Three Questions About the Ethics of Wildlife Management

Bob Duchesne’s radio program on 92.9 The Ticket is a regular part of my Saturday morning routine.  The show is informative, entertaining, and gets me thinking.  The Saturday, November 9 show focused on the big game management planning processFrog in Maine now underway at the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (IF&W).  After listening to the show, I pondered three questions about wildlife management.

First, does the very idea of wildlife management mean that the ends justify the means when it comes to wildlife?  It was hearing the discussion of last year’s bear hunting referendum that provoked this question for me.  In the spirit of full disclosure I, along with nearly 48% of the other Mainers voting, voted to ban bear hunting with bait, dogs, and leg hold traps.  My vote was not because I thought all three forms of hunting bear should be illegal, rather my objection is primarily to trapping bears.  I object to the idea that it is sporting to trap a bear in a leg hold trap and have it wait up to 24 hours for the hunter to shoot it.  For me that is not sport, it is repugnant. Had the Maine Legislature banned trapping after the 2004 referendum vote I would probably not have voted Yes in 2014.

IF&W’s response is that all three methods of hunting are “necessary” to achieve the department’s management goals for Maine’s bear population.   In this thinking the ethics of hunting methods are not relevant as long as the agency can achieve the desired annual “harvest” of bears.  The ends (a given number of bears) justify the means (shooting an animal with no means of escape).

Second, does the fact that IF&W’s primary funding comes from consumptive wildlife users, those who pay license fees, mean that the agency’s focus is enhancing opportunities for consumptive use?  I think the answer to this is obvious even though two statements from the agency’s mission statement suggest otherwise.  The department asserts that it:

  • conserves, protects, and enhances the inland fisheries and wildlife resources;
  • increases opportunities for the use of these resources by all people;

Again, let me give a personal example to illustrate why I am skeptical that the department does this.  I love encountering coyotes in the woods and thrill at the nighttime howling of a pack of coyotes near our house.  I think other Mainers feel the same.  However, IF&W allows coyote hunting during daylight hours (except Sundays) throughout the year and permits coyote hunting at night from December 16 to August 31.  There is no bag limit on the number of coyotes you can shoot.  The logic is that since coyotes kill some deer and may kill livestock, we should reduce their numbers as much as possible.  The agency encourages killing coyotes because they kill a species that licensed hunters want to kill themselves.

Game species (deer) trump non-game species (coyotes) because the sale of licenses is the agency’s primary source of income.  If the agency were funded out of the general fund and license fees were not dedicated revenues, the agency would obviously need to be responsive to a broader constituency than just consumptive users.  For economists, this is a phenomenon we see in the public sector termed regulatory capture.  An interest group (consumptive wildlife users in this case) employs some technique to “capture” a public agency so that the agency favors the concerns of that group rather than the broader public interest.  We might ask, whose values count?

Third, does management of wildlife make it less wild?  This was the most fundamental question that Bob Duchesne’s show provoked in me.  At what point does the management of wildlife effectively lead to it becoming no longer wild, almost domesticated?  Wildlife management entails changing the rules of “harvest” (season, method of hunting, bag limits, gender of the species to be hunted), manipulating habitat, or even replacing fundamental ecological processes.  A good example of this is Atlantic salmon restoration.  We use fish hatcheries to raise salmon fry to release into rivers that we previously so damaged they no longer support natural reproductive cycles.  Are the salmon that survive and return to where they were released still wild fish or aquaculture fish?

At some point, management actions so change the natural environment and favor one species over another that wildlife is no longer wild in any meaningful sense.  I am not sure what that point actually is, but it does leave open the possibility that the very idea of wildlife management is an oxymoron.

In last November’s bear referendum we were constantly told by IF&W, as it politicked for a No vote, that bear hunting is purely an issue of science and the agency is the best arbiter of what is scientifically correct.  Is this is a too narrow view of wildlife management?  Ethics and values play a central role here as well; yet it is difficult to talk about differences in our values.  Should have those conversations as IF&W does its planning for the future?

Mark W. Anderson

About Mark W. Anderson

I am proud to be a Mainer, born in Caribou and schooled at Brewer High School, Bowdoin College, and the University of Maine. I am grateful for a 35 year career at UMaine, the last decade in the School of Economics.