Animal Conservation

As biodiversity loss and climate change deplete WDFW’s resources, Commission examines what conservation means

In mid-September, a subset of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife commission addressed a deceptive and existential question: What does conservation mean?

“We use the word conservation in our strategic plan,” said Barbara Baker, vice-chair of the commission at the Big Tent committee meeting. “But the term is never defined. As we all know, undefined terms like this can cause people to define them as it suits them. “

In an effort to fill this etymological gap, Baker and Commissioner Fred Koontz presented a draft document entitled “Conservation: A Commission and Department Policy Guide”, in which they define conservation as: “science-based actions to preserve the health and resilience of natural environments, preserve the intrinsic values ​​of non-human nature, and provide equitable benefits to present and future generations of people and species. These actions include the protection and restoration of air, soil, water, biological diversity, ecosystem processes and evolutionary potential.

Part of that definition bothered Commissioner Kim Thorburn of Spokane. Namely, the “intrinsic values ​​of non-human nature”.

“Talking about non-human nature, excluding people from this formula of conservation, that’s how I read it,” she said at the meeting. “And I suspect if I read it that way, then other people read it that way. I am very sensitive to language and in particular to rhetoric and there is quite a bit of it here.

Koontz, who was the main author of the project and one of the more recent members of the commission, said he included this language to “broaden the mission” of WDFW and that he was not married to the ‘expression. He argued, however, that conservation has been “confused with purpose and value,” a way of thinking about animals and ecosystems that must change, he believes.

“It’s actually been going on for years now,” he said in an interview last week. “There have been various efforts to increase funding for non-game (labor) and really expand the mission of state wildlife agencies.”

The debate highlights an issue that fishing and wildlife agencies are grappling with across the country. Namely, how to deal with widespread habitat degradation, climate change, loss of biodiversity and a host of other issues when a primary source of funding – hunting and fishing costs? line – decreases.

“Climate change. Habitat loss,” said Nate Pamplin, policy director of WDFW. “These are immense challenges and relying on the incomes of hunters and fishermen to meet these broader challenges in wildlife conservation would be a mistake. “

A Brief History of Wildlife Conservation in North America

To understand where things stand today, you have to understand the history of fishing and hunting agencies in North America.

In 1820, 5% of the American population lived in cities, and Thomas Jefferson’s agrarian vision for the United States was a reality. By 1860, 20% of the American population had moved to urban areas, a change that a historian has called “the greatest demographic change ever in America.”

To feed this growing urban population, market hunters and fishermen have decimated game populations, driving now common species like deer and elk to the brink of extinction (and wiping out other species, the carrier pigeon by example).

At the same time, the newly created urban elites suddenly had free time and a desire to hunt the “rigors and challenges of fair play” hunting. It “has become a favorite pastime of many, especially among those who have the means,” says a Wildlife Society review of the North American model. Recreational hunting had powerful champions, namely Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinochet. The state formed fishing and hunting agencies that set seasons, bag limits, and prohibited most commercial forms of hunting. This work was almost entirely funded by fishermen and hunters through license fees.

Restricting when and where people could hunt did not completely solve the problem, and by the early 1900s the numbers of animals were still declining. In 1930, Aldo Leopold, A. Willis Robertson and other conservationists published an “American Game Policy” which called for professional biologists, university training and stable funding. Within a decade, universities were sending wildlife biologists, and the federal government had established several excise taxes that injected money into state management of game.

Harnessing the passion and interest of recreational hunters and fishermen has spurred habitat and conservation work and brought many species back to the brink of extinction. Over the years, this organically developing system became codified and was defined in detail in the early 2000s by Valerius Geist, a Canadian biologist and author.

A key part of the system was the intentional separation of politics and biology. With state fisheries and game departments receiving the majority of their funding from hunters and anglers, they were not beholden to the often shifting political winds.

“There is a reason there is a distance between elected officials and state wildlife agencies,” said Dave Ausband, professor at the University of Idaho.

But in the 1970s, as environmental degradation became increasingly evident and books like Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’ (published 1962) focused public attention, a question began to arise. ask: what about species other than game? In response, new environmental laws quickly followed, such as the Endangered Species Act, but those laws did not provide for dedicated funding.

“The need for other species (conservation) has grown without really clear funding mechanisms and without a really clear mandate,” Koontz said.

At the same time, the number of hunters and fishermen was slowly declining across the United States, reducing the amount of income available for state fishing and hunting agencies. Today, about 5% of Washingtonians hunt, although hunting and angling costs represent about 30% of the budget of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Nationally, a “combination of athlete-derived funds” accounts for between “60-90% of a typical national fish and wildlife agency budget,” according to unpublished data from the US Fish and Wildlife Service. .

A question of ethics

Some argue that the ethical and philosophical framework underlying the model – that animals and nature are resources for humans to use – has changed. This is partly why Koontz included the language of “non-human nature”.

Few would argue that state fisheries and wildlife agencies should focus only on game species. When questions of value and utility arise, things get hotter and more complex. Following the committee’s discussion on the definition of conservation, Marie Neumiller, executive director of the Spokane-based Inland Northwest Wildlife Council, opposed the proposed wording.

“This document divides and fails to recognize that we all play an important role in conservation. We impact nature when we; drive on the road, build a house, grow food, buy food, use paper products, buy electronics, fertilize our lawns, turn on the lights at home or even turn on the heating, ”he said. she stated in public testimony before the commission. “Every action we take consumes our natural resources, which has an impact on wildlife and its habitats. We are part of nature, so we must stop separating humans from nature and conservation policies. The preservationist ideal does not work because every movement we make every day, even within a city, has an impact on the natural world.

Thorburn agrees with this assessment and believes that hunting at large is under attack in Washington, and that some of the efforts to expand the reach of the WDFW – though well intentioned – will alienate hunters and anglers. She thinks abandoning this constituency is a mistake, not only because it provides money and passion, but because it is WDFW’s mandate to provide hunting and fishing opportunities.

Regarding ethical and philosophical considerations, she doesn’t think it’s WDFW’s job to legislate and fears that focusing too much on individual animals will hurt overall conservation efforts.

“Look what we are dumping in the wolves,” she said. “Compared to how much we spend on so many (endangered) species on our states list. Western gray squirrel. The butterfly. Or some of our native fish species.

Koontz is sensitive to these concerns. Working with animals, whether in the wild or in captivity – as he did while he was vice president of field conservation at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo – requires a balance between what’s good for the individual and what is good for the people.

He said research increasingly shows that individual animals are much more complex than previously thought. Combined with widespread loss of biodiversity and global climate change, he argues that the mandate of fishing and wildlife agencies needs to be reworked, although he said he was not against hunting or fishing. line.

“If we could innovate the way we talk about conservation… it could be a model on which other states could base their discussion,” he said. “It’s up to the department to adaptively change. “

What is the next?

Following comments at the committee meeting in September, Koontz and others will change the definition of retention.

At some point, the whole committee will look at the language and vote on whether or not to approve a change.

Regardless of how it unfolds, everyone involved is aware that more funding is needed as the scope of WDFW’s work increases. Koontz and Thorburn hope the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act will be passed by Congress. If approved, it would provide the state with $ 1.39 billion. In 2020, the agency received more funds from the general state fund, a much needed financial commitment, Pamplin said.

Yet that is far from what the agency needs to “be successful,” he said. If Congress passes the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, Washington will receive $ 20 million a year for biodiversity conservation, Pamplin said.

“We are crossing our fingers,” Thorburn said.

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