Points North – When America shuts down, so does wildlife conservation
By Shawn Perich
The other night a friend told me he didn’t care if the government was shut down. He doesn’t think government matters, anyway. Ironically, we’d just been talking about duck hunting. You see, in order to go duck hunting, you must first purchase a federal duck stamp. Since its enactment in 1934, the duck stamp has provided stable funding for the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund, which is used to acquire waterfowl habitat.
It is fair to say that if federal government hadn’t stepped in to oversee waterfowl management and ensure some level of wetlands protection 80 years ago, duck hunting as we know it wouldn’t exist today. The duck stamp has helped pay for the National Wildlife Refuge system, a network of wild places strategically placed throughout the country to provide waterfowl and a host of other wildlife species with breeding, migration and wintering habitat. Any duck hunter worth his decoys recognizes the importance of refuges and habitat for maintaining duck abundance on a continental scale.
My friend does much, if not most, of his hunting and fishing within the Superior National Forest, which encompasses over 3 million acres of lakes and woods in northeastern Minnesota. This is a place where exceptional fishing and hunting for an array fish and game are taken for granted. This is extraordinary when you consider the forest and its hundreds of lakes are public and open to all.
Fishing on Lake Superior and in its tributaries is among my friend’s many pursuits. Again, we owe it all to the government. Virtually none of the trout and salmon we catch from Superior would exist without the ongoing sea lamprey control program conducted by the U.S. and Canada. Federal hatcheries produce lake trout and other native fish that are stocked in Lake Superior to recover fish populations once decimated by past overfishing, pollution and sea lamprey predation. Ironically, sea lamprey control the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had scheduled for Minnesota waters this October may not occur due to the shutdown. I wonder who my friend will blame if he has poor fishing or catches lots of lamprey-scarred fish next summer.
Certainly, many hunters of my acquaintance are dismayed to see the habitat disappearing from their favorite pheasant hunting areas. The health of wildlife habitat on the prairie is largely dependent upon federal policies and programs included in the nation’s Farm Bill. The Conservation Reserve Program, begun during the 1980s, provided a generation of hunters with grassland habitat, resulting in an abundance of pheasants, ducks, deer and other wildlife. Now, with agricultural policies emphasizing commodities production, CRP and other farmland conservation programs are falling by the wayside. The abundance of pheasants and other game prairie hunters have come to take for granted will soon be a memory.
Fortunately, the government has provided hunters with a failsafe for prairie habitat—the fee title acquisition of lands for wildlife. Pheasant hunters are familiar with the green-and-white signs denoting federal Waterfowl Production Areas, as well as the yellow signs for Minnesota’s Wildlife Management Areas. Money for both comes from government programs, including the excise tax—strongly supported by the nation’s hunters—on firearm and ammunition sales. These public areas provide habitat and hunting opportunities in places where the entire landscape is devoted commodities production. Without these lands, pheasant hunting as we know it would not exist.
On top of all of this, government involvement in wildlife conservation is—dare I say it—as American as apple pie. Our forbearers decided that wildlife is something we hold in common, to be available to everyone. This is the foundation of the North American wildlife management model. For more than a century, hunters have been at the forefront of efforts to restore and protect wildlife, which has led not only to the establishment of refuges and wildlife areas, and programs to fund them, but also to academic programs in universities, wildlife enforcement, endangered species protection, management of marine resources, private land conservation and much, much more.
Could we do all of this without the government? Probably not. No other country has come up with a better alternative for wildlife conservation. Sure, you can go hunting in Europe or in Africa, but the land and the game are owned by someone else. Only in North America can you buy a hunting license and hunt on public land. And really, that’s the bottom line for why the government matters to hunters.
Sometimes I wonder if American hunters like my friend realize the incredible gift they’ve received from those who walked the ground before them. The game we hunt and the wildlife we enjoy belong to all of us. Hunting is not a privilege reserved for landed gentry and wealthy, but something available to everyone. Better still, some of the most beautiful, wild country on Earth is American public land. Virtually no one gets to see and interact with those wild places in same, intensely personal way as hunters.
Now, I really don’t give a flying monkey about your personal politics. Instead of getting lost in the partisan manipulations of the political elite, I worry more that no one in Washington these days really gives a damn about America the Beautiful, which is the place that I, as a hunter and angler, really care about. That’s why the government shutdown matters to me as a hunter. In the present political climate, accomplishing anything for American wildlife conservation is hopeless.