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Continental-Scale Ecological Restoration: The
North American Model of Wildlife Conservation
Leonard A Brennan*
Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute, Texas A&M University, USA
Submission: February 03, 2020; Published: February 27, 2020
*Corresponding author: Leonard A Brennan, Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute, Texas A&M University – Kingsville, USA
The North American Model underpins one of the world’s most significant and powerful conservation success stories. It is a unique wildlife management approach with no clear analog globally…” —Cooney (2020:153)
How to cite this article: Leonard A Brennan. Continental-Scale Ecological Restoration: The North American Model of Wildlife
Conservation. JOJ Wildl Biodivers. 2020: 2(1): 555584 DOI: 10.19080/JOJWB.2020.01.555584
Ecological restoration is considered by many to be a relatively new subdiscipline in ecology. However, in the United States and Canada, large-scale efforts to restore populations of numerous species of wild vertebrates have been ongoing since the early 20th century. These wildlife restoration efforts have become collectively known as the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, a term coined by Valerius Geist in 1995, hereafter called the Model. The roots of the Model first developed from early efforts by people such as Theodore Roosevelt as a conservation doctrine in a political response to the public outcry against the overharvest and waste of large mammals, waterfowl and wading birds that brought many species to the brink of extinction. There are seven principles on which the Model is based:
1. Wildlife resources are in public trust
2. Markets for game have been eliminated
3. Allocation of wildlife is regulated by law
4. Wildlife can only be killed for legitimate purposes
5. Wildlife is an international resource
6. Science is the proper tool on which to base wildlife policy
7. Hunting is a democratic standard that is available to virtually anyone who demonstrates they are qualified to hunt safely.
Federal laws such as the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (1918), and the Pittman-Robertson Act (1937); also known as the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act) provided regulatory law, and a mechanism for funding wildlife restoration projects from a federal excise tax on guns and ammunition. Funds from these purchases are redistributed to state wildlife agencies based on purchases of hunting licenses and in the case of the Dingell-Johnson Act, freshwater fishes caught by anglers.
During the past century, the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation has resulted in massively successful population restorations of ungulates, large carnivores, waterfowl, furbearers, wild turkeys, and many species of freshwater fishes, as well as the habitats needed to support them . Hunting (and freshwater angling in fisheries conservation and management) license sales, along with state and federal agency harvest records over multiple decades have provided a de facto monitoring system that has generated the metrics to document this success. Admittedly, the focus of the Model on game species was both a strength as well as a potential shortcoming that has been overcome, at least partially, by additional federal regulations such as the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act that includes numerous species threatened by potential extinction. The Model has been central to more than
a century of wildlife restoration success in North America, and the maturation of wildlife science as applied ecology. Despite the success of the Model, numerous challenges such as widespread decline of grassland birds and other wildlife species that require early successional habitats in North America remain as urgent conservation priorities, if not actual crises. Contemporary factors such as climate change, ever-increasing human resource demands, animal rights and welfare activists, along with commercialization of wildlife, present challenges to the Model that must be overcome if it is to remain successful for another century of continued restoration and ultimately, sustainability of wild vertebrates on the North American continent. Wildlife resources as a public trust
Arguably, one of the most remarkable and successful efforts at ecological restoration is hiding in plain sight today throughout most of the continental United States and Canada. The fact that
wildlife resources are held in public trust is a policy that has
been central to the recovery and restoration of many species of
game animals in North America. In Europe, game animals were
considered property of the Crown, and thus were inaccessible
to commoners. When Europeans settled North America, they
found an abundance of game animals and fishes and virtually
unlimited access to these resources. Thus, access to abundant
populations of game species was virtually unlimited to anyone
almost anywhere as the colonies and provinces were settled
[1,2]. The downside of this situation was that people took this
unlimited access to game animals for granted. Over time, the
overexploitation of game animals resulted in a classic example
of a tragedy of the commons . However, the implementation
of laws, acts and policies, as well as cultural awareness and
appreciation of wildlife, has resulted in enormously successful
wildlife population restoration projects.
The unregulated killing of game animals for sale to markets
and restaurants was a huge policy challenge that had to be solved
in order for conservation and hence restoration these resources
to occur. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, people such as
Theodore Roosevelt and George Bird Grinnell formed the Boone
and Crockett Club to promote their philosophy of fair-chase
hunting, as opposed to the widespread killing of game for sale
to markets .
The legal framework of international treaties, federal
laws and state regulations that form the basis of the Model
have worked to promote the restoration of game populations
because they have been largely impervious to political changes
and challenges  over more than a century. Beginning with
the U.S. Constitution and the Second Amendment in the Bill of
Rights (to own firearms), the influence of English Game Law
was overthrown as the U.S. became an independent country.
The concept of wildlife in particular and nature in general as
common property that cannot be privately owned has roots in
ancient Roman law. In 1842, the U.S. Supreme Court formally
recognized states as public trustees of wildlife, and in 1896,
further designated that wildlife was legally held in public trust,
rather than private ownership. The Lacey Act of 1900 protects
both plants and animals by prohibiting trade in these resources.
“It is one of the most significant pieces of legislation to curtail
the unlawful taking of wildlife in the United States...” Cummins
Definitions of what are legitimate versus illegitimate
reasons for killing wildlife has changed to some extent over past
decades. Shifting the take of game species from market hunting
economics to a philosophy of fair chase hunting clearly drew a
line between illegitimate and legitimate purposes. Killing wild
birds for plumage to decorate women’s hats quickly went from
being legitimate to illegitimate in the early 20th century as the
public became appalled at such a practice.
While killing game species for their meat to nourish humans
is obviously a legitimate pursuit, this history of how predators
have been treated becomes much more complicated. When most
of North America was wilderness, potentially dangerous animals
such as bears, wolves and mountain lions were obviously seen as
threats to human life as well as competition for meat from game
species. As time marched forward however, people were nearly
successful at eradicating these large carnivores, even to the point
of making populations of several of these species endangered.
Today, protection under the Endangered Species Act makes the
killing of large predators illegal in most cases, other than in cases
of repeated livestock depredation or human safety.
Basing wildlife policy on science should be straight-forward
and based on common sense. In his book Game Management 
basing management actions on scientific finding was a crosscutting
theme. In a classic case history of basing wildlife-habitat
management actions on science, Herbert Stoddard demonstrated
the important role of prescribed fire for maintaining northern
bobwhite habitat  despite spirited opposition from federal
Far too often, however, there is a disconnect between science
and policies linked to management . In wildlife science,
examples of such disconnects cut across taxa, (Brennan 2012,
Herman 2012)  as well as regions (Bowers et al. 2012) and
agencies block et al.2012) .
In England, the monarchy not only owned game species and
wildlife according to divine right, they also controlled access to
firearms, hunting dogs, and other paraphernalia used for hunting.
Clearly, this draconian policy served to keep commoners in their
place, and keep them from posing threats to the monarchy, vis-àvis
by prohibiting ownership to firearms.
Given the dominance of English settlement in North America
and Australia, it is reasonable to ask why the Model took root in
North America but not in a comparable manner in Australia. A
potential theory to explain this difference may be that Australia was settled as a penal colony, whereas most of the original
colonies and provinces in the U.S. and Canada were settled by
people with free will. Burgin  considered these settlement
differences but looked beyond them by noting that Australian
colonists found wildlife on that continent to be relatively scarce
and highly unfamiliar compared to the abundant and economic
value of game species. In North America, a social-utilitarian
approach to wildlife conservation emerged, with recreational
hunting as a cornerstone whereas in Australia, a holistic
approach to conservation of biodiversity emerged, with far less
recreational hunting in their culture than in North America.
Several components of the Model have worked together in
concert to restore wildlife in North America. First, cession of
over-exploitation of animals from market hunting was a critical
step in this regard, along with adoption of a fair-chase hunting
philosophy. Second, a hard-wired federal funding mechanism
from excise taxes on sporting arms, ammunition, and angling
supplies and gear has resulted in billions of dollars for state
agencies to purchase land for state hunting areas, as well as
support agency programs and personnel. The excise taxes are
collected a point of sale, and deposited in Washington D.C. These
funds (Pittman-Robertson in the case of hunting, Dingell-Johnson
in the case of angling, are then redistributed to states based on
sales of hunting and fishing licenses and land area. Thus, federal
funds to aid wildlife and fisheries restoration are proportionally
distributed to states based on license sales; more license sales
in a state means more federal aid for restoration, and vice versa.
Third, state wildlife agencies, over the years, have created
de facto monitoring programs that have documented, and
continues to document, population trajectories of harvested
species. Hunter check stations, surveys, license sales, and myriad
population counting techniques have documented the recovery
of deer, furbearers, waterfowl, web less migratory game birds
and other resident game birds.
Fourth, the majority of wildlife population restoration
recovery efforts, especially those that use a triple-t approach
(trap, tag and translocate) have focused on restoring native
species to their original geographic ranges. This has especially
been the case with deer and wild turkeys. In some cases, nonnative
species have been introduced such as pheasants, chukars
and Hungarian partridge.
Fifth, there is a massive cultural appreciation for wildlife in
North America. The rapid demise of bison, beaver, deer, and other
once common animals struck a chord with the general public,
thanks to the many “early champions” who promoted wildlife
conservation efforts. Hunters and anglers, through the taxes
they pay for sporting arms and ammunition, angling gear, and
licenses have done more than any other group to restore wildlife
populations in North America. To many in the public who are
uninformed, this seems to be a contradiction in terms because
they conflate harvesting game animals as a negative phenomenon
rather than a sustainable pursuit, if managed correctly with bag
limits and hunting seasons based on biological criteria.
The legal and cultural constructs that form the basis for
the Model, and hence one of the largest and most successful
ecological restoration projects in the world have been moreor-
less impervious to the winds of political change during the
past century or so. Nevertheless, there are numerous emerging
challenges in our society and culture that need to be addressed
if the Model is to remain successful. Seven of the most significant
challenges to the Model include
1. Increasing human population
4. Novel Ecosystems
6. Lack of adequate funding
7. Superabundance of both native and invasive species
These topics were addressed in detail by Brennan et al. 
and are summarized here.
The process of globalization moves ideas and causes
organizations to operate on an international scale. What this
means is that distant publics can influence local and regional
policies by lobbying and generating political pressure to advance
agendas that may or may not be helpful for wildlife restoration
More than two-thirds (68%) of the global population is
projected to live in urban areas by 2050. In North America, more
than 80% of the population already lives in cities. Thus, the
human-nature divide is likely on track to become wider rather
Biogeographers now consider us to be in the Anthropocene
era. Half to three-quarters of the globe is dominated by urban,
suburban and industrialized landscapes. Putting the development
of novel ecosystems in the context of climate change makes this
challenge to the Model enormous.
Connectivity, which is the inverse of fragmentation, is
essential for maintenance of virtually all populations of wild
animals, whether they are migratory or resident. Declines in
huntable populations can work to potentially erode license sales
and other formula-funding support for wildlife restoration.
As noted above, hunters and anglers have generated the lion’s
share of financial support for wildlife restoration during the
past century. It is clear that alternative sources of funding need
to be identified so that less of the burden falls on hunters and
anglers to support wildlife restoration efforts. Perhaps a modest
excise tax on camouflage clothing, binoculars, field guides and
bird seed can provide additional support for wildlife restoration
efforts, especially for species that are not hunted. The state of
Missouri has a fraction of a penny tax on soft drinks that goes
directly to their state conservation agency, which has worked as
a supplement to funds from hunters and anglers for nearly three
In certain instances, the Model has resulted in a
superabundance of species such as white-tailed deer, elk, snow
geese, beavers and even black bears. This, in turn, leads to
human-wildlife conflict such as crop depredation, damage to
buildings, and excess bird manure on golf courses and city parks.
These sorts on negative interactions have the potential to erode
public support for wildlife restoration and conservation.
The Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered
Species Act are two pieces of federal legislation that have worked
with the Model to restore populations of animals that were once
at the brink of extinction. Elephant seals are a species that has
benefitted from the Marine Mammal Act (by protecting them
from exploitation), and peregrine falcon’s populations have been
restored to the point to where they were taken off the endangered
species list. In the case of peregrine falcons, legislation banning
the use of DDT and related chlorinated hydrocarbons allowed
falconers to successfully restore peregrines throughout the
eastern two-thirds of the United States.
Ecological restoration is a tricky business. The concept of
restoration is often deemed a warm and fuzzy effort to put things
back to the way they were before humans messed things up. How
we decide what to restore and what not to restore is a topic way
beyond the scope of this short article. Nevertheless, in the late
19th century, people joined hands in what must have seemed like
an impossible task at the time: restoring native game animals to
their former levels of abundance. By and large, they got things
right, and were wildly successful. However, we still have a long
way to go when it comes to restoration of populations of wild
species of animals and the habitats that support them. The
northern bobwhite quail, numerous species of grassland birds,
as well as scores of species that remain on the endangered list
all need attention from the North American Model of Wildlife
Conservation as we move forward through this century, and
This is publication number 20-111 from the Caesar Kleberg
Wildlife Research Institute. Support from the C.C. Winn Endowed
Chair in the Richard M. Kleberg, Jr. Center for Quail Research
made this paper possible.
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