Have you ever wondered if you are a Traditionalist or Mutualist, maybe a Pluralist?
The Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies with assistance from its regional branches and others recently looked at how the public values wildlife.
For centuries, wildlife has been viewed as something akin to property, managed for the sole benefit of humans, without possessing intrinsic value or worth of its own. If you believe that now, you are a Traditionalist according to America’s Wildlife Values survey.
Across the country, 28% agree with you. In Nevada, 22% concur.
If you regard wildlife as having intrinsic value independent of human use or purpose, sentient beings deserving of respect and freedom from frivolous and unnecessary harm, then you are a Mutualist.
Nationally, 35% agree with you. In Nevada, 44% of us are Mutualists…the second highest percentage in the country. Only California exceeds us by a couple of percentage points.
Pluralists are people capable of either point of view, depending on circumstances. Nationally, 21% claim that status; in Nevada, it is 19%.
Survey respondents called Distanced have no interest in this topic. That’s about 15% of us.
Taking Mutualists and Pluralists at their word, is it now time for fish and wildlife agencies to find ways to make management decisions that affect the lives of individual animals? Is it only about numbers?
It’s The Population, Stupid!
Nevada’s wildlife (game species) management is heavily focused on four ungulates: mule deer, bighorn, pronghorn, and elk.
While there is an economic reason for this focus (license and tag sales), the underlying management concepts are worthy of a look.
‘Sustainable yield’ or ‘harvestable surplus’ are terms used in discussions about wildlife management that need a definition.
Wildlife species are said to have a base population, augmented in spring by a ‘birth pulse’, reduced to some degree later by expected natural mortality among the offspring of the year. (Not every newborn makes it through its first year of life.)
An unstated assumption for ungulates (e.g., mule deer) is that, except for age/sex differences, individual differences among ungulates don’t exist or are inconsequential. Therefore, no consideration of the fate of individual animals is required in wildlife management decisions involving ungulates. Only populations matter.
Let’s look at some elements of mule deer management in Nevada
- How many deer are on the landscape?
- What is the ratio of males per 100 females?
- What is the ratio of fawns per doe?
- How many deer can be ‘harvested’ next season?
Mule deer are not monogamous. Deer biologists use that fact to tilt the adult male/female ratio severely in the direction of having more does than bucks. More females…ergo…more deer… is the assumption.
Since a buck can impregnate more than one doe, Nevada deer managers try for a ratio of 30 bucks per 100 does in Nevada’s deer herds. The natural sex ratio, if deer were left to their own devices, would be approximately 50:50.
(Question: Would a naturally occurring sex ratio be better for deer herds than the artificial buck/doe ratio imposed by biologists to maximize ‘sustainable yield? Who knows? Nobody asks that question.)
Based on fawn counts and estimates of adult deer numbers, wildlife managers decide each year how much human-caused mortality can be inflicted upon the current year’s deer herds without damaging the base population.
That management decision is expressed in the number of deer tags sold to hunters for next hunting season. The tags represent ‘excess’ or ’surplus’ deer available to be ‘harvested’ without detriment to the base population.
Why Put Air Quotes Around Harvest?
Human-imposed mortality on wildlife is traditionally referred to as ‘harvest’. In recent years, though, wordsmith artists have recommended to fish and wildlife agencies that they no longer use that term.
The reason is obvious. It is a disgusting concept.
It also begs an analogy.
An Iowa farmer plants a corn field. His seed corn represents the base population. After planting, there is new growth (‘birth pulse’), followed by some expected crop loss (natural first-year mortality).
Finally…gloriously…there is the ‘harvest’; the taking of the ‘excess’; the proof of concept of ‘sustainable yield’. Seed corn is retained for use the next year.
Coincidentally, both ‘harvests’…. corn and deer…. occur at the same time of year.
Consider this: If this analogy is extended a bit, isn’t it true that an ear of corn stripped from its stalk and the life of a mule deer snuffed out by a hunter’s bullet are similar in a certain way. Neither is thought of as having intrinsic value, separate and apart from what each contributes to human use?
Well, If It’s Not Just Population, What Then?
Is ‘sustainable yield’ or ’harvestable surplus’ the proper management notion applicable to all wildlife species? Is wildlife management only about population?
The answer is NO.
The current socially popular mantra that individual lives matter should now be extended to wildlife management. Why should non-human life be excluded?
The killing of Cecil the Lion sent shock waves around the world. People everywhere expressed outrage. seeing an unjustified senseless taking of the life of a charismatic animal. Its life had universal value. Something not replaceable was lost with its death.
Similar less-publicized examples are everywhere.
Wildlife researchers in Africa became famous by studying and richly chronicling the individual lives of elephants, chimps, lions, leopards, hyenas, wild dogs, meerkats, and more. Study subjects were given names, identified by sight, and studied over a lifetime. Their offspring and relatives were recorded.
In this country, researchers adorned their study subjects with a numbered ear tag or maybe a telemetry collar. Assigning a name or ascribing individual characteristics to an animal was avoided for fear of suggesting the presence of a sentient being.
We now know that for some species, better management would occur if existing knowledge of individual and social behavior is used, particularly for carnivores and omnivores.
So far, fish and wildlife agencies mostly resist that idea.
What Do You Want Us to Do, the Agencies Ask?
It’s tempting, sometimes, to use the moniker, ‘fish and game’ agency, instead of ‘fish and wildlife’ agency, the latter having a more modern ring to it. But is the updated moniker deserved?
To suggest to fish and wildlife agencies today that bears, wolves, mountain lions, coyotes, ravens, cormorants, sea lions, and other species might need management strategies different from how a rancher manages a cattle herd, is an exercise in futility.
The importance of the pack structure, critical roles of alpha male and female, importance of resident male lions in protecting home range, risk of killing, annually, more than 12-14% of the base population of lions or bears….and more…is well established in science but of little interest to fish and wildlife agencies.
We’re not asking fish and wildlife agencies to give a name to every bighorn sheep or shake paws with every mountain lion. There is much low-hanging fruit that could be plucked with great benefit to the lives of countless animals.
A few simple examples:
- Shortening Nevada’s 96-hour trap check interval to 24 hours (recommended by American Veterinary Medical Association) would have a dramatic beneficial effect on the lives of thousands of target and non-target trap victims alike. The Nevada Board of Wildlife Commissioners (NBWC) absolutely refuses to do so. (NBWC has no authority to ban trapping but can adjust trap-check intervals.)
- Eliminating coyote killing contests, the gratuitous unwarranted killing of coyotes over a party weekend shows a profound lack of respect for non-human life. The NBWC has failed three times to do so.
- Stopping the bizarre “War on Predators’ that occurs in Nevada and across the West would recognize the importance of carnivores and omnivores to our ecosystem. Wolves, mountain lions, bears, coyotes, and others…a near endless list of targets…. don’t deserve what happens to them.
- Eliminating bear hounding…the use of dogs to chase and harass bears to their ultimate demise…is heavily disfavored by the public. It adversely impacts cubs. Bears are an iconic species deserving of better management.
In 2017, NBWC banned the commercial collection of reptiles, saving about 15,000 individual lives each year. While the wildlife commission didn’t know individuals by name, its action directly benefitted individual reptiles.
Is that so hard?
Taking action to show the public that non-human lives matter, and that management decisions can be made to reflect the public’s interest, would be a wise move if public support and a broader constituency will be needed to keep the agency viable in the future.
NBWC started out in 1877 as the Nevada Fish Commission. It has had several iterations. Yet some would argue its early (philosophical) roots still show.
My advice: Don’t hold your breath but let’s keep pushing and hope for enlightenment.
Don Molde is a 50-year Reno resident, retired psychiatrist, co-founder of Nevada Wildlife Alliance, former board member of Defenders of Wildlife, and former board member of the Nevada Humane Society. He has been active in wildlife advocacy for 45 years. Support Don’s work here.
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