter how the agencies are funded.
Getting out of NAM, Part I : Violating the Public Trust Doctrine
Most states pay lip service to the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation (hereinafter referred to as the NAMWC or simply the NAM). The NAMWC is widely credited with conserving wildlife, and hunting opportunities, far more successfully than in most other countries. However, its seven tenets are often ignored in practice, raising concerns that the model may be broken beyond repair and in need of replacement. In Florida’s case, the FWC’s statement of the NAM’s principles goes so far as to replace one of them with something else more consistent with its hunter-centric philosophy:
Hunters and anglers fund conservation, including protections for wildlife species that are not harvested and their habitats, by purchasing hunting and fishing licenses and paying excise taxes on recreational equipment.
This is not one of the seven tenets of the NAM! The FWC’s manufactured language strikes out the principle of Non-Frivolous Use, under which wildlife may only be killed for a legitimate purpose. Presumably, the FWC has non-frivolous reasons for distorting the NAM in order to repeat its lies. And, indeed, we see those reasons manifest themselves in the FWC’s modification of the most basic tenet of the NAMWC; namely, the Public Trust Doctrine. Although mostly correct in its introductory statement that “fish and wildlife are held in common ownership by the states [emphasis added; see later] for the benefit of all people,” the FWC adds a peculiar qualifier in its own, special version of the seven tenets: “The public has input into how these resources are allocated.” Members of the public who attended the Commission’s public meetings in 2015, or who submitted comments to the FWC (75% of which opposed the bear hunt), have a keen understanding for how much that “input” is worth.
According to the Boone and Crockett Club (which was founded by Theodore Roosevelt, counted Aldo Leopold as a member, and was extremely influential in the development of the NAMWC), the Public Trust Doctrine is “the pillar of North American conservation.” The Doctrine, affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1842 and subsequently, states that wildlife can not be owned by anyone, even if it lives on private land. Instead, wildlife belongs to the public and is held in trust for the people by government. This reference to “government” means federal and state government, not just Florida’s Confederate-style reference to “the states,” which is yet another back-handed way of diminishing the voice of the American public as a whole. All American taxpayers have an interest in preserving species that happen to live only in Florida’s unique ecosystems. The implications of the Doctrine, in conjunction with the reality of who pays for wildlife management and conservation, are profound indeed.
In concluding their paper on conservation funding, Smith and Molde cite a 1980 paper by F.E. Smith (unavailable online) that fleshes out the meaning of the Public Trust Doctrine, and add their own verdict:
1. The general public must be aware of their legal standing with respect to public ownership of wildlife;
2. This standing and the rights associated with it must be enforceable against the government so that the public can hold it accountable; and,
3. Interpretation of these rights must be adaptable to contemporary concerns, such as biodiversity and species extinction.
All three are impaired when the basis of public debate is a myth. It’s time that we call for honest dialog from our state and federal agencies and transparency in wildlife policy making.
In Florida, the FWC (aided and abetted by many conservative media organizations like Umatilla’s North Lake Outpost, which run the FWC’s propaganda without question) has systematically created a culture in which the public’s interest in its own resources is subjugated to the narrow interests of an unjustly preferred group of “stakeholders.” As the campaign to stop the Florida bear hunt illustrated, the public – even though overwhelmingly against the hunt – had no effective means of enforcing its rights against the FWC and has, in a thoroughly gerrymandered state, had little chance for recourse at the ballot box. (Even if, by some miracle, the democratic channels open wider in 2016, this remains a blunt instrument. Finer and more immediate controls must be made available to the public.) Finally, as we shall now see, the public’s legitimate interest in the health of the biosphere was dismissed by the agency’s refusal to follow another fundamental tenet of the NAMWC.
Getting out of NAM, Part II: Failing to Use the Best Available Science for Wildlife Management
Throughout 2015, the FWC never spurned an opportunity to tell the public that its bear hunt was “science-based.” It seems highly unlikely that the founders of the Boone and Crockett Club would have agreed, based on the Club’s policy statement:
The best science available will be used as a base for informed decision making in wildlife management.
The intricate nature of ecosystems and biotic communities, of which all wildlife and man belong, will be managed under the knowledge of science rather than opinion, or conjecture.
Boone and Crockett Club founder, Theodore Roosevelt was a strong advocate of science, and that only the best science available was to be used to make critical decisions on natural resource management…. Aldo Leopold is credited with framing the concept of a land ethic and managing entire biotic communities.
What, then, would TR and Leopold have made of this:
- The FWC’s 2012 Bear Management Plan (BMP) – the result of five years of work by the State’s bear biologists and subjected to peer review – explicitly rejected hunting Florida’s black bears, stating that bear hunting in Florida was “a complex issue requiring extensive stakeholder engagement” and adding that hunting was outside the plan’s scope “because the purpose of this plan is to establish the conservation measures necessary to ensure that the bear does not meet the threatened criteria in the future.” (p.27) (One might take that to be an official acknowledgment that hunting is not a sound method of conservation.) While hunting was mentioned as a possible management tool in the future should any one subpopulation exceed the carrying capacity of its Bear Management Unit (BMU), its use would be limited to human-dominated areas, and other population-management tools, including translocation, were also suggested. Overall, the BMP called for the bear’s population to increase and become better connected.
- When asked under oath whether the black bear had exceeded the biological carrying capacity of its habitat, Dr. Thomas Eason, director of the FWC’s Division of Habitat and Species Conservation, stated that he could not say that it had. (Video of the court proceedings available here.)
- Dr. Eason also admitted in Court that the political appointees on the Commission (who are developers, big ranchers, lawyers, and corporate executives, but not scientists) had ordered the development of a hunting plan even though the FWC would not have an updated count of the black bears’ population until 2016. Dr. Eason testified further that there would be no harm in waiting until those data were tabulated.
- The FWC originally justified the bear hunt as a response to a few attacks on humans in neighborhoods that were built adjacent to bear habitat. Even though the science states conclusively that hunting does not reduce human-bear conflicts, Dr. Eason, when pressed to explain why the bear population needed to be “managed” by hunting, claimed that it would take some pressure out of the system and alleviate the bear “problems” and nuisance calls in neighborhoods.
- The FWC ignored the clear scientific findings that human-bear conflicts can be very effectively reduced by trash-management practices and by diversionary feeding. Dr. Eason himself testified at the Commission’s Ft. Lauderdale meeting in September, 2015 that trash management was up to 95% effective in reducing human-bear conflicts. Diversionary feeding has shown equally impressive results in long-term studies in other states, yet for some reason the FWC refused to discuss or deploy it.
- The State of Florida failed to implement the recommendations of the 2012 BMP, particularly with respect to the creation of connectivity corridors that would allow genetically isolated subpopulations to disperse. One of the reasons that male bears have been leaving their habitats and entering neighborhoods is because they are looking to reproduce with unrelated females.
- Hunting bears, as with the hunting of large canids and other apex predators, ignores the body of science that focuses on the social ecology of these animals. Specifically, leaving orphaned cubs to fend for themselves many months ahead of natural schedules increases the likelihood that “uneducated” animals will become “problem” animals. Ecologist and former hunting guide George Wuerthner has criticized implementation of the NAM across the country on these grounds, as has John Laundre, an ecologist at SUNY Oswego and the originator of the “Landscape of Fear” paradigm that explains how apex predators exert influence across an entire ecosystem, with highly beneficial consequences for all. (Aldo Leopold himself eventually realized this, as he explained in his poignant and perspicacious short piece, Thinking Like A Mountain.”) This science is routinely ignored by state agencies responding to hunter calls to protect “their” elk/deer, even though there is no evidence that large carnivores “decimate” ungulate populations. (The hunters’ target just becomes harder to find!)
- The FWC ignored the findings of the latest research proving conclusively that large mammals like the black bear, and many other animals, are sentient individuals with rich emotional, social, and even moral lives. These findings are, in fact, so explosive that state wildlife managers consider them an enemy of the NAMWC. (Link to pdf discussing challenges to the Public Trust Doctrine.) Recognition of animals as individuals with rights prevents them from being treated as property, a situation beyond the ken of our Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence. (For an idea of what conservation policy might look like if we acknowledged animal rights and went where existing policy-makers don’t want to go, see here.)
Florida’s 2015 bear hunt was not science-based and clearly violated this basic tenet of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation in addition to violating the Public Trust Doctrine. The FWC’s conformity with other tenets, like ensuring democratization of hunting opportunities4 in no way, shape, or form compensates for its blatant disregard of the core principles.
Rugged Socialism: A Conservative Paradox?
In a particularly creative argument, sociologist Tom Heberlein (link to PowerPoint) expands on the ecological arguments made by the likes of Wuerthner and Laundre to comment on the perverse political results of the NAM. Hunters, supposedly rugged individualists, are essentially demanding more publicly-owned deer/elk from the socialistic “nanny state” placed in charge of wildlife. In effect, state wildlife agencies are running an entitlement program for hunters, ignoring the science of sound ecosystem management and the voices of those “non-consumptive” users of public lands who care about the health of other species besides game animals. The hunters who demand large deer populations pay no monetary damages to compensate society for the ecological harm done by those populations (which is considerable5). To defend the status quo, government scientists assert that their science is better than everyone else’s. (That, sadly, rings very true in Florida in 2015.) Heberlein also draws attention to the NAM’s removal of market forces as a possible management tool, another perverse outcome for those who repeatedly tell us that the road to heaven is paved by utility-maximizing market participants. Although Heberlein does not use the term, all of this amounts to a form of “conservative paradox,” in which the Republican-leaning hunting and gun lobbies suckle at the teats of the welfare state.
In the case of FWC Chairman Brian Yablonski, Heberlein’s observations are particularly incisive. Yablonski, as we noted in an earlier post, is an adjunct fellow with the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC), a free-market “think tank” supported heavily by corporate backers. PERC as an organization, and Yablonski as an individual, emphasize the primacy of private property rights and oppose federal bureaucracy. They call for parks to be financially self-supporting, which of course means selling off access to resources – a process that Governor Rick Scott is keen to pursue in Florida (and with a similar lack of respect for the wishes of the public). And Yablonski has argued that endangered species are best protected by market forces, not “government approaches” like the Endangered Species Act.
Perhaps, then, Chairman Yablonski’s violations of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation are to be expected: they are his way of resolving the “conservative paradox” of hunters being coddled by a beneficent bureaucracy. Instead of acknowledging the indispensable role of federal dollars in conservation, he convinces himself that his clients are paying their own way and that he is simply providing a service to a paying customer, just like a business.6 The idea of a public trust, while not quite anathema to him, clearly does not sit well with his private (and therefore plutocratic) ownership agenda. Although the real reason for the resignation of his predecessor remains a topic for speculation, we can state confidently that the elevation of Brian Yablonski to the chairmanship of the FWC constituted a coup for Florida’s largest private-property owners. He shares their values, and he speaks their language. That is to say, bears are valued at $100 a piece, and he does not speak with them.
- Note that the Wikipedia article, in its discussion of criticism of the speech, makes the same mistake that almost every American media outlet makes: it talks only about American deaths. ↩
- An excellent response to Yablonski’s invocation of TR was provided by retired Tallahassee attorney, Robert Williams. ↩
- One hopes that Mr. Yablonski is aware of the reason why those toys are called teddy bears: TR’s famous refusal to shoot a bear that his hunting party had tied to a tree so he could bag a trophy. ↩
- Glenn Williams, author of the blog Libra Lionheart that sprang up after the killing of Cecil the lion, has made several comments to the effect that the FWC should have charged much more for hunting permits and could thereby have raised a really meaningful sum of money for the purchase of bear-proof trash cans. Putting aside the wholly unacceptable back-door legitimization of hunting, such a policy would conflict with one of the tenets of the NAM – democracy of hunting. We can always count on the FWC to observe this tenet, because they need a ready supply of pawns to play the developers’ hidden game. ↩
- For a fascinating take on the deer problem, likening deer to humans for their ability to thrive in a biosphere simplified by their activities, see this essay by Christopher Ketcham. ↩
- This denial of the reality of the help provided by federal money is hardly new. We discussed it quite some time ago, during the “you didn’t build that” furor. ↩