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Lions, States, and Bears, Oh My!

Wildlife Management as a Case Study in the Complexities and Nuances of American Federalism




Wildlife management in the United States has been, relatively speaking, enormously successful. Indeed, it’s not a stretch to say that America has been a leading light in wildlife management, and in conservation more broadly, for over a century. Our vast public lands, including pristine wilderness, national parks, national forests, state lands, and more are, together with the impressively diverse flora and wild fauna that inhabit them, the envy of the world.


There are many different agencies at all levels of government – national, state, and local – that play a role in this process. In other words, like so many other aspects of American government, federalism – our system of devolved, shared, and highly varied policymaking and administrative institutions – is central to managing both wildlife and the habitat they call home. While this federalist structure has, on balance, been a good thing for wildlife in the past, there are potential drawbacks insofar as sound, science informed policies are concerned, especially when species become politicized, and the policymaking process is dominated by a single political party. These conditions enable what I refer to as the “dark side” of federalism – single-party dominated subnational governments that are difficult to moderate or hold to account on a policy area by policy area basis – to influence wildlife management. Troublingly, our current moment is one in which these conditions have taken root in many states, particularly in the Rocky Mountain region.


The Positive Role of Federalism in Wildlife Management


Wildlife management in the U.S. is a federalized undertaking. The national government plays an outsize role in managing habitat, especially in the western states (AZ, CA, CO, ID, MT, NM, NV, OR, UT, WA, WY) where rates of federal land ownership are relatively high. Furthermore, the national government plays a significant role in setting and regulating environmental standards that, even in states with minimal federal land, significantly impact wildlife populations.






While there are many ideas and principles that apply across jurisdictions, such as a general adherence to the broad tenets of the North American model of wildlife management, each of the states largely formulate their own plans for how to best manage wildlife populations within their boundaries.


For species not protected under the national Endangered Species Act, the states are responsible for setting population targets for various species and determining how to best pursue those targets, including whether, when, and how to conduct hunting seasons. This devolved wildlife management makes a good deal of sense concerning both science and politics.


In terms of the science, wildlife biologists and other experts employed by state governments live in the same places as the wildlife that they’re tasked with managing, which presumably gives them a wealth of first-hand insights that would not be noticed by bureaucrats far away in the nation’s capital. Similarly, from a political standpoint, state governments are closer to the people whom they serve, which, in theory, should mean that state governments are better at knowing and prioritizing the needs of their constituents alongside scientific evidence.


state governments are closer to the people whom they serve, which, in theory, should mean that state governments are better at knowing and prioritizing the needs of their constituents alongside scientific evidence.

An additional benefit of this federal structure is that it allows states to learn from one another. If a given state implements a policy that ultimately has negative effects on wildlife, other states can avoid that policy moving forward. The potential for states to do things differently from one another and then learn which policy programs are (in)effective is why they’re often referred to as “laboratories of democracy” by federalism proponents.


In theory, there are many advantages of federalism for wildlife management. Fortunately, this has typically been the case in practice as well. However, under certain conditions, devolved management is less wholly positive for wildlife and can even be quite detrimental in some respects, as I discuss in the next section.


Partisan (Super)Majorities and the Politicization of Wildlife Management


History shows that there’s a dark side to federalism that occasionally reveals itself. When it comes to civil rights, for example, states have often failed to protect the fundamental rights of Americans, when left to their own devices. Jim Crow era policies in the South flew in the face of the promises of racial equality made by the national government and required eventual U.S. Supreme Court intervention to remedy.


The dark side of federalism sometimes casts a shadow over wildlife management, too. Indeed, much like how federalism can turn basic human rights into a lottery based on where someone happens to be born and live, federalism also means that wildlife receive different protections based on where they live, even within the same ecosystems that just so happen to span state boundaries.


The dark side of federalism sometimes casts a shadow over wildlife management, too. Indeed, much like how federalism can turn basic human rights into a lottery based on where someone happens to be born and live, federalism also means that wildlife receive different protections based on where they live, even within the same ecosystems that just so happen to span state boundaries.

This year, in Utah, for example, the state legislature passed a bill, HB 469, which was signed into law by Governor Cox, effectively reclassifying mountain lions as nuisance animals whose population needs to be dramatically decreased. For example, the bill allows someone, with the simple purchases of a fishing and hunting license, to “hunt and trap cougar during a period beginning on January 1 and ending on December 31” without limits on the number of lions that individual can kill. All told, this change allows North America’s iconic big cat to be killed year-round, in limitless quantities, by anyone, using virtually any method. This policy is in stark contrast to how other western states manage mountain lion populations. For example, in Arizona, Idaho, Nevada, Montana, and Wyoming (just to name a few), the number of mountain lions permissible to be killed is scientifically determined from one area (often called hunting units or hunting areas) to the next, hunting seasons are set (rather than it being a year round free for all), and there are regulations on how the animals can be killed – all considerations that Utah, and Utah alone, now disregards.


This change was decried by many, including wildlife biologists and conservation organizations, who believe that the decision not only devalues mountain lions as a species and cultural symbol, but also the very idea of scientific management itself. (1) Unlike states like Montana and Wyoming, Utah does not have grizzly bears or wolves, which makes mountain lions the keystone predator in the Beehive State. As such, what happens to lions has an outsize effect on Utah’s ecosystems as whole, as biologists realize. (2)


The amendments to HB 469 that produced said changes were introduced at the last minute and were not subject to extensive debate or public comment before being passed. Some legislators in favor of the amendments argued these changes were necessary in order to mitigate dangerous interactions that mountain lions might have with both humans and livestock. (3) Yet, due to the speedy nature in which the amendments were passed, there was only minimal opportunity for relevant stakeholders, including wildlife management professionals, conservation organizations, and hunters (among several others), to weigh in.


These two examples, civil rights and mountain lions, like virtually all cases of the dark side of federalism, were carried out within states wherein a single political party dominates. Some may be tempted to see such cases as an argument against federalism, believing that our federal system enables extremist, backward states to implement ill-intentioned and/or un-scientific laws with impunity. But, properly understood, these cases underscore the need for federalism. After all, founding fathers such as James Madison justified the need for federalism, in part, as a means of preventing any single ideological faction from capturing and simultaneously controlling all levers of governing power. Madison understood that federalism greatly increases the number of levers of power and, correspondingly, decreases the significance of any one of them. This matters because sometimes it’s state government that makes policy blunders, while other times it’s the national government. Without our federalized system, unwise wildlife management policy (or, indeed, substitute in any number of policy areas here) could apply across the entire country, rather than being confined to a limited area as now.


In our current political environment, the bulwark of federalism standing against factional takeover is under mounting stress due to declining political competition within states across the country. While national political battles over the presidency or the control of Congress are hypercompetitive today, an opposite trend is playing out at the subnational level. A strong indicator of the problem of growing noncompetition at the state level is the number of so-called “partisan trifectas” across the country. Partisan trifecta is a term used to describe a state wherein one political party holds the governorship and majorities in both chambers of the state legislature. Trifectas are, of course, a byproduct of growing levels of partisan polarization within the electorate – in my own peer-reviewed research, I’ve spent the entirety of my young research career studying how partisan polarization strains federalism and other aspects of our country’s politics.


Today, 39 states feature trifectas (twenty-six of these states also feature partisan legislative supermajorities). In 2010 that number was 25; in 2005 it was 21.






As if partisan trifectas weren’t troubling enough, extensive political science research reveals that states increasingly adopt policies from other states in a biased, partisan fashion. (4) That is, Democratic states increasingly only look to other Democratic states when searching for examples to follow, with Republican states behaving in the same biased fashion. This biased diffusion of policies throughout states directly undermines the states-as-laboratories-of-democracy idea and makes it more likely that policies set in one state, effective or ineffective, will be adopted elsewhere. Sadly, when wildlife management becomes politicized and politicians go out of their way to undermine scientific management in any given state (a surging phenomenon in a multitude of states, including California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming), it’s likely that similar efforts, such as the unconditional delisting of mountain lions, will spread to others.


To Delist or Not to Delist: Grizzly Bears and the Good, Bad, and Ugly of Federated Wildlife Management


Currently, grizzly bears are listed as an endangered species under the national government’s Endangered Species Act. As such, they are protected federally, meaning that states are not allowed to control their populations via hunting. Now that grizzlies have far surpassed recovery benchmarks initially set for relisting, there is mounting pressure – much of it coming from state governments in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming – to delist them.





As with wolves before them, grizzly bears have become politicized throughout the northern Rockies as a symbol of overreach by the federal government. There have been many cases of bears being killed illegally. And while most of these killings can be attributed to mistaken identity (i.e., black bear hunters mistakenly believing the animal they killed was a black bear, not a grizzly) at least a few cases seemed potentially politically motivated. These episodes represent the “ugly” of our current moment concerning grizzly management.


Taking scientific wildlife management seriously, the “bad” of our current moment concerns the politics within states where grizzly populations are currently recovering, including Idaho, Montana, Washington, and Wyoming. All four of these states feature partisan trifectas, while three of the four – Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming – see partisan supermajorities within their legislatures. These facts are especially troublesome given that wildlife management – especially of predator species – is highly politicized in each state and policies contradict scientifically sound management practices.


For example, recently Idaho’s legislature passed a law permitting the establishment of bounty programs to pay hunters for killing wolves. In Montana, lawmakers have recently legalized the use of night hunting and snare traps for wolves and legalized the use of hounds in hunting black bears. In Wyoming, hunters can kill wolves on sight, without a permit, any time of year, using virtually any means. In Washington state, prevailing ideological sympathies of the politically appointed state game commissions run in the opposite direction. Politicians and political appointees in the Evergreen State have overridden wildlife biologists’ decisions regarding cougar, wolf, and bear management to appease anti-hunting interests in the Seattle metro area and other urban locales west of the Cascades. These are just a few examples from a very long list of overtly political actions regarding predator management in these states.


Because wildlife management has been so thoroughly contaminated by politics in the West, particularly with respect to predator management, in January 2021 dozens of the region’s most prominent wildlife biologists wrote an open letter objecting to the desires of politicians in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming to delist grizzlies. One of these biologists, Dr. Chris Servheen, led the national government’s efforts for over three decades to revive the grizzly population to sustainable levels.


Given how successful the grizzly restoration efforts have been, Servheen was, until recently, a vocal proponent of delisting himself because he believed the populations could be reasonably managed with responsive and modest hunting quotas. But recent efforts – especially those of Montana’s new GOP trifecta government and GOP legislative supermajority – to inject ever more politics into predator management has caused him to oppose delisting, as he fears grizzlies will be subject to the same political pressures and bad legislation that have targeted wolves in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, and mountain lions in Utah.


While the picture I have painted above may appear rather grim to many, it’s important to recognize that this entire conversation surrounding whether to delist grizzlies highlights the “good” of our federal system of management: the national government can resist delisting if it believes that the states do not adhere scientifically sound management practices. Or, once they do delist, if states fail to manage the species correctly, the national government can re-list the species as endangered to reinstate federal protection before the species’ populations plummets to an unsustainable level.


Conclusion


In wildlife management and in many other policy areas, federalism does occasionally enable bad things to happen in a localized fashion. And it’s true that the potential for these effects to spread to large swaths of the country is increased by political nationalization and policy diffusion that is more concerned with infectious partisan trends than reputable policy outcomes. Despite these problems, however, federalized wildlife management should still bring us comfort because our decentralized management structure still largely prevents the worst policies from becoming the law of the land across the entire country.


Despite these problems, however, federalized wildlife management should still bring us comfort because our decentralized management structure still largely prevents the worst policies from becoming the law of the land across the entire country.

Conservationists of all stripes frustrated with the state of wildlife management within states should not, therefore, seek to shift more authority to the national level or any single political entity – but rather, embrace the ability to fight for their cause across multiple and distinct policy venues. Federalism remains key for ensuring that partisan actors don’t uniformly subvert competent and evidence-based policymaking -- a worthy tradeoff even if it means temporarily suffering (locally) those who would put fleeting partisan desires over sound policy making.



Author bio: B. Kal Munis is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at UVU and a Federalism Studies Fellow at Utah Valley University’s Center for Constitutional Studies during the 2023 calendar year. His research has been published in prestigious scholarly journals, popular press outlets, and by leading national think tanks. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Virginia and his M.A. and B.A. from the University of Montana. He is a lifelong hunter and fisherman, and a proud native of rural southwestern Montana.



 

  1. Brian Maffly, “Cox signs wildlife bill that includes year-round cougar hunting, trapping,” The Salt Lake Tribune, March 17, 2023; Caroline Long, “Hunting mountain lions is now legal year-round without a permit,” Utah Public Radio, May 3, 2023.

  2. Alysha Lundgren, “How will year-round hunting and trapping impact Utah’s mountain lions?,” St. George News, April 2, 2023.

  3. Mythili Gubbi, “New bill brings worries over open season on hunting Utah cougars,” Fox 13 – SLC, March 3, 2023.

  4. Karch, Andrew. "Emerging issues and future directions in state policy diffusion research." State Politics & Policy Quarterly 7, no. 1 (2007): 54-80.

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