When science-based wildlife management isn’t… and a solution to fix it

A new study challenges a widespread assumption that wildlife management in North America is science-based. Scientists from Raincoast Conservation Foundation, Simon Fraser University, University of Victoria, and the University of Wisconsin – Madison examined management documents relating to most hunted species across Canada and the USA. They found the key hallmarks of science often missing.

The study, “Hallmarks of science missing from North American wildlife management”, released today in the AAAS Open Access journal Science Advances (http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/4/3/eaao0167.full [icon icon=”external-link”]) identified four key hallmarks expected of science-based management: clear objectives, use of evidence, transparency and external review. Combined, these hallmarks provide the checks and balances that give rigour to science-based approaches. Using this framework, the research team assessed all publicly-available documents describing 667 hunt management systems (27 species groups across 62 US and Canadian states and provinces). Within these systems they searched for indicators of each hallmark. For example, as one measure of the transparency hallmark, they asked “Is the technique for setting hunting quotas explained”? Management agencies were provided an opportunity to correct the assessments, and to identify documents potentially missed by the researchers.

The results were surprising. Most systems (60%) contained fewer than half of the indicator criteria assessed. Some of the most basic assumptions of a scientific approach were almost entirely absent from wildlife management documents. For example, only 9% of systems explained the technique for setting quotas. Similarly, less than 10% of management systems indicated they underwent any form of review (e.g. even internal reviews), with fewer than 6% subject to external review. These (and other) findings raise doubts about whether North American wildlife management can accurately be described as science-based.

“Key to honest discussions about wildlife management and conservation is clarity about where the science begins and ends”, says lead author Kyle Artelle, a biologist with Raincoast Conservation Foundation and a recent PhD graduate from Simon Fraser University. “Our approach provides a straightforward litmus test for science-based claims”.

These findings come at a time of heightened controversy in wildlife management, when contentious policy is often defended by agencies claiming adherence to science-based approaches. For example, agencies and hunters often justify management approaches by claiming that they follow the so-called “North American Model of Wildlife Conservation”, which has a central tenet that “Science is the proper tool to discharge policy”. This new research casts doubt on the extent to which this tenet is followed.

The team suggests that claims of science-based management would, however, be supported if management contained clear objectives, used evidence to inform decisions, was transparent with the public about all factors contributing to decisions, and subjected plans and approaches to external review. “This simple science-based recipe can help safeguard not only wildlife and the public interest, but also management agencies, which commonly face accusations of malfeasance and associated social, legal and political conflict”, says Chris Darimont of Raincoast and the University of Victoria.

Promising examples exist elsewhere for transparency, external review, and a clear distinction between scientific evidence and political considerations. For example, the Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat reviews Canadian fisheries management and provides independent advice to decision-makers, helping to separate the science from politics. Elsewhere, journal editorial boards have offered to independently review management of particularly controversial species, which might help to separate reality from rhetoric.

“We are not saying that wildlife hunting decisions should be based only on science, as there can be important social and economic considerations, but the extent to which these dimensions influence management decisions should be clearly articulated alongside claims of scientific rigour”, says John Reynolds from Simon Fraser University.

The study concludes by noting that the increased use of scientific inference and evidence, following the framework provided, would lead to better-informed decisions, leading to better protection of natural resources, including North America’s wildlife.

Additional quotes

Adrian Treves, co-author from University of Wisconsin – Madison: “Wildlife agencies in Canada and the USA are public trustees that have a legally binding duty to account in a careful and sophisticated way for the use of public assets such as wildlife. Our results raise alarms that the public is not being well-served by poor or non-transparent science in wildlife management.”

Paul Paquet, co-author with Raincoast Conservation Foundation and the University of Victoria: “Although many governments assert that wildlife management is built upon a foundation of science, our evidence suggests otherwise. This is consistent with criticism from others suggesting decision-makers might ignore or distort the science to accommodate politically or ideologically driven consumptive programs, likely at the expense of wildlife. Simply, when it comes to hunting policies, many agencies have knowingly removed all of the supporting legs of the stool needed to support wildlife science”

Jessica Walsh, co-author at Simon Fraser University: “It is critical that wildlife management is transparent, has strong objectives, is informed by scientific evidence along with other social and economic considerations, and is subject to peer review. These factors increase the accountability of management decisions, but our study shows that many agencies in US and Canada are not currently following these principles of science-based management”.