Illinois Department of Natural Resources
February 2022
February 1, 2022
Photo by Richard C. Hager, USFWS.

The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation

By Valerie Blaine
A brown and tan cottontail rabbit sits in a grassy area. Tall grasses are in the background.
Photo by Chelsi Burns, USFWS.

There are terms that roll off the tongue, like “carrying capacity,” “new normal” and “flextime.” And there are terms that don’t. “The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation” is one of those tough-to-spit-out terms. It’s a good one to know if you love the outdoors, wildlife and the native ecosystems of this great continent.

There’s a lot to digest in this mouthful of a term. First, what is The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation? The model is a system of policies and laws that protect and sustain wildlife populations. Or, put another way, the model is a framework. The structural beams are science, stewardship, ethics, and responsibility. Wildlife management and land conservation are built on this framework. 

Secondly, how is the model relevant to me, the naturalist, the birder, the hunter, the wildlife biologist, the land manager, the hiker, the everyday Illinoisian? Let’s take a look.

A brown beaver pauses on rocky shoreline before wading into a wetland.
Photo by Tim Umphreys.

The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation was born in a time of crisis for wildlife. By the turn of the 19th-20th century, scores of species of waterfowl, upland birds, mammals and fish were decimated. Some, such as the passenger pigeon, teetered on the brink of extinction. Yet, just 100 years earlier, the continent teemed with wildlife in vast landscapes of forests, mountains, and prairie that seemed to have no end. The sudden transformation was stunning, and the damage almost irreversible.

It’s tempting to look for someone to blame for the ecological devastation. How about hunters? Well, yes and no. Native Americans had hunted, fished, and foraged as a way of life for millennia in North America, long before the European invasion. The United States’ campaign against native peoples removed them from traditional hunting grounds and took away the animals they hunted. What little hunting was left for them by the turn of the century was negligible. Native American hunters are not to blame.

Two male adult brown, black, and tan greater prairie chickens face-off during their mating display in the early spring morning on the short grass of a prairie.
Photo by Michael R. Jeffords.

Another type of hunter, loosely known as the backwoods hunter of the early frontier, hunted and trapped across the country as the frontier receded to the Pacific Ocean. There were no limits on the numbers of animals they harvested, and furbearers bore the brunt of the impact. The once-ubiquitous beaver became scarce in many parts of the country.

By far the most destructive hunting in the young nation was market hunting. As the United States experienced its 19th century growth spurt, market hunters saw dollar signs in feathers and fur. They killed wildlife with impunity and sold wagonloads, shiploads and trainloads of their catch to burgeoning urban populations. “In the old days,” reminisced an elderly market hunter in 1941, “a good market hunter … shot an average of 100 birds a day and thought nothin’ of it. On an average good day he bagged between 140 and 150 birds.” This old timer himself “killed and sold about 10,000 wild game birds each season between 1902 and 1911.” And that’s just one hunter. Wetlands, waterways and prairies were peppered with others like him. 

An American bison stands in a grassland. Tan grasses are in the background.
Photo by Ryan Moehring, USFWS.

As new railroads penetrated the prairies and plains, many market hunters turned their attention to bison. In 1871 alone, they slaughtered five million bison, according to Robert Brown, professor emeritus at North Carolina State University. By 1886, only 540 bison were left in the United States.

If blame is to be laid on hunters, we can easily point a finger at market hunters. But hunting is only one piece of the puzzle. Habitat loss dealt an equally devasting blow to wildlife. The 19th century saw wholesale destruction of forests during the urban building boom. Timber was harvested at an astounding pace for railroad cars, railroad ties, and of course, for the aggrandizement of timber barons. The prairie—that ocean of grass stretching as far as the eye could see—diminished with each passing decade, succumbing to the plow, to drain tiles, to livestock and barbed wire. Rivers were treated as sewers and wetlands as dumps. Habitat destruction put the nail in the coffin for some species, and extinction was inevitable for animals such as the Carolina parakeet. 

Three brown and tan ducks stand on a fallen log in a wetland. Green vegetation surrounds the ducks. Shrubs are in the background.
Photo by Michael R. Jeffords.

In 1864, scholar and diplomat George Perkins Marsh published a warning in his expansive book Man and Nature. “Man has too long forgotten that the earth was given to him for usufruct alone, not for consumption, still less for profligate waste,” Marsh admonished. Going against the grain of public opinion, he warned that resources are, in fact, limited and will be depleted if the rapacious pillage of wildlife, forests and wetlands continued unchecked.

Another appeal came from George Bird Grinnell, an anthropologist, hunter, historian and writer. Grinnell sounded a clarion call for wildlife conservation in a publication he owned called Field and Stream. One of the magazine’s readers was a man named Theodore Roosevelt, himself an avid hunter. A propitious meeting of Roosevelt and Grinnell led to the foundation of the Boone and Crockett Club. The organization declared its purpose to be the protection of wildlife and conservation of resources for the future.  

A white egret and a gray great blue heron wade along the shoreline of a wetland. In the background is green vegetation.
Photo by Michael R. Jeffords.

The stakes were high, for wildlife and for humans. While Roosevelt lent his heft to the nascent conservation movement, non-hunters added momentum. Naturalist John Muir worked indefatigably to preserve wilderness in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and beyond. In 1892 Muir and other concerned Americans formed the Sierra Club, a group that advocated preservation of wilderness. Harriet Hemenway and Minna B. Hall took up the crusade to protect birds (largely from the millinery industry) and formed the first Audubon Society in Massachusetts in 1896.

These men and women set the stage for critical legislation to protect wildlife and wild lands. In 1900, the Lacey Game and Wild Birds Preservation and Disposition Act made interstate commerce in wild game illegal, nixing the work of market hunters. In 1903 Theodore Roosevelt, then President of the United States, created the first National Wildlife Refuge in the United States. Under his administration, Roosevelt protected some 230 million acres of land.

Other milestones included the requirement for hunting licenses to curb the wanton destruction of wildlife. The first state to institute this requirement was Pennsylvania in 1913, and other states followed suit. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Migratory Bird Treaty Act into law. Wilson also signed an international treaty provision protecting wildlife across political borders. 

A young girl displays her small blue, green fish successfully caught on a fishing line. In the background is a rocky shoreline of a wetland.
Photo by Robert Pos, USFWS.

More protections were rolled out in the 1930s. The Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp Act, passed in 1934, required hunters to purchase duck stamps, which generated revenue for preservation and conservation of waterfowl habitat. 1937 saw the passage of the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act (also called the Pittman-Robertson Act). This key legislation established an excise tax on sporting arms and ammunition, thereby securing funds for wildlife protection, habitat restoration, research, and education. A similar act, the 1950 Federal Aid in Sport Fish Restoration Act, focused on fisheries. 

The protections and provisions of this sweeping legislation became collectively become known as the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation. Over time, conservationists articulated the model in seven principles:

  1. Wildlife is a public resource. 
  2. It is illegal to buy and sell meat from game species. 
  3. Access to wildlife for hunting is regulated through legal hunting seasons, licenses, and bag limits. 
  4. Wildlife can only be killed for a legitimate purpose. 
  5. Wildlife species are an international resource. 
  6. Science is the proper tool for determining wildlife policy. 
  7. People may hunt in the United States regardless of wealth, land ownership or prestige. 

The model has garnered heaps of praise, and some people hail it as the crowning achievement of conservation in the United States. It did, indeed, turn the tide for wildlife in the early 20th century. The model’s salient achievement includes the regulation of hunting and fishing, restoration of wildlife populations, such as the white-tailed deer, creation of innovative measures to fund conservation, and international partnerships to protect migrating animals. 

Three iridescent black adult turkeys walk along the edge of a prairie. Behind the turkeys are two grazing gray white-tailed deer. In the background is a woodland edge.
Photo courtesy of IDNR.

The model had a big impact here in Illinois as well. 

“The principles of NAM are directly responsible for our many conservation successes in wildlife recovery,” said Mike Wefer, Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) Chief of the Division of Wildlife Resources. “Everything the IDNR Wildlife Division does or recommends is guided by these principals.”

NAM is not without its critics, and even its champions see the need for revisions. The world is a different place today than it was at the turn of the 19th and 20th century when the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation took shape. Wildlife (and, arguably, humans) are again at a time of crisis, facing sobering existential challenges. 

There is broad agreement that the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation needs to grow with the changing ecological, socioeconomic and cultural climate.  

“It is important for the Model to evolve with science and policy changes,” wrote John Buhnerkempe, retired IDNR Chief of the Division of Wildlife Resources. 

Canadian wildlife biologist Mateen A. Hessami and colleagues tackled the topic in their paper “Indigenizing the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation.” They suggested a more holistic model, considering ecosystems in all their complexities, rather than focusing on game species. A panel of experts in the Wilderness Society and Boone and Crockett Club concurred, recommending “landscape-level” planning, inclusive of all taxa and stakeholders.

A orange, yellow, black, and white monarch butterfly nectars on a purple flower.
Photo by Michael R. Jeffords.

How has the model changed in Illinois, and how will it continue to evolve? Wildlife biologists today have a much broader scope than in the past, and non-game species are understood to be just as vital as game species in conservation management. Conservation of pollinator habitat, for example, is a priority in the Prairie State, as pollinators are linked to the health of wildlife on all levels. IDNR wildlife managers use advanced technological tools, such as the Geographic Information Systems to see a bigger, more detailed picture than possible in the past. Programs like Illinois Learn to Hunt embrace a greater diversity of hunters in the conservation community. 

“In the future,” predicted Buhnerkempe, “the North American Model will proactively guide critical wildlife conservation and policy.” 

Insights gained from research and experience will allow the model to be remain relevant. Here’s to the changes ahead, and a healthy future for wildlife and wild lands. 

Valerie Blaine has worked as a naturalist for more than 40 years, from the prairies and woodlands of Illinois to the shores of the San Francisco Bay. She earned a master’s degree in forestry and a bachelor’s degree in botany from the University of Illinois. Blaine retired as the Nature Programs Manager for the Forest Preserve District of Kane County.