The feds, the states, and the critters

Since before the Revolutionary War wildlife in the United States has been public property, and for almost as long the oversight of that wildlife has been the purview of the states.  Just as with almost every other issue, from education to health care, the integrity and coherence of state control has become less clear as the US has become larger, more populous, and more complex.


Example one is the ongoing struggle over Bison in Yellowstone National Park.  I’ve written about this plenty, and the latest development is that the National Park Service is culling (killing) around 1000 bison as we speak.  The short version is that because bison are not allowed to migrate far from the park, due to specious concerns like brucellosis and less specious concerns like property damage, mild winters and good summers (like 2014-15) cause a surge in the population which the area within the park cannot sustain.  While it is brutal, the cull is probably the least noxious alternative that public policy will currently allow.

State of Montana policy has always been more conservative than that which the NPS has been inclined towards, and for the most part the later has gone along with the wishes of the former, helped along by the occasional lawsuit.  Montana, or at least the current (Democratic) governor, has been moving towards a more liberal policy as far as bison are concerned.  Hopefully this will be a generational thing, and as the current crop of 50+ ranchers dies off a more inclusive view of bison will prevail.  What would a permanent bison population in the Gallatins look like?  Or in the Missouri River Breaks?  Hopefully in the next twenty years we’ll find out.

Example two are mountain goats in the La Sal mountains near Moab.  Evidence strongly suggests that neither goats nor Bighorn sheep were ever native to the area, and it is plain that the state of Utah introduced the animals to make money off hunting, and picked goats over sheep because they don’t have the same susceptibility to catching diseases from domestic stock.  Utah got sneaky, and over Forest Service objections released the goats on an island of state land, knowing that they’d roam onto federal land.  Now the Forest Service is being sued by various groups, over concerns that they’ll damage alpine plants.  The problem here is obvious: the state governs the critters, while the federal government governs everything else in the area, and when the two don’t agree and refuse to compromise problems happen.

Example three is set to play out in a similar fashion; the National Wildlife Refuge system in Alaska is currently contemplating a rule change which would (long story short) forbid on said refuges a number of predator hunting and predator control procedures which the state of Alaska condones and commonly uses.  The overall thrust of the change is best up by the following:

We would prohibit predator control on refuges in Alaska, unless it is determined necessary to meet refuge purposes, Federal laws, or policy; is consistent with our mandates to manage for natural and biological diversity, biological integrity, and environmental health; and is based on sound science in response to a significant conservation concern. Demands for more wildlife for human harvest cannot be the sole or primary basis for predator control.

It is yet to be seen if this rule will be passed, and I lack the knowledge and context to say how likely that might be, but if so this rule promises to be the harbinger of substantial change in US wildlife policy.  Hunting has long been prohibited in National Parks, a vestige of poaching in the early days of Yellowstone, more than anything.  But for the most part other federal lands, be they BLM, Forest Service, or National Monuments, impose few if any regulations beyond those put in place by the state.  The spectre of more federal rules restricting how states can regulate hunting on federal lands is very interesting to contemplate.

Of course, it’d be truly interesting if federal land managers went both ways with their involvement, and (for instance) allowed a winter bison hunt within Yellowstone, which would be far more effective than the current state hunt in Montana, which is entirely dependent on bison moving out of the park, and one might argue more ethical than the cull currently taking place.

5 responses to “The feds, the states, and the critters”

  1. Meanwhile, in Olympic National Park, we can’t get rid of the goats. They aren’t native to the area, and are endangering native, even endemic, species. But goats are cool, so they don’t want to kill them (I guess). Or it is harder to kill them then kill bison. There have been efforts to helicopter a few out (which isn’t that crazy — ironically, the native Cascade goats aren’t doing that well) but mainly everyone just puts up with them. If only they were a threat to ranchers.

    1. If the state wanted to get rid of them via shooting they could fairly easily. Goats aren’t hard to find, and aren’t hard to get within rifle range of, but it can be troublesome to shoot them in a place where they won’t take a nasty fall. If you remove wanting to recover the meat and horns from the equation things are pretty simple.

      As with the bison cull, would be a PR nightmare. I assume many folks have no idea they’re not native. It’s remarkable how few places goats are in fact native to: Montana is more guilty than anyone, it seems.

  2. That is fascinating. How do you think these issues will mesh with the current concerns about states taking over Federal Land (to sell it off, presumably)? The Feds seem to be very much on the good guys list now, at least for hunters, though that might be affected (or not) if hunters feel their harvest interests are bypassed by other interests. Full disclosure: I actually am a biologist, I do not hunt but I will start as soon as feasible, and I plan to hunt for meat. As the issue is purely academic for me at the moment I’d rather go home empty handed than have more game and fewer predators. I do not think these feeling would change with me being able to hunt and hinting to get food. Nevertheless I cannot guarantee they won’t.

    1. Hopefully this second coming of the Sagebrush Rebellion will hasten the reimagination of hunting by the younger generations. The last four years have been interesting for me, in that my base assumptions going back a ways are decidedly liberal (and fulfills most of the stereotype that comes with that). I’ve changed my mind on a number of things, and broadened my perspective on quite a few more, as a result of being exposed to hunting. I’ve also become more disgusted than ever at the somewhat brutishly traditional judeo-Christian assumption that man has definitive dominion over the earth, and the extent to which its intertwined with so much of the conventional wisdom in hunting today. Quite a few hunters begin with the assumption that humans can and should be the beginning and end of wildlife management, and it’s hard to agree when that departure happens so early on.

      Somewhat related, and something everyone interested in hunting should read:

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