Hunters Ed: Who Owns the Wildlife in the United States Anyways?

Antelope and other wildlife roaming a prairie in Arizona, United States
Who Owns The Wildlife In The United States

The simple answer to the question of who owns wildlife in the US is that it’s complicated. We all collectively own our natural resources, right? You’d be surprised to learn it’s not quite as straightforward as you may think regarding fish and game. To fully understand this question, you must delve deeper into the world of wildlife conservation and its history.

You should really pay attention to this part of hunters ed. After all, taking a closer look at wildlife and natural resource management and ownership directly impacts you. Your future as a public land owner and hunter dramatically depends on your understanding of conservation.

History of Wild Animal Ownership

In the early days of the United States, wildlife was often considered a public resource that could be hunted and used by anyone. This idea was inspired by the “Tragedy of the Commons,” which is a concept that describes how shared resources are often overused due to the lack of individual ownership and responsibility.

The problem was too many people with unlimited desires were straining limited resources. As settlers moved westward, wildlife populations were decimated, and it became clear that a more sustainable approach to wildlife management was necessary.

President Roosevelt & the Rise of Conservation

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Colorado, for example, had elk populations dwindle to less than 1,000 animals. Shortly after, the United States shifted from a policy of “shoot first, ask questions later” with wildlife to “let’s protect this stuff before it’s too late!”

This was due to the efforts of visionary leaders like Teddy Roosevelt, who realized that we could not continue to hunt everything to extinction. Thanks to their efforts in conserving habitats and animals, we now have national parks and forests where wildlife can thrive and state and federal agencies working to protect them.

Now many animal populations, including elk, deer, bear, buffalo, and moose, are at sustainable levels to hunt again. So the next time you see one of these animals, you can thank President Teddy Roosevelt. 

The Concept of Public Trust

The answer to who owns the wildlife in the United States is rooted in something called “Public Trust Doctrine.” Which is a vital legal principle that supports wildlife management in the United States.

Importantly, this means that the government holds our natural resources, including wildlife, in trust for the benefit of the public. This implies that wildlife is a shared resource owned collectively by the people rather than privately.

Who’s Responsibility is it to Manage Our Resources for Us?

You, the public, own wildlife. That’s right, you! We all do. Which means it’s our responsibility to manage it wisely. That’s why each state has a wildlife agency to manage its resources for the use of its citizens.

These agencies are responsible for creating and enforcing wildlife regulations and policies and work hard to protect our animals and ensure we can all enjoy it (including future generations.)

The federal government also plays a role in wildlife management.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is a federal agency that oversees the conservation and management of migratory birds, endangered species, and marine wildlife. They work closely with state agencies to ensure our wildlife is protected and managed properly.

So there you have it! That’s the basics of wildlife management in the United States. We all have a role to play in protecting our wildlife, from an individual level all the way up to the top brass of the US government.

Native Indigenous Rights & Considerations

This isn’t a political discussion, but if you believe that these acts put into place by the US government supersede those that were already established for thousands of years before we were a country, you’d be dead wrong.

The United States recognizes Indigenous and Native American rights and their right to possess special (additional) hunting, fishing, and land rights as part of their sovereignty.

Native Americans play a vital role in modern land conservation through sustainable principles passed down through generations and consistent activism to lobby state and federal governments to protect important habitats.

Native Americans’ right to hunt and fish within their ancestral territories is protected by treaties and legal agreements but is consistently threatened by a fast-moving modern world. Special interests and limited resources are always at odds with these agreements.

How does Wildlife Ownership Work for Private Land Owners?

So, what about the wildlife that wanders freely onto rancher Bill’s property? Does he own that animal? Nope, they sure don’t. But they do have a responsibility to protect it.

Private landowners are vested in protecting these animals and play a vital role in wildlife management—the U.S. has a long history of private hunting clubs and non-profit organizations (Pope & Young, RMEF, NRA, among others) which contribute massively to conservation efforts by providing suitable habitats for wildlife and implementing sustainable hunting practices.

Many private landowners work hand in hand with state agencies to develop wildlife management plans that promote healthy populations and ensure that there can be sustainable harvests and fruitful hunting seasons for generations to come.

What About You?

That leaves one final component of the equation of wildlife ownership: YOU! That’s right. You are part of the collective public trust that cares for our natural resources, and you, too, have an obligation to do your part in protecting them.

The founders of EatElkMeat.Com grew up exploring the Rocky Mountains, and we promote the practice of Leave No Trace and ethical hunting. This is the bare minimum commitment that every public land hunter should practice in the field.

If you are interested in additional ways to be involved in protecting wildlife and the sustainability of hunting and fishing in the USA, Meateater created a great guide on what agencies hunters and anglers can contribute to or volunteer for.

We All Own the Wildlife in the US

Three farms shaking hands at sunset
As Americans, we must work together to fight for the conservation of our wildlife

So, there you have it. From the individual up the chain to the federal government, we all have a stake in our fish and game ownership. Through public trust, federal, state, and private will protect and conserve these resources for the future.

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Last Updated on July 24, 2023

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