Wisconsin residents should rethink the purpose of the offices that govern wildlife and endangered resource management at the Department of Natural Resources. Threats to biodiversity and changing human values challenge the foundations of these offices and of the commission that guides departmental policy, the Natural Resources Council. The department must evolve from its traditional focus on game and fish to a more environmentally friendly and democratically inclusive agency protecting all of Wisconsin’s animal and plant diversity.
Unfortunately, the department, the board and our political leaders are stuck in a political quagmire.
The board is struggling to resolve the growing disharmony surrounding its decisions, most recently regarding the management of wolves. Perennial fireworks erupt over deer management policy. Beaver eradication to stock non-native fish is likely the next battleground.
Conflicts at meetings usually emerge when testimonies fall into two camps: preservation (those who want to save wildlife for future generations) and harvest (those who want to hunt wildlife). Arguments erupt over the perceived benefits and risks that the harvesting of fish and game or the lethal management of predators pose to wildlife populations, ecosystem health and animal welfare. Each side fights with “the best science available”.
The Board’s wildlife decisions are legally supposed to be based on a combination of science and values. And therein lies the problem: Which values matter most in determining Wisconsin’s fish and wildlife priorities, regulations, and policies? Interest groups promote their values by lobbying the governor for board appointments and lobbying for pending votes. MNR staff are also used to listening to some interest groups and not others. For many, this is an existential battle, resulting in passionate and sometimes uncivil behavior.
The council allowed its ex-chairman, Fred Prehn, to stay beyond his term and thumb his nose at state voters. At the same time, the legislature refused to approve Governor Tony Evers’ appointments. The Wisconsin Supreme Court is still deliberating on Prehn’s fate.
State law and state Supreme Court precedent direct the council and DNR to “regulate the enjoyment, use, disposition, and conservation of wildlife.” 2013 state statute and state Supreme Court ruling Rock-Koshkonong Lake District v. DRN also charge the department and its council to protect and preserve the state’s “fishing, hunting, recreational, and scenic waters.”
These contradictory messages produce conflicts. Look at the state policy towards wolves. As soon as wolves were removed from the federal endangered species list and management authority returned to MNR and the board, a group sued to force a wolf hunt. in February 2021. This hunt violated a fundamental principle of wildlife conservation and management: Do not destroy breeding stock and young.
Later that year the council approved another hunt which could have seriously threatened the remaining population. It’s no surprise that another state court stepped in to stop the second hunt and a federal court ordered that authority for the wolves be removed from our DNR and our board of directors.
Priorities need to be changed
What 2021 has shown us is that preservation should be a priority for the department and the board. We should, for example, stop stocking our waters with non-native fish and focus instead on restoring native species.
We also need to follow the money.
The budget of the Bureau of Wildlife Management which manages hunted animals dwarfs the budget of the Bureau of Endangered Resources. Yet the number of hunters continues to decline while the number of those taking advantage of other recreational opportunities in the state’s natural areas continues to grow.
The state must begin directing a significant portion of state park revenue to the Office of Endangered Resources budget to advance non-threatened species and endangered species protection activities. The office, by its own admission, “lacks a stable and dedicated source of funding”.
This will require rethinking how the DNR raises funds. Park revenue is not counted as wildlife revenue. But the permits that hunters and anglers pay to claim wildlife are. So the DNR goes into business for itself, stocking the rivers with non-native fish, killing native animals that don’t pay the DNR’s bills, and generally ignoring the will of the vast majority. They also ignore the science showing that a biodiversity crisis is upon us.
Science tells us that biodiversity is declining at an unprecedented rate. Growing species extinctions associated with climate change threaten Wisconsin’s public well-being and put future generations at risk.
Poor wildlife prognoses today did not exist 100 years ago when wildlife agencies were established to support the harvesting of fish and game. Their goal of “wise use, without waste” made sense in those earlier days. Times are different, ecological understanding has grown and public needs have changed. In response to the conflicts, the government has the opportunity to revise the mandate of the DNR.
States are required to protect wildlife as a trust for present and future generations. Following United States Supreme Court decisions since 1842, the Wisconsin Supreme Court as recently as 1962 considered wildlife as a public good. This means that the DNR has the duties of a fiduciary. The duties of fiduciaries are well established in financial law. Trustees must act fairly, transparently and disinterestedly for all beneficiaries, not just hunters and fishers.
The sad truth is that we are failing. The DNR’s historic goal remains to maintain only modest numbers of wild animals for food or trophies, even though it knows that hundreds of other species are in need of conservation and common animals also require care and compassion. The inconvenient truth is that the current mandate is heavily focused on animals of recreational and commercial value. As a result, long-term biodiversity health is compromised.
Clarifying MNR’s mandate around a top priority of conserving all wildlife for all will provide a unifying direction for the wading board and strengthen the department’s biodiversity mission.
Changing the Purpose of Ministry recognizes that government agencies must change as societal needs and public values change.
The DNR’s shift to a greener agency protecting Wisconsin’s animal diversity doesn’t mean the elimination of hunting or fishing — simply that our relationship with animals and nature is changing. Some unpopular decisions might be necessary when those decisions repair the damage done to the diversity and health of ecosystems.
Adrian Treves is a professor of environmental studies at UW-Madison and was an official reviewer for the US Fish & Wildlife Service’s proposal to remove gray wolves from the national list. Fred Koontz is a retired wildlife biologist and served in 2021 on the Washington State Fish & Wildlife Commission.