Putting the "Public" Back In "Public Trust"

" Where do you draw the line?"

Should our state wildlife agency be allowed to violate our wildlife law for politics? When do we uphold personal conservation ethics, as individuals or the collective of a conservation organization? When it is politically convenient?

What will the cost be?

These are questions I thought on last night, after fighting a major uphill battle in the last week and a half, even against other conservationists, simply to file a lawsuit on Friday before a deadline. The complaint is against our Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks and Montana Fish & Wildlife Commission which has bypassed the required Environmental Impact Study in favor of the political Elk Management in Areas with Brucellosis program and subsequent Work Plans. The FWP elk brucellosis plan, within 4 Montana counties, involves pasture wide, tall, wildlife obstructing fences paid for by sportsmen dollars; kill permits and removal hunts with no private landowner requirement of public hunter access as in current game damage laws, in essence anytime of the year – basically a move towards privatizing our wildlife. This is not scientific wildlife management and is violating Montana law. The public should never have had to go to court to get our wildlife agency to follow these laws.

Conservationist and author David Petersen wrote, "A minimal level of sportsman ethics afield is mandated by written law. Beyond that, say, when an action is legal but ethically questionable, or when (as Aldo Leopold long ago pointed out) no one is watching, hunter ethics is an individual responsibility. As the existentialists would have it, we determine our own honor minute by minute, action by action, one decision at a time." Very good words to live by. But is it also applicable for "conservation"?

In the most basic terms, conservation is protecting something from harm or destruction. So let's replace the word “sportsman”, in Petersen's quote, with “conservationist”. Some conservation ethics is mandated by law, with state and federal agencies acting as trustees for the Public Trust. At a bare minimum, we need our agencies to abide by the mandated laws set in place to conserve and manage. Above that, you hope that they are a conservationist, rather than just a political bureaucrat.

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks and the FWP Commission are members of the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA). In WAFWA's Public Trust Doctrine Resolution it mandates, “that fish and wildlife resources are to be held in trust by government for the benefit of present and future generations.” It further states, “...the public must be made aware of this Public Trust, and it must be enforceable against the government.”

Richard Kroger, retired BLM, wrote a book, “Choosing a Conservation Vocation or a Bureaucratic Career: Personal Choices and the Environmental Consequences.” In it he states, “In essence, big money interests of our society use the political process to set the stage for unsustainable natural resource use, but it is the bureaucratic careerists in government agencies who embrace the orders to carry out the destructive missions which result in needless degradation of our environment... All that is necessary is for more natural resource professionals in government agencies to do their lives' work as dedicated conservation vocationists rather than self-serving bureaucratic careerists who always conform to the interests of the powerful big money interests.”

On a personal/individual conservation level, or that of the conservation organizations, conservation ethics seem to be a gray area for some and that may be an understatement in some cases. Politics directs actions and agendas, rather than the basic principle of protecting something from harm or destruction, or as Leopold put it, “Ethical behavior is doing the right thing when no one else is watching - even when doing the wrong thing is legal.”

Foremost, is it right to favor political and personal relationships over scientific wildlife management and wildlife law?

Is it conservationally right to politically throw one species under the bus in an effort get your favored species out? 

Is it right to prevent or obstruct others from legally seeking redress from governmental conservation violations?

I would be curious how the actions of some "conservationists" over the last 2 years of this elk brucellosis debacle, even up to the very morning of our trying to get this lawsuit filed on Friday, would stand in the light of day?

Call me an idealist, but I believe in conservation, in the purest sense. I dont believe that the teachings and works of the early conservationists, such as Roosevelt, Pinchot, Muir, Leopold, Grinnell, Thoreau, or even contemporary conservationists are merely so we can get a warm fuzzy feeling while reading or quoting them, a moral high.

Conservation is a moral partnership between the present and future generations. And as Petersen put it, "...we determine our own honor minute by minute, action by action, one decision at a time."

I would like to give a special thanks to Dyrck Van Hyning for his heroic efforts in helping to secure this last minute filing of the elk brucellosis lawsuit before the deadline.

Enhancing Montana's Wildlife & Habitat
Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks and
Montana Fish & Wildlife Commission
Filed Jan. 9, 2015, 3:46 PM
Case No. ADV 201522

Thank you,
Kathryn QannaYahu


Wildlife &


Bozeman, MT

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