Friday, March 23, 2012

Wolves as a Public Trust Resource

From the Wildlife Conservation Science & Policy blog:

by Jeremy Bruskotter
On 30 September my colleagues and I published an article in the journal Science that argues that the wildlife trust doctrine (a branch of the broader public trust doctrine) may provide a legal means for interested citizens to compel states to conserve wolves (or, for that matter, other controversial, imperiled species). What follows is a brief discussion of some of the major points presented in the paper (Bruskotter, J. T., S. A. Enzler, and A. Treves. 2011. Rescuing Wolves from Politics: Wildlife as a Public Trust Resource. Science 333:1828-1829).  We begin with a brief primer on the wildlife trust doctrine.

A Primer on the Wildlife Trust
The wildlife trust doctrine–a branch of the broader public trust doctrine that deals specifically with wildlife–was established in a series of court cases that provide the foundation for state-based conservation of wildlife that some refer to as the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation/Management.

Disagreement over the Public Trust Doctrine’s application to Wolves

 This past September my colleagues (S.A. Enzler & A. Treves) and I published an article arguing that the public trust doctrine could provide a legal means to force protection of wolves were state policies found lacking (Bruskotter et al., 30 Sept. 2011, p. 1828).  This article prompted two recent replies published by Science last month from L. David Mech and David Johns (17 Feb. 2012, p. 794).  Contrary to our assertion, Mech contended that “state governments have not shown ‘hostility toward wolves’”.  He defended this statement noting that “teams of highly qualified scientists set wolf recovery criteria” and state management plans pledged to maintain wolf populations at or above 150% of recovery goals.  Further, Mech argued that monitoring by the FWS ensured that “the wolf can be relisted anytime if necessary”.


  1. The idea begins with a false premise, that the gray wolf is actually imperiled. As currently interpreted it's doubtful the gray wolf would ever have achieved endangered status. "a portion of the range of a species as “significant” if its contribution to the viability of the species is so important that without that portion, the species would be in danger of extinction." and they consider current range not historic.

    It might well be argued that the public trust doctrine has been tarnished by exactly the uncontrolled re introduction of the gray wolf. Look at all the wildlife lost, wildlife that had been held in trust for us the public.

  2. Hmm. I read the chain of articles associated and I have come to conclusion that the authors understand very little of the history related to the reintroduction of wolves in the Northern Rockies, and maybe even less about how Section 10(j) of the Endangered Species Act was used to entice the states to agree to this reintroduction of what was deemed an "experimental and non-essential" population.

    This was an entirely negotiated reintroduction, the terms and conditions of which were negotiated between the states and the USFWS. When one thinks about the 10(j) status, it makes sense to use that section for reintroduction of a species that is not even close to endangered, as is the case with gray wolves.

    The Public Trust Doctrine is surely in play here. The Trustees are required to manage all wildlife, including wolves, for the benefit of the citizens of the states. That requires actual management. Management of all species, and wolves are not exempt from that process.

    The public comment process, the manner in which the state management plans were developed and adopted, the protections the state plans provide for delisting, all are well within the scope of the Pulbic Trust Doctrine. In fact, I could easily make the case that state management needs to be more aggressive in order to comply with the Public Trust Doctrine, as the Public Trust Doctrine does no allow one to completely focus on one species, to the peril of others. The ESA may provide for that, but not the Public Trust Doctrine.

    The authors seem to imply that the act of state wolf management, according to the state management plans that were submitted as part of this negotiated reintroduction, is some sort of breach of the fiduciary duties under the Public Trust Doctrine. I would argue that failure of the states to follow those plans, given all the went into their creation, would be a breach of their duties as Fiduciaries of the Public Trust.

    I may be wrong in my impressions of the case made by the authors, but as someone who has been very involved in both this wolf reintroduction and the discussions of the Public Trust, that is the impression I was left with.

  3. Both parties make good points. The Congressional delisting is a scary precedent. State wildlife conservation agencies serve at the whim of both legislative and executive branches - though under auspice of the judicial branch and existing laws - there is a lot of wiggle room there. That said, I am disturbed by what seems to be a widespread dismissal of State's commitment to wildlife conservation. States' wildlife conservation agencies are groups of THE most committed and dedicated professionals for wildlife conservation. You cannot find another group of professionals more committed to wildlife conservation. But yes, heads of these agencies are typically appointed by a governor - and if your governor refers to grizzly bears as "Massive Flesh Eating Carnivores", he might be preparing to ruin years of multi-partisan species conservation efforts (thank W for that one).

  4. Being the trustee for the public trust and politics are not very compatible. The average tenure of Fish and Wildlife directors is around one and a half years. Most directors are appointed by the governor and the rest by Fish and Wildlife Commissions.
    My take is we hunters have to be constantly vigilant and hold our leaders accountable to do their job and up hold the public trust for our wildlife.

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