Published since 1946
Commentary: Can We Get Beyond Arguments About the North American Model?
Statistician George Box famously said, “All models are wrong; some models are useful.” To that, it’s important to add that even useful models can only be applied to the context for which they were intended. Consider this example. Between 1965 and 1969, Boeing engineers built and used dozens of models to design and test the airframe, engines, and other attributes of the first wide-body jet, the 747. One such model was a mock cockpit mounted on a scaffold atop a truck to assess pilots’ ability to taxi the huge aircraft from a position high above the tarmac. The model was useful for that purpose, but no one would have suggested it could transport 416 passengers from New York to Los Angeles. Perhaps it is time we apply the same thinking to get beyond arguments about the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation (NAM).
Like all models, the NAM is a mental construct, designed to help frame our thinking about a complex system. And like all models, it is “wrong” because – as its critics have pointed out – it is incomplete. It contains no reference to the role of habitat or conservation efforts unrelated to hunting. However, like some models it is useful because it does a masterful job of explaining some of the most important elements of the conservation of some species – in particular the regulation and management of hunting of game animal species whose populations were decimated by unregulated killing for sustenance and the market. The tenets of the NAM remain largely relevant in today’s context with respect to harvest and allocation of those same species.
Much of the ongoing argument about the NAM sounds like a theoretical dispute over whether or not it would be appropriate to use Boeing’s cockpit-mounted truck to transport people in flight. Critics of the NAM dwell on its focus on hunting and the exclusion of non-hunting interests. They argue that the NAM is inadequate for broader guidance of conservation. Champions of the NAM ignore its imperfections or, in some cases, suggest modifications – like bolting wings on a pickup – to make it more broadly applicable. There is a more constructive alternative.
As a conservation institution, we can apply the NAM when and where it is useful in advancing the management, allocation, and responsible use of hunted species. That’s what it was designed for. We may be able to use some elements of the model to help guide our thinking in other contexts, but we must be cognizant of its limitations. Perhaps re-branding it as the North American Model of Game Management would help in this regard.
We must also avoid misuse of the NAM. For example, while the tenet “wildlife can only be killed for legitimate purposes” is broadly acceptable, perspectives about which purposes are legitimate are highly divergent and often in conflict. The NAM offers no guidance as to how such differences are to be reconciled or even considered in decision-making. It is a misuse of the NAM to claim that it provides a rationale for killing predators to increase prey numbers or to reallocate harvest of ungulates to hunters. It is equally inappropriate to use the NAM as a defense against criticism of some forms of hunting – such as the use of bait or dogs to hunt bears – which some people do not consider legitimate.
There are other models that can be applied to address conservation challenges where the NAM falls short. The Wildlife Governance Principles (WGPs) articulated by Decker et al. (2016), provides a framework for decision-making that is entirely compatible with the tenets of the NAM in the context of hunted species, yet overcomes the limitations of the NAM in other contexts. Returning to the example of “killing shall only be for legitimate purposes,” the WGP model incorporates biological, social, and economic science; all citizens’ values; and the judgement of decision-makers for insight about what is legitimate.
Biologists, ecologists and wildlife managers use models every day to increase understanding, to test hypotheses, and advance conservation. All those models are wrong; some are useful. Even the useful ones have limitations. No one would suggest that a model of deer population dynamics in New Jersey should be used to assess the impact of Quadrula mussels on the ecology of spring creeks in the Texas Hill Country.
It’s time to move beyond the arguments that the NAM should be abandoned because it is imperfect, or that it provides a universal foundation for conservation, or that with just a few changes, a truck will fly. We have too little time and much more important work to do.