Toward a Modern Conservation Model
By Gil McRae, FWRI Director
Many of you are familiar with the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, a set of principles codified in the 1990’s that has defined wildlife management in recent years. The core tenets of the model recognize that wildlife belongs to everyone, that access to hunting opportunities should be available to all, that no commercial markets for wildlife should exist and that science should be the basis of wildlife policy. Historically, inland fisheries management in the U.S. was a disorganized hodgepodge with fundamental questions regarding ownership of resources largely unresolved. In the late 1800’s and the first part of the twentieth century some management structure was instituted. Congress established the US Commission on Fish and Fisheries and many states formed their own Commissions in response to declining fish populations. The initial focus of these groups centered around determining causes of the declines, mitigating the effects of dams and developing fish culture and stocking programs. For coastal fisheries, concern over declining commercial landings ultimately lead to the enactment of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act in the mid-1970’s, the goal of which was (and still is) preventing overfishing.
Florida created the post of State Game and Fish Commissioner in 1913, followed by the Department of Game and Freshwater Fisheries (1927), the Game and Freshwater Fish Commission (1935), Marine Fisheries Commission (1983) and the current Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC, 1999). In tracking this evolution, you can see a clear progression from a focus on limiting overharvest, expansion of law enforcement, conservation of habitat, incorporating non-game issues and integrating social issues into decision making. On the law enforcement policy side, federal and state agencies have built on the foundation established by the Lacey Act (the nation’s first conservation law signed in 1900 that prohibited trade in illegally harvested wildlife) to establish an encyclopedic array of specific regulations that is continually updated to prevent over-exploitation. In 1902 Guy Bradley was hired by the American Ornithologists Union to police plume hunters in the everglades. Bradley, one of the nation’s first game wardens, was murdered by plume hunters at age 35. In just a few generations, conservation law enforcement in Florida has evolved and expanded to today’s FWC force of over 700 sworn officers. While these policy and enforcement advances occurred social and political factors have framed a body of ethics adopted by most hunters and anglers characterized by concepts such as fair chase and catch and release that has resulted in a more conservation minded user base.
As conservation agencies were building capability to minimize the risk of overharvesting, habitats were becoming lost and degraded. Public awareness peaked with the publication of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” (1962), which spurred the birth of the environmental movement and ultimately spawned hundreds of organizations promoting the appreciation of healthy, functioning ecosystems. Shortly thereafter, social scientists began focusing on the human side of conservation, creating conceptual models for how people perceive and value healthy fish, wildlife and habitats. Collectively, these policy, enforcement and social constructs have created a conservation landscape where the risk of over-exploitation is minimized, and the focus has increasingly transitioned to habitat quantity and quality, ecosystem structure and function, socioeconomic aspects of conservation, change due to extreme environmental events (climate change, harmful algal blooms, storms, etc.) and the impact of invasive species. These are the elements that will define the conservation landscape moving forward.
How is FWC positioned to deal with these challenges? FWC recognized the need to focus on habitat conservation and restoration before the trend became fashionable. Science driven management ranging from Objective Based Vegetation Management and prescribed burning on our Wildlife Management Areas to comprehensive lake restoration projects and restoration of coastal wetlands have created an impressive portfolio with far-reaching impact. Dedicated research teams focusing on terrestrial, freshwater aquatic, coastal and marine habitats have advanced the state of the science and informed countless management actions taken by dozens of agencies. Similarly, FWC has been on the forefront of incorporating human dimensions elements into our conservation planning since its inception. I want to highlight two initiatives that seek to build on these efforts.
While much good work has been done on protecting and restoring terrestrial habitats, much of that has been accomplished either through acquiring land into public ownership or habitat management efforts on publicly owned land. As the pressures on Florida’s ecosystems intensify, landscape-level approaches to conservation based on sound principles relevant to all types of landowners will be necessary. Significant progress has been made on this front including establishment of strategic habitat conservation areas, statewide wildlife action plans, the critical lands and waters identification project, the cooperative conservation blueprint, and landscape conservation cooperatives which establish sound technical foundations to inform landscape level conservation. A new Landscape Conservation Team has been formed with representatives from multiple FWC divisions and led by Beth Stys of the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute (FWRI) to review progress to date and identify actions the agency can take to promote conservation across a wide spectrum of landowners and conservation groups.
However, reaching a working consensus on landscape-level goals that will get buy-in from multiple public and private partners will require additional background work. Understanding the social and economic aspects of conservation will be the focus of the new Center for Conservation Social Sciences Research (CCSSR) recently established as a work unit within FWRI and led by Dr. Nia Morales. CCSSR is a research center focusing on the complex relationships between people and the fish, wildlife, and habitat resources FWC conserves and protects as well as investigation of the roles people play in fish, wildlife, and conservation issues. The center will also assist groups within FWC to develop their own social science capacity through collaborations on projects, seminars and training. For more information on the Center see https://myfwc.com/research/about/conservation-social-science/.
While the traditional conservation approaches preventing overharvest will and must continue, the efforts highlighted above will leverage that work and promote large scale, durable conservation outcomes.