North American Model of Wildlife Conservation


North America’s approach to wildlife management is unique to the world, as wildlife – primarily in the United States and Canada – are managed as public trust resources for the benefit of all citizens. The Model holds that sound science guide wildlife management decisions and regulations, which are funded through the “user-pays, public-benefits” American System of Conservation Funding.


North America’s approach to wildlife management is unique to the world, as wildlife, primarily in the United States and Canada, are managed as public trust resources for the benefit of all citizens. This Public Trust Doctrine is based on the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Martin v. Waddell in 1842 and has since become one of the major pillars in the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation. Since its inception, the Model has become the paragon for wildlife management throughout North America and has resulted in the rebound of numerous species once in danger of extinction. It holds two primary principles: our wildlife belongs to all Americans, and wildlife needs to be managed to ensure their populations will be sustained forever.

During the turn of the 20th century, market hunting and other unregulated harvest of animals, in addition to habitat loss through changing land use and management practices, left many of America’s game populations in a perilous position. Species such as elk, bison, and white-tailed deer were on the verge of extinction. Hunters, realizing the dire threat of losing our sporting heritage, banded together to enact rules and regulations governing the harvest and management of wildlife. George Bird Grinnell and Theodore Roosevelt were among the earliest and most ardent champions of this new conservationist ethic. They recognized that unregulated market hunting and habitat loss, coupled with an increasingly urban, non-agrarian society largely out of touch with wildlife in wild places, would ultimately result in negative consequences for much of the country’s wildlife. Together, they founded the Boone and Crockett Club as an organization to help influence wildlife management policies in the United States. In 1900, through the work of Boone and Crockett member John Lacey, the United States Congress enacted the Lacey Act, which banned the possession, sale, and transport of illegally taken fish and wildlife, effectively ending market hunting in the United States.

Building on the successes of the Lacey Act and earlier conservation laws, hunters and professional wildlife managers continued to work to ensure that healthy and sustainable populations of wildlife would continue in perpetuity. Conservationists like Aldo Leopold developed game laws and worked to restore and conserve imperiled wildlife populations and their respective habitats. At the core of all these efforts was an insistence that science serves as the guiding force in wildlife management decisions and regulations. Wildlife managers, employed by state and federal agencies, would be trained in fields such as biology, ecology, and law enforcement to fulfill this charge.

In order to fund these efforts, hunters again took the lead with the establishment of license structures to fund the newly fledged state fish and wildlife agencies. Later, with the passage of the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act (Pittman-Robertson Act) in 1937, sportsmen and women directed excise taxes on firearms and ammunition to a dedicated fund to be used specifically for conservation purposes. With the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, revenues from sportsmen’s licenses were permanently linked to conservation, laying the foundation for what is now the American System of Conservation Funding (ASCF). Through time, this entirely unique “user pays – public benefits” system has expanded and now includes the fishing and boating communities, as well as the archery community. The funds collected through this program are the lifeblood of today’s state fish and wildlife agencies – the primary managers of our nation’s fish and wildlife resources.

Points of Interest

The North American Model comprises the following seven core components, also known as the Seven Sisters of Conservation:

  1. Wildlife resources are held in the public trust – Private ownership of wildlife is not allowed; wildlife resources are owned by the public and managed by government agencies for the benefit of the public. At the core of this tenet, and the North American Model as a whole is the Public Trust Doctrine, a Supreme Court decision which, as noted by The Wildlife Society, “…establishes a trustee relationship of government to hold and manage wildlife, fish, and waterways for the benefit of the resources and the public.”
  2. Market hunting for game animals is illegal – Commercial hunting and the possession and sale of wildlife is strictly prohibited.
  3. Wildlife harvest is allocated by law – Whether through legislation or via regulatory processes, the public shall have the opportunity to shape wildlife management policies.
  4. Wildlife may only be killed only for a legitimate purpose – In order to prevent the wanton waste of game, in North America, wildlife may only be killed for non-frivolous reasons, such as for food, fur, in self-defense, and to protect private property.
  5. Wildlife is considered an international resource – As wildlife do not recognize international boundaries, they shall be managed cooperatively between neighboring nations.
  6. Wildlife policy is formulated through the use of the best available science – Science shall be the guiding principle in the development of wildlife regulations, as it provides a vastly superior management structure when compared to management based solely on public opinion and anecdotal evidence.
  7. Opportunity for all – Every citizen has the freedom to hunt, subject to state and federal rules and regulations.

Through the leadership of visionaries like Grinnell, Roosevelt, and Leopold, among numerous others, and due to the continued adherence of these Seven Sisters of Conservation, the North American Model represents an unqualified global success with regard to wildlife management. Hunters in every state enjoy ample opportunities to pursue wildlife, and the sustainable management ethic employed by state fish and wildlife agencies ensures that these opportunities will continue in perpetuity. The public at large, regardless of whether or not they hunt, benefit immensely from the contributions of hunters through abundant wildlife, healthy landscapes, and access to all of these resources.

To read The Wildlife Society’s historical overview of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, click here.

Though the North American Model is widely considered to be one of the most successful wildlife conservation models in the world, legislative challenges still appear. Today, many of these challenges attempt to blur the Public Trust Doctrine by implying the privatization of wildlife resources.

  • In 2019, Kansas HB 2167 was introduced to allow landowners to transfer deer permits to nonresidents after all nonresident permits have been distributed. This bill was amended to create the Kansas Commercial Industrial Hemp Program.
  • In 2020, Nebraska LB 1173 sought to create transferrable big game hunting permits for landowners experiencing animal-related property damage. Thanks to wide disapproval from the sportsmen’s community, LB 1173 did not advance out of committee.

Moving Forward

In order to ensure that wildlife populations continue to be managed sustainably – and that the general public continues to benefit from the immense contributions made by hunters and anglers – it is critical that policymakers continually work with the sportsmen’s community and professional wildlife managers to maintain scientific management of our wildlife resources. Sportsmen and policymakers must strive to protect sustainable avenues of conservation funding through the improvement and implementation of programs and policies that maintain the principles of the Public Trust Doctrine and promote hunter recruitment and retention. By upholding the management ethic embodied by the North American Model and the American System of Conservation Funding, we can safeguard abundant opportunities for all Americans to hunt, harvest, and conserve wildlife.

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