To educate a man in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society. -Theodore Roosevelt

Like No Other: The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation – B&C Impact Series

By PJ DelHomme 

Over the last two decades, the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation has become a catch-all term for a conservation system built more than a century ago. The Club and its members were integral in its creation.


With a hunting license and elk tag in my pocket, I park at a trailhead at the end of a Forest Service road. I’m on the hunt for a brow-tined bull because that’s what the regulations say that I can shoot. If I manage to kill one by divine intervention, I will carve it into manageable chunks and pack it out to my truck, leaving only a gut pile and rib cage behind. When I get it home, I’ll hang the meat in a cool garage for a few days, take it down, and cut it up into more manageable pieces. My family of four will dine on elk steaks, burgers, jerky, and meatballs for the rest of the year. This is how hunting—and wildlife management—work here in Montana, the United States, and Canada.

That opportunity to bring home hundreds of pounds of meat courtesy of a well-placed shot, some sweat equity, and public land is made possible by a number of conservation principles that set the U.S. and Canada apart from the rest of the world. Those principles are lumped together under one name: the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation. To be clear, the principles preceded the “Model,” and the term is simply a way for us to conveniently talk about conservation in the U.S. and Canada.

The Model is not a topic you’ll likely discuss at a Super Bowl party or hunting camp. It’s not an algorithm wildlife biologists use to write their management plan, and it doesn’t prescribe any action. Nor do you find this Model in jolly old England, the rest of Europe, or the balance of the world. But to understand the Model is to understand why hunting as we know it exists in the U.S. today. The Model exists to synthesize these core tenets of our system of wildlife conservation and to differentiate wildlife management and conservation in the U.S. and Canada from other forms worldwide.

Genesis of the Model

Much of the credit for creating the Model goes to the late Boone and Crockett Club Professional Member Valerius Geist. He was born in Ukraine in 1938, raised in Austria and Germany, and immigrated to Canada in 1953, earning a Ph.D. in zoology at the University of British Columbia in 1967.

“To understand the genesis of the Model, you have to go back to Geist,” says Club Professional Member John Organ, Chief Emeritus of the USGS Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Units. Organ was Chief of Wildlife and Sportfish Restoration with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Cooperative Wildlife Research Units of the U.S. Geological Survey. “Geist lived under totalitarian regimes, then moved to Canada, which helped prompt him to examine what was different in North America.” Organ and professional member Shane Mahoney, colleagues and close friends of Dr. Geist, collaborated with him and wrote extensively on the Model. Organ emphasizes that the Model itself has no legal standing. Still, the seven principles that comprise the Model are embedded in law or legal policy—much of which was created by early Boone and Crockett Club members.

To illustrate those seven principles that comprise the Model, let’s return to the mountains of Montana for my fantasy elk hunt.


The Seven Principles of the North American Model

There are elk on the landscape for me to hunt because those elk belong to the people of Montana—not to any one individual, like a king or a president, for instance. This legal doctrine, the basis of which comes from our state constitutions and from 19th-century case law, places wildlife resources in a public trust. In other words, those elk are managed by Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks for the general public, the beneficiaries of that trust. The elk, along with marmots, grouse, pronghorn, and all fish and wildlife species, don’t belong to the governor, a game commissioner, or a private landowner. This concept of the public trust doctrine is the bedrock principle on which all the other principles build.

This public trust doctrine in the United States dates back to an 1842 Supreme Court ruling in which a landowner claimed exclusive rights to oysters in a New Jersey mudflat. The landowner claimed rights over water, land, and everything in/on it because the King of England said he could have it back in 1674. In reviewing the case, Chief Justice Roger Taney drew heavily from the Magna Carta, which drew from Roman laws of the second century, which drew on Ancient Greek law. In short, the landowner lost the case because the court ruled the public maintained a common right to fish in navigable and tidal water because those waters and their underlying lands were kept in trust by the state for the common use of the people.

What do oysters and mudflats have to do with elk? That ruling built case law, and in 1896, Geer v. Connecticut cemented the notion that wildlife is a state resource. A hunter named Edward Geer legally killed some birds and wanted to sell them in another state. The state argued Geer could not transport birds over state lines, and Geer disagreed. The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled again in favor of the state’s authority to manage wildlife for the common good.

Let’s pretend that on my hypothetical elk hunt, I have two tags and kill two elk, a bull and a cow. While my family only needs one elk, I better have a plan for the second one—and it can’t include selling the meat. Another vital principle in the North American system is that markets for game, shorebirds, and songbirds have been eliminated. When the Boone and Crockett Club was founded in 1887, the founding members knew that the nation’s desire for decorative feathers to adorn ladies’ hats and meat to supply western mining camps and restaurants was unsustainable. Through the efforts of Club members, Congress passed legislation like the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act (1894), the Lacey Act (1900), and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (1918) to stem the annihilation and sale of wildlife. I can give my second elk away to a food bank or neighbor, but I cannot sell it to a restaurant down the street.

Two more principles of the Model reflect why I was able to buy a tag for a bull and a cow. First, through a series of public meetings with hunters, landowners, and other members of the public, the fish and game commissioners decided how many elk tags of each variety would be issued and to whom. Through the lens of the Model, this is considered the allocation of wildlife by law. Wildlife is a public resource managed by the government. Hunting regulations set seasons, bag limits, and license requirements and are the ways in which the government allocates access to that wildlife. My state’s regulations this year allow me to kill a cow and a bull. In other years, these same laws might not. In addition, the law also says it would be illegal for me to kill a grizzly bear that I glass on the other side of the drainage. For the time being, that bear is protected under the Endangered Species Act.

But what if every hunter who has two tags actually kills two elk? Wouldn’t that destroy the elk population? To begin with, only 10 percent of hunters actually kill an elk in Montana. But this question brings up another principle of the Model, and that is science is the proper tool upon which to execute wildlife policy. In the 1930s, wildlife managers, in particular Aldo Leopold, emphasized and encouraged the application of science to guide wildlife management decisions.


B&C Fellow Noelle Thompson assisting with the capture and GPS-collaring of whitetail deer in mid-Michigan, a partner project led by Michigan State University and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

Let’s say a graduate student (perhaps from the Boone and Crockett Club’s University Programs) spent two years researching the area where I had two elk tags in my pocket, and they found that there were indeed too many elk on the landscape. Using hunters like me as a tool, managers hoped to reduce the elk numbers a bit.

The fact that I was using the elk to fill my freezer and feed my family follows another principle, which is that wildlife can only be killed for a legitimate purpose. That purpose is to eat. I also buy a wolf tag. I never see, only hear, wolves where I hunt. But I buy a tag anyway. Should I kill one, I trust that the wildlife managers have based their tag allocations on sound science, to achieve specific management objectives. But the principle dictates that I will only kill that wolf if I will use it in a legally responsible manner, such as for its fur.

While elk hunting, I heard a flock of snow geese honking well above a layer of clouds. They were coming from Alaska and heading to warmer climes in Arizona or New Mexico. Around 1900, there were maybe 3,000 of these honkers in the entire world. Today, there is an estimated population of six million. Why the resurrection? Mainly because these wildlife species are considered an international resource. Some species, such as migratory birds, cross international boundaries. The Boone and Crockett Club recognized this early on and worked to establish the National Wildlife Refuge System to ensure these migratory birds had sufficient habitat across their range in 1903. Then in 1916, the Club helped ratify a treaty with Great Britain (Canada), which led to the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) to establish federal control over the hunting of migratory birds.

Snow geese migrate from the far northern reaches of North America south to warmer temps. They pay no attention to international boundaries. 

And finally, the Model addresses access to wildlife. I don’t mean trespassing on private land to kill an elk. I mean the fact that I am allowed to hunt wildlife even though I do not own a farm or descend from nobility—as far as I know. In many countries across the world, access to hunting was and still is restricted to the elite, royalty, wealthy, connected, and/or landowning. In the U.S. and Canada, Joe and Josephine Public have the right to access and hunt public wildlife. Under the North American Model, this equitable access to wildlife (and hunting) is called the democracy of hunting. Boone and Crockett Professional Member John Organ has written and lectured on this principle, citing both Roosevelt and Leopold, who champion the rights of all citizens to hunt- regardless of title, economic status, or acres owned.

The Model Today

It’s been more than a dozen years since I’ve brought home an elk, which might explain my need to play make-believe in this article. During those years of unpunched tags, political administrations have come and gone, both at the state and national level. With those shifting tides, the Club and its members have been involved in legislation and regulations underpinning all aspects of the Model.

The principles of the Model are always being tested and evaluated within our society today. Increasing political and societal pressures challenge our system of wildlife conservation, including “ballot box biology” on predator control and reintroduction efforts. While this flies in the face of a science-based approach to wildlife management, it’s not the only principle that is challenged.

Let’s say that on my elk hunt, I happen to kill the new World’s Record elk. I told you it was make-believe. I could not sell the meat, but those antlers would fetch six figures—and it would be legal to sell them. Is that not a market in big game (see the second tenet above) even though I took the elk in fair chase and with the proper license? What if I killed that elk with a special tag that allowed me to hunt 365 days out of the year? What if that tag cost me $400,000? Is that equitable access to wildlife (and hunting)? These are modern-day challenges to the Model and topics for which the Club has taken positions.

Markets in hunting might actually be a boon to the hunter's image. In a discussion with Organ about the Model, he brings up urban deer hunts in places in and around big cities where an abundance of whitetails have taken over the landscape. Instead of employing sharpshooters, hunters could, with certain credentials, kill these urban deer and sell the meat to locavores who crave locally-raised meat and veggies. Hunters feed the community and provide a public service. Win-win. “But that’s a slippery slope,” Organ warns. “Markets can only be considered as a last resort.” Again, the principles of the Model are based in law; the Model itself is not law.

But, Organ warns, don’t get hung up on the Model. Don’t allow it to become a bigger distraction to the bigger problems that hunters—and all of humanity—face today. “What we really need is to focus on the things that we don’t have any legal means to address, such as climate change and its effect on wildlife, landscape-level issues like habitat protection, energy development, both renewable and nonrenewable, and invasive species,” Organ says. “Maybe one of the biggest issues is society’s detachment from nature. If we’re to sustain viable wildlife populations in a culture that appreciates wildlife for consumptive and nonconsumptive purposes, we must look forward, not backward.”

With a basic understanding of the Model, hunters, bird watchers, anglers, and anyone else who enjoys wildlife can understand what makes North American wildlife management unique. Hunting plays a large role in that, but it’s not the only role. If we simply take a moment and stop to think about what we are doing regarding wildlife management, then we can move forward on true conservation work that will keep wild land and wildlife healthy for generations to come.

About the Impact Series

The Impact Series is dedicated to showing how sportsmen, members of the Boone and Crockett Club in particular, saved the wildlife and wild places of the United States. Early members of the Boone and Crockett Club comprised the movers, shakers, and initiators of the American conservation movement. They were hunters, anglers, explorers, lawmakers, soldiers, and above all conservationists. These members established laws that allowed our wildlife resources to flourish. They also protected landscape-scale geologic marvels and American icons like Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Denali, and many, many more. These members may no longer be with us, but their legacy remains. This series aims to honor their accomplishments and remind us of the good work still yet to do.

PJ DelHomme writes and edits content from his home in western Montana. He runs Crazy Canyon Media and Crazy Canyon Journal.  


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"The wildlife and its habitat cannot speak. So we must and we will."

-Theodore Roosevelt