In the early years of our nation, there were few laws protecting fish and wildlife and our wildlife resources took their toll. Market hunters took fish and wildlife at will as habitat disappeared under plows and roads, leading to devastating reductions in wildlife populations. Some species, such as the passenger pigeon, have been brought to the point of no return; others, such as bison, white-tailed deer and wild turkeys, have been pushed to the brink of extinction.
As the tide turned for conservation, significant legislation was passed including the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, the Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp Act of 1934, the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937, and the Federal Aid in Sports Fish Restoration. Act of 1950. Collectively, these laws laid the foundation for what inspired the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation.
Across North America, hunting was a largely unregulated activity for individuals and commercial entities until the 1800s, when citizens began to question whether wildlife populations could be maintained at healthy levels without hunting control. The legal framework that has since developed grew out of a set of principles now known as the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation. Seven features distinguish the North American model.
- Wildlife is a public resource. In the United States, wildlife is considered a public resource, independent of the land or water where wildlife can live. Government at various levels has a role to play in managing this resource on behalf of all citizens and ensuring the long-term sustainability of wildlife populations.
- Game markets are eliminated. Prior to the enactment of wildlife protection laws, commercial operations were decimating the populations of many species. Making the buying and selling of meat and parts of game and non-game species illegal has removed a huge threat to the survival of these species. A fur trade continues to be a highly regulated activity, often to manage invasive wildlife.
- Distribution of wildlife by law. Wildlife is a public resource managed by the government. Accordingly, access to wildlife for hunting is through legal mechanisms such as fixed hunting seasons, bag limits, permit requirements, etc.
- Wildlife can only be killed for a legitimate purpose. Wildlife is a shared resource that should not be wasted. The law prohibits the killing of wild animals for frivolous reasons.
- Wild species are considered an international resource. Some species, such as migratory birds, cross national borders. Treaties such as the Migratory Birds Treaty and CITES recognize a shared responsibility in the management of these species across national borders.
- Science is the appropriate tool for the discharge of wildlife policy. In order to manage wildlife as a shared resource in an equitable, objective and informed manner, decisions must be based on sound science such as annual surveys of waterfowl populations and the work of professional wildlife biologists.
- The democracy of hunting. In accordance with democratic principles, the government grants access to wildlife without regard to wealth, prestige or land ownership.