Are North American Wildlife Management Approaches Sufficiently Science Based?
Most advocates oppose lethal methods of wildlife management as a first or predominant approach because they value the welfare of individual animals. Non-lethal methods of population control, such as fertility blocking vaccines for deer, have proved to be effective in some urban and suburban areas, and so advocates believe that natural resource agencies should explore these techniques as viable options when appropriate. Regardless of whether a management plan employs lethal or non-lethal management strategies (or a combination of both), it should at the very least be grounded in sound science that justifies the recommended actions.
This review is the first to assess the validity of agencies’ science-based wildlife management claims. The authors of this study point out that natural resource agencies often claim to follow the North American Model of Wildlife, which states that “science is the proper tool to discharge policy.” However, these agencies rarely describe how their management is grounded in science.
To conduct their study, the authors identified four scientific “hallmarks” that should be present in science-based management plans: 1) Measurable objectives, 2) Evidence, 3) Transparency, and 4) Independent review. They determined these hallmarks by reviewing a broad range of literature on the application of science to wildlife management and identifying the top four components that recurred most frequently. They also established between one and five criteria that are associated with each hallmark and indicate the presence of that hallmark in a management plan. These indicator criteria (in the form of questions) are listed in the table below.
Table 1. Hallmarks and their associated indicator criteria
|Measurable Objectives||• Are measurable objectives provided?|
|Evidence||• Is quantitative information about populations reported?
• Are uncertainties in population parameter estimates reported?
• Are estimates of realized hunting rates provided?
|Transparency||• Are techniques for setting hunting quotas explained?
• Does the agency explain how they estimated population parameters?
• Does the agency explain how they estimated realized hunting rates?
• Is publicly available management information provided?
• Did the agency respond to public inquiry?
|Independent Review||• Are management plans subjected to any review?
• Are management plans subjected to external review?
The authors examined 667 hunting management plans for 27 species across the US and Canada to determine the extent to which they contained these indicator criteria and hallmarks. They found that over half (60%) of the hunting management plans they reviewed addressed less than half of the 11 criteria. Key findings included:
- Only 26% of the plans included measurable objectives, which means they may not have set a benchmark against which to determine the efficacy of their management approaches.
- Only about half (52%) of the plans provided information about a species’ population, and a mere 15% reported the degree to which their population estimates could vary. This implies that the agencies may not have determined reliable baseline populations or accurately predicted changes in populations.
- Well over half (76%) of the agencies provided publicly accessible information (e.g., on their website) about how they estimated the number of animals culled, but only 11% explained how they set hunting quotas.
- Few of the plans (6%) were subjected to an independent, external review. The authors point out that third party review (e.g., peer review) is fundamental to scientific research because it ensures that studies are impartial, rigorous, and intelligible. Moreover, they suggest that independent review could help agencies gain the public’s trust and interest.
Overall, the findings call into question the extent to which science plays a role in wildlife management decision making in the US and Canada. While they acknowledge that management decisions should not be shaped by science alone, they do suggest that decision makers should disclose the role that science plays compared to other factors such as politics and economics. They also recommend that scientific evidence undergird management plans when this is the public’s expectation or when agencies claim their plans are grounded in science.
For animal advocates, this study supports claims that wildlife management decisions don’t rely enough on scientific evidence. The indicator criteria also provide a means for advocates to assess whether wildlife management plans are sufficiently science based, as well as the basis for campaigns that seek to protect certain ecosystems or species from exploitation through “management.”