Is the legislature suitable habitat for conservation?

11 May

Too many wolves!  Never enough deer!  Who says?  Well, now the law says, that’s who!

Recent legislative actions, at the national and local scales, have given ear to concerned constituents and have mandated wildlife management based on public sentiment – as opposed to biological information.  Does this signify a triumph for democracy or a defeat of science in the public sphere?

On the national stage, members of congress employed the political trickery of a rider tucked into the must-pass-fast budget compromise bill to remove western gray wolf populations from the endangered species list.  The rider acted as a reissuance of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2009 decision to delist the wolf – but, through this route, endangered species protections were removed free of scientific review and above the reach of the legal system.  On one hand, rider authors Senator Tester (D-Montana) and Representative Simpson (R-Idaho) were, no doubt, acting on behalf of their many constituents who feared that growing wolf populations threatened their ranching and/or hunting opportunities.  On the other hand, they clearly (purposefully and in no uncertain terms) side-stepped the concerns of conservation advocates and superseded the power of the courts (which were hearing challenges to the validity of the delisting at the time).  This rider could represent a dangerous precedent establishing natural resource management by political will.

Meanwhile, behind the cheddar curtain, the Wisconsin legislature considers a bill to restrict management options available to the state’s wildlife management agency.  Senate bill 75 (SB75) is an act “prohibiting the Department of Natural Resources from establishing certain restrictions on hunting antlered deer and regulating the establishment of fall open seasons for hunting deer with firearms”.  The bill would use legislative power to forbid the DNR from attempting to control the state’s deer herd through means unpopular with much of the hunting public.

So what tools does SB75 restrict?  Why would DNR use them anyway?  And why would so many hunters hate them?

1) Earn a buck: a harvest regulation requiring hunters in over-populated deer management units to harvest an antlerless deer before taking a buck.  The DNR implements this regulation as a last resort to control overabundant deer populations.  Because increasing the harvest of females decreases the reproductive output of the population, it’s an effective way to reduce herd numbers.  Plus – hunters like to shoot bucks, if you require them to shoot a doe before they’re allowed to shoot a buck, they’ll do it (they may not like it, but they’ll do it), harvest numbers increase, deer numbers decrease – it works (if you don’t believe me – check out VanDeelen et al. in the Journal of Wildlife Management from 2010).  The controversy – it works – but hunters don’t want to be told what to harvest and they don’t want to see a decrease in the deer population (also if you dissect testimony from public hearings: antlers are apparently what define an enjoyable hunting experience, and the harvesting of an antlered buck is apparently a fundamental right of the hunter – at least according to those vociferously opposed to the earn-a-buck regulation).

2) Early gun season: any harvest regulation that would allow the opening of a gun-based deer hunting season prior to the traditional opening the weekend before Thanksgiving.  The DNR would use this to control populations because more hunting days = higher harvest.  Starting the season earlier than normal means extra days of hunting in fine weather during the rut which should ensure higher participation and higher success than extending the season later into the Midwestern winter.  The controversy – traditions run strong around hunting; changing opening day would lead to an upheaval of everything from family traditions to Thanksgiving holidays to family vacation planning (and apparently one cannot start hunting on their traditional date if anyone else starts the week earlier).

So how should hunter preferences and tradition be taken into account in deer management?  At it’s heart this comes down to a question of how do you weigh the biologically optimal against the politically popular?  As a biologist, I will admit a strong personal bias toward managing ecological resources based on the best biological information available.  But, as a realist, I recognize that we don’t manage natural resources in a vacuum – we live in human dominated ecosystems – humans impact everything from local wildlife abundance, to regional habitat, to global climate – we can’t manage a thing without managing humans.

As scientists, I think we often neglect the importance of public information and perception in ecology.  At the end of nearly every manuscript we discuss the “management implications” or “impacts” of our research.  But what are the implications of our best scientific recommendations if the public is unaware of them, ill-equipped to comprehend them, or at principally opposed to our science?  We may be called on as experts to advise resource management agencies, but those public agencies are controlled by legislation, and those legislators are beholden to the voters not the scientists.  We can’t conserve carnivores in a society that still asks for bounties on the big bad wolf.  We can’t control herbivore populations amidst cries for a limitless game supply.

No one would call for silencing the voice of the people in a democratic process.  Certainly, as a citizen, I have to respect legislators taking action on the behalf of constituent concerns.  But, as a scientist, I cringe every time I see legislation managing natural resources according to profitability or popularity rather than ecological sustainability.  In order to ensure that the democratic process and the scientific method arrive at compatible conclusions, it’s crucial that the public be well informed and shout out in voices of reason.  So, as scientists, it is our responsibility to contribute to the public information – encouraging basic science education, making our research accessible to the masses, taking the time to explain variability and complexity in biological systems, and engaging both the public and politicians in the conversation of sound science.

**********audio bonus blog**********

The audio story below was produced for “In Our Backyard”, the local evening news on WORT 89.9 FM in Madison.  Recordings of senate hearing courtesy of WisconsinEye.org

Senate committee hearing on deer harvest regulations

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One Response to “Is the legislature suitable habitat for conservation?”

  1. coocoo-cachoo May 11, 2011 at 10:14 pm #

    I started writing this with the intent of lambasting the arrogance of the senators who would dare restrict ecological management with political decrees, as I contemplated and edited I was almost surprised to find my conclusion calling for communication rather than castigation.

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