A minimal level of sportsman ethics afield is mandated by written law. Beyond that, say, when an action is legal but ethically questionable, or when (as Aldo Leopold long ago pointed out) no one is watching, hunter ethics is an individual responsibility. As the existentialists would have it, we determine our own honor minute by minute, action by action, one decision at a time.
But what of the agencies charged with the two primary duties of (1) overseeing America's wildlife in ways that will assure perpetually healthy herds, while (2) vouching safe equitable public access to that publicly owned resource? And finally, what of the elected officials who, via passing or killing proposed legislation, steer our wildlife agencies? Where are the principles to help guide these all-important players to intelligently navigate these challenging times (thanks to ongoing habitat loss) for wildlife and democratic hunting in America?
In fact, a paradigm for lawmakers and wildlife managers does exist. It's called the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, developed during the 1990s by The Wildlife Society and adopted in 2002 by the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. Like the Leopold example for individual hunter behavior, the North American Model (NAM) has (for the most part) no direct force in law. Rather, the NAM simply lists seven tenets that are widely agreed on by wildlife professionals to be essential to perpetuate the very good deal North American hunters enjoy today. Happily, beginning in 1842 and since, some of the most important aspects of these managerial guidelines to wildlife conservation have been codified by the Supreme Court, though these remain vulnerable to neglect or misapplication at the state level... which is precisely what we're currently facing here in Colorado via Senate Bill 13-188. More about that in a moment.
The bottom line is that had sportsmen, wildlife managers, and the courts not birthed and embraced the NAM, sportsmen and women today would have neither the abundance of wildlife nor the equal-opportunity access to that bounty of game that makes North America the envy of hunters, anglers, and other friends of wildlife worldwide. In the following discussion I'll focus on the three NAM principles most specifically molested d by elements of SB13-188, like so:
Wildlife is a public trust resource: This is the foundational cornerstone of the NAM. In stark opposition to the European model, wherein the ability to hunt big game is reserved to a privileged elite, "we the people" of North America all are 'royalty' insofar as we collectively own our continent's indigenous wildlife, including birds, fish, and game. Our collective trust is placed in democratically elected governments and their agents to professionally and equitably manage, conserve, and allocate the annually expendable portion of this wildlife wealth for public use. Essential to this public trust is a responsibility for lawmakers and management agencies to stand unflinching guard against the constant pressures, often insidious, to privatize access to public wildlife. Yet the wild game farming and canned killing industry and the Landowner Voucher Program ("voucher program"), the latter which is proposed to be significantly expanded by SB13-188, both spit in the face of the North American Model and, thereby, threaten meaningful democracy and the future of hunting in America.
Allocation of wildlife by law: Individual states, via their respective wildlife agencies, must distribute hunting and fishing privileges to assure that the wealthy and powerful have no advantage over the rest of us with regard to the availability of permits, especially on public lands. Which brings us to the heart of my concern about Colorado's landowner voucher program in general, and SB13-188 in particular, to wit:
The landowner voucher program has for some years now allowed private landowners to acquire, via a closed lottery, up to 15 percent of available big game tags for elk, deer, and pronghorn in limited-draw hunting units in which their property is located. The more acreage of qualifying land you own, the more voucher tags you're eligible to draw. The spoiler is that these voucher tags, a staggering 12,000 to 15,000 of which are doled out annually, are transferable and wind up being resold at premium prices, creating privileged access via property and wealth. This would be less offensive if these thousands of voucher tags were good only on the landowners' properties. Instead, via the voucher system those with fat purses can buy hunting access to coveted restricted hunts unit-wide, including public lands as well as private. Consequently, what we have with Colorado's voucher system is a luridly lucrative private business selling access to public wildlife on public lands at prices few can afford to pay. This blatantly runs afoul of several of the most important NAM guidelines and, understandably, has been fabulously unpopular with sportsmen from the get-go.
In fairness to the Colorado Department of Parks and Wildlife (CPW), their intent for the voucher program at its advent years ago was to give landowners who host big game on their property a "thank you" advantage in drawing tags for themselves and their families to hunt on their own land; a wholly equitable arrangement that I applaud and believe should exist. Subsequent legislation allowing landowner voucher tags to be resold for personal profit, as well as allowing end-users of those tags to hunt on public lands as well as private was subsequently pushed through not by CPW but by -- who else? -- agricultural interests. This overtly nepotistic legislation blatantly violates the NAM's emphasis on democratic access and public ownership of wildlife and brings Colorado a big step closer to the European model of de facto ownership of wildlife and control of access via land and wealth.
Which brings us back to our current dilemma with SB13-188. What began as a no doubt earnest effort to hammer out fixes for the most egregious and tenaciously unpopular aspects via committee, has instead produced legislation that makes the voucher inequities even worse by recommending an overall increase in landowner tags, at the same time failing to eliminate the vulgar public lands inclusion.
Democracy of hunting: In order to retain public support, hunting opportunities and wildlife management principles must remain fully democratic in form and function, because democracy demands accountability. (Exactly as I'm attempting to exact here and now.) The game farming and canned hunting industry, as well as Colorado's landowner voucher program, both are slaps in the face to equity of hunting opportunity, and thus injurious to American democratic principles and national pride far beyond the wildlife realm.
What were the voucher reform committee members thinking when they proposed doing this to Colorado sportsmen?
Certainly, private land wildlife habitat, especially in winter, is critical to maintaining healthy herds in perpetuity, since a majority of public land fails to provide quality winter habitat. But can't an equitable arrangement be found that doesn't undermine the guiding principles of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation while robbing citizens of thousands of tags each year in order to inequitably enrich private landowners and loophole-savvy middlemen brokers?
Again, here's the essential point that's being missed or overlooked: Only with every element of the NAM firmly in place and actively operative can we hope to maintain the modern miracle of public ownership of wildlife and democratic access for all Americans.
With this background, it's hardly surprising that the majority of public comments the SB13-188 committee has received speak out against the proposed legislation. Yet the committee voted unanimously to present legislation that would further fatten rather than slim down the well-hated voucher program! More perplexing yet is that CPW has added its endorsement to the proposed legislation, in direct opposition to its primary responsibility to the outdoor public to uphold the NAM. Why?
But most disconcerting of all is the fact that so far, only one state hunters' organization has had the vision, political fortitude, and loyalty to their members to stand and deliver against this wrongheaded legislation. That group is Colorado Backcountry Hunters and Anglers (CO BHA).
As Teddy Roosevelt, America's premier hunter-conservationist, long ago cautioned:
We do not intend that our natural resources shall be exploited by the few against the interests of the many... Our aim is to preserve our natural resource for the public as a whole, for the average man and the average woman who make up the body of the American people.
If this crack in the armor of the North American is allowed to be further enlarged here in Colorado, it will be directly owing to sportsmen's, and sportsmen's groups', collective failure to hold wildlife managers and lawmaker's feet firmly to the cleansing fire of the NAM.
At this writing, SB13-188 is headed to the House Agiculture Committee, which of course is hardly stacked in favor of public interests.
Nonetheless, please join me in writing Ag Committee and asking them, politely but firmly, to kill SB13-188 as currently written. Should it pass, it will only serve to stir further resentment against agricultural interests among outdoorsmen; not a good strategy in the long run.
Once the bill (predictably) passes out of the Ag Committee, it will be time to contact our elected officials... the final resort of democracy. And please spread the word; there's no time to waste.
While we need to honor and reward landowners for hosting wildlife, we don't need to gratuitously enrich them at public expense.