Political Polarization is Bad for State Wildlife Management

The polarizing state of politics in the United States has implications for traditional wildlife management. Historically, state wildlife management agencies sprung up in the early twentieth century, largely as a response to the hunting population’s demands for regulations in the face of large scale extirpation. Since then, state wildlife agencies have maintained a strong relationship between hunters who largely support the agency through participation fees (licenses, tags, etc.) Many states continue to depend on the revenue generated from license fees and firearm excise taxes (see Pittman-Robertson Act), but increasing distrust as a result of polarization may be hurting agency relationships with the hunting public.

A new study funded by the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies aims to identify the factors that are causing a growing sense of anger and distrust of state wildlife agencies within the hunting public. Led by Michael Manfredo of Colorado State University, the authors looked at the growing political divide as a possible explanation for the frustration held by those who support the agency (hunters and fisherman) and non-consumptive users who desire to be represented in the agency. But when did this cultural divide begin?

Throughout much of the 20th century, wildlife agencies almost exclusively reflected the desires of the hunting public, as the system relied upon their involvement to support agency actions. Beginning with the environmental movement in the 1970’s, a sort of cultural backlash began where environmental groups were using legislative action to limit state wildlife agency operations. This rise can be seen in the numerous anti-hunting bills that went to a vote during the 1980’s and 90’s including legislation to end mountain lion hunting, mammal trapping, and hound hunting in many states. 

Dan and Dogs

States with the highest polarization also had the strongest limitations on hunting practices, like using hounds to hunt bears and mountain lions.

Coinciding with anti-hunting legislation was a gradual decline in hunter participation throughout the U.S. which spurred many state agencies to consider alternative funding sources. This often meant including non-consumptive users in the discussion. The new study found that states that have considered diversifying their funding sources to include these users experienced the highest level of distrust within the hunting community. The most egregious of these examples being California, where the proportionately small hunting population feels increasingly outnumbered by anti-hunting or non-consumptive groups who aim to change the state wildlife agency’s priorities. It is worth noting that states experiencing the least amount of political polarization regarding wildlife management (i.e. the most hunting friendly) had the highest trust in their state wildlife agencies.

As the political divide widens, the risks to the traditional system of wildlife management increase. In some states, it may be wise to reconsider certain management objectives to include an approach that takes into account non-consumptive users without stepping on traditional hunters. The wildlife belong to every American, after all. The difficult matter is to what extent do we expand the scope of influence, when not everyone is participating at the level of hunters and fisherman?

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