Last Word: TIME to Update Conservation Policies?

Photo courtesy of Joe Kosack, Pennsylvania Game Commission

TIME Magazine got people talking about conservation – everywhere from hunting camps in the Pennsylvania mountains to Starbucks shops in Silicon Valley – with a cover story on resurgent wildlife populations (“America’s Pest Problem: Why the rules of hunting are about to change” by David Von Drehle, December 9, 2013).

Although TIME unfortunately disparaged wildlife as pests and predators as unwelcome, the article brought attention to an important issue: How do we keep our conservation policies current and able to address changing circumstances?

Von Drehle reminds us that today’s situation for wildlife beats the alternative – the wildlife-starved landscape people helped create in the early 1900s. The tools developed to restore wildlife and habitat – policies, ethics, licenses, professional biologists – worked, at least for popular species such as white-tailed deer and wild turkeys. Von Drehle also highlights the leadership role hunters played in this monumental achievement and the role hunting needs to play in making sure we – and the wildlife – don’t become victims of our own success.

What Von Drehle did not point out is the critical need for hunters, anglers, and conservationists to take responsibility for maintaining the policies we craft – because if we don’t, someone else will. Animal welfare activists would be more than happy to replace hunting with non-lethal population controls, elevating the interests of individual animals over what’s best for the natural communities to which they belong. On the flip side, anti-predator activists would have us over-correct by killing off predators, even though we know how important they are. If conservationists don’t make sure our own policies remain relevant and workable in today’s society, we will cede them to people with different agendas, and we may not like the end result.

The need to maintain conservation policies goes beyond hunting. Our core environmental policies are facing different circumstances than when they were created, and most are under constant assault. For example, the sensible “look before you leap” principle of the National Environmental Policy Act is being picked apart by politicians who claim that it slows down industry. The Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act simply require businesses to take some responsibility for the waste they create, yet these laws are regularly attacked as government intrusion into private decisions. And while some of our most popular wildlife species are thriving, many others struggle – yet even hunters sometimes attack the Endangered Species Act’s commitment to “keep every cog and wheel,” a basic wildlife management concept.

We don’t necessarily need to open these policies up to wholesale revision, particularly since conservation opponents could commandeer reform efforts. Rather, we need to take responsibility for making sure our conservation tools remain sharp and useful. We need to explain why they were created in the first place and why they are still important. We need to help agencies – and our colleagues – implement them effectively, efficiently, and fairly. We can also help stakeholders comply with them.

It’s groups like the League, which brings common sense and a historical perspective to conservation, that can ensure our conservation policies remain just as relevant tomorrow as they were yesterday.

Mike Leahy, IWLA Conservation Director