Management by Majority
By Ted Williams
On a mild February afternoon with corn snow slumping into slush and nuthatches rattling the bark of swamp maples I stood beside Fort Pond Brook in Acton, Massachusetts, contemplating the fruits of wildlife management by ballot initiative. Still swollen from torrential January rains, the brook slid out from under a frozen marsh and churned white and silver through the stone frame of a washed-out bridge. There was otter scat on the bank, coyote tracks on the ice and, where the bridge had arched the flow in some lost age, a freshly demolished beaver dam.
Until three years ago it had been legal to kill beavers-"harvest" them as the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife likes to say--by breaking their spines in the steel jaws of Conibear traps. You could then sell the pelts to fur buyers. But on November 5, 1996 Massachusetts voters approved a ballot initiative called the "Wildlife Protection Act" that banned all body-gripping traps. So now the industrious beavers of Fort Pond Brook and similar habitats all across the state can do their thing without sportsmen killing them for profit.
Before the vote sportsmen and managers mounted a clumsy defense of recreational trapping. When Fisheries and Wildlife hatched a news release listing the alleged deficiencies of the initiative it was cited by the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance for using state funds to influence voters. The proponents, on the other hand, conducted a brilliant political campaign. They called themselves the ProPAW Coalition (Protect Pets And Wildlife); they ran TV ads showing a cat struggling in a leghold trap and a dog with a missing leg; they flooded the media with the mantra "Ban Cruel Traps"; and they won with 64 percent of the vote.
On its journey to wherever it is going the world has left the sport of trapping animals for fun and profit in the dust. The 16-member European Union has outlawed leghold traps and will ban fur imports from Canada, Russia and the United States unless they do the same. According to independent surveys, 95 percent of Americans approve of fishing; 73 percent approve of hunting. Yet 59 percent *disapprove* of recreational trapping, and 74 percent want legholds banned. Not all of them are "anti-management." Wayne Pacelle, vice president of the Humane Society of the United States and main architect of the Massachusetts Wildlife Protection Act and similar ballot initiatives around the country, has it exactly right when he defines recreational trapping as "a vestigial practice" from the market-hunting era.
But now that the vestigial practice of harvesting beavers with body-gripping traps (the only kind practical for recreational trappers) has been outlawed in Massachusetts a lot of people who voted to "ban cruel traps" aren't so happy. Standing on the bank of Fort Pond Brook with me were Acton's town manager Don Johnson and its board of health chairman Doug Halley. The previous month they'd been handed a petition signed by irate residents of the housing development built around (technically *in*) the marsh just before flood-plain zoning went in. The petition demanded that the town do something about the buck-toothed rodents that were flooding property, compromising septic systems and polluting wells.
Also standing on the bank with me were Rob Deblinger, Massachusetts' chief wildlife biologist, northeast district biologist Erik Amati, and Tom French, head of non-game. Johnson had asked them if it would be okay to rip out the dam. No, they'd said, not until spring, and then the beavers would just rebuild it anyway. Beavers don't work in winter, and a sudden drop in water level can freeze all manner of life hibernating in the mud or swimming above it, including two state-listed species of special concern that abide in Fort Pond Brook-the Mystic Valley amphipod (a shrimp-like creature found only in eastern Massachusetts) and the spotted turtle.
Prior to 1996 the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife would tattle on nuisance beavers to licensed trappers who then would conduct what Deblinger calls "surgical strikes." "It was a great system," he told me. "The trappers made a little money, the division collected a little license revenue, and the public got its beaver problems solved at no charge." Even with trappers taking about 1,800 beavers a year the population had been growing, but when the trap ban came in it exploded. In the last two and a half years it has increased from 18,000 to almost 55,000.
Amati, who signed on with Fisheries and Wildlife in 1994 when he was barely out of college, thought he'd landed a dream job. Now, instead of looking after wildlife that desperately needs attention, he spends almost 100 percent of his time answering beaver complaints. Now beaver control is effected not by recreational trappers but by professional exterminators. Now the "cruel" Conibears that cost $18 each, weighed 24 pounds per dozen and killed instantly have been replaced by humane, $250 live traps that weigh 25 pounds *each* and hold the terrified animals for hours until they can be bashed on the head and thrown away.
The beaver dam offending the human residents of the marsh had been breached illegally by a person or persons impatient with the bureaucratic process. "It's happening every day all over the state," said Tom French. Not only are fish, reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates at risk, but a sudden water-level drop can freeze shut the entrance holes of beaver lodges, in which case the occupants not so humanely starve to death.
Red foxes in California were about to wipe out clapper rails and least terns. Once managers started trapping them, the birds rebounded.
Ballot initiatives, legal in 24 states, were not much used to restrict hunting or trapping until this decade. From 1940 to 1990 only one succeeded. Since 1990 eleven of 19 have succeeded. Naturally, this doesn't sit well with trained professionals hired by the public to make the very decisions the public now insists on making for them. Donald Whittaker of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and Steven Torres of the California Department of Fish and Game go so far as to write that ballot initiatives "may be the single greatest challenge to natural resources management that we will face individually and as a profession." And Scot Williamson of the Washington-D.C.-based Wildlife Management Institute says this: "These votes are being cast in an information vacuum. The system can be manipulated by interests with the most money and the most advertising savvy. Petition signatures may be collected by paid circulators who work from lists of voters known to support or oppose certain issues. I don't believe that's a good way to make policy."
Such information vacuums nurture what the framers of our constitution called the "tyranny of the majority." Even proponents of Jeffersonian democracy considered ballot initiatives dangerous and undesirable. That's why the United States is one of the few nations that does not permit them in national elections. As Massachusestts delegate to the Constitutional Convention Elbridge Gerry declared in 1786: "The evils we experience flow from the excess of democracy. The people do not lack virtue but are dupes of pretended patriots.... They are daily misled into the most baneful measures and opinions by the false rumors circulated by designing men."
Certainly there was no shortage of false rumors circulated by the proponents of Massachusetts' recent trap ban. For example, the cat in the ProPAW ad was wearing a toothed bear trap that had not been permitted in Massachusetts for 75 years. In fact, in all eight ProPAW film strips the "cruel traps" depicted were already illegal. Yet the managers couldn't set the record straight without risking further discipline by the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance.
The Massachusetts experience was reprised in California last November when 58 percent of the voters approved a leghold-trap ban called "Proposition Four," thereby depriving wildlife managers of their only effective tool for controlling alien red foxes from the East. The foxes, released in the 19th century, are in the process of wiping out such endangered birds as the California least tern, the California clapper rail, the light-footed clapper rail and the threatened western snowy plover. But some animal-rights activists would gladly sacrifice whole species to prevent what they perceive as the inhumane treatment of individual animals.
Animal-rights groups are telling the California Department of Fish and Game that eastern red foxes are "native" because they've been in the state for more than a century and that they should not be killed but caught in humane box traps (even though they won't go into them) and sent to "other states" (even though the other states have said "no thanks"). Five years ago noted ornithologist and ecologist Lloyd Kiff called red foxes the "litmus test that determines whether people are conservationists or animal-rights people" and went on to make this prophetic observation: "If not checked soon, [red foxes] will account for more extinctions of bird species in the state than any other single factor in history.... These people would rather have red foxes than all these 'weird' birds. If it were put to a vote, I don't know whether we could win this one."
At Seal Beach National Wildlife Refuge on Anaheim Bay red foxes took eggs from 44 of 69 least-tern nests in 1988. When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service started trapping in 1986 animal-rights groups sued for an injunction, lost, then won an appeal in 1988 that forced the service to prepare a full-blown environmental impact statement costing $500,000. Since then the tern population has rebounded to about 200 nests as a result of intensive fox trapping. Further north, in the refuges around San Francisco Bay, foxes and feral cats had reduced California clapper rails from 1,500 in 1980 to 300 in 1991. Since then the service has removed 458 foxes and 136 feral cats. As a result the rail population has more than doubled.
Despite such success, the service ceased trapping everywhere in the state after Proposition Four was voted in. While the federal Endangered Species Act supersedes any state statute, the service doesn't like to make waves and therefore has a policy of obeying state laws. On February 2 it resumed trapping, but only because the National Audubon Society won a temporary ruling that exempts federal endangered-species managers from the new law. Audubon attorneys are optimistic about the future but certain of nothing.
"All it takes to put an initiative on the ballot in California is 600,000 signatures from a paid gatherer and a million bucks," says Glenn Olson, in charge of field operations for the National Audubon Society. "If you put a hunting ban on the ballot, I think it might pass. There are just so many people with no sense about wildlife management."
I asked the Humane Society's Pacelle what he thought about that kind of talk. "Having Audubon against us was a nightmare," he replied. "So we met with the society and said, 'Listen, we're not for predators killing threatened and endangered species.' We presented a legal opinion that said the feds can use whatever tools they want." Basically, he hadn't counted on the Fish and Wildlife Service's timidity.
But not all humane activists are as rational as Pacelle, especially when he lands in California. Bitterly opposed to trapping even to save threatened and endangered species are feral-cat defense groups, which have successfully lobbied for laws that permit members to maintain and expand colonies of feral cats by feeding them outdoors. For the last ten years a mysterious cat benefactor calling herself only "Feralpower" claims to have spent "about five hours every night and around $1,500 a month" feeding feral cats and complains that these "strange nocturnal habits" have cost her two lovers. Last October when Redwood City announced a plan to hire government trappers to control feral cats and other predators of endangered salt-marsh harvest mice and California clapper rails as part of a mitigation package allowing it to develop marsh habitat, feral-cat defenders stormed the city council meeting. Shrieking, weeping and quoting Gandhi, they prevailed on the Fish and Wildlife Service to issue a 30-day moratorium. "The cat people say cats are native because they've been here fifty years," says Arthur Feinstein, director of Golden Gate Audubon. "When you tell them cats eat birds, they reply with all seriousness that this is a lie. It's absolutely *mind-boggling."*
Even if the court-ordered exemption for endangered-species managers turns out to be permanent, there is no provision in Proposition Four for wildlife research and restoration, much of which cannot happen without leghold traps. When legholds are used by people who know and care what they're doing, animals rarely suffer serious injury. The wolves now thriving in Yellowstone National Park, for example, are routinely caught with legholds for radio collaring. Over two thousand river otters have been caught in legholds and released virtually unscathed in Midwestern states where the species had been extirpated. Of 14 otters captured last year in legholds by graduate student Tasha Belfiore of the University of California at Davis, none received more than a slight bruise or abrasion. Belfiore had spent three years designing the study which was to have assessed genetic damage to otters from pesticides used in the Sacramento Valley. Maybe it would have helped preserve otters and other species, including people, but with the trap ban she's had to abandon it. "If all the facts are out on the table and we still disagree, that's fine," she told me. "But to be making a decision based on misinformation isn't fair."
So does all this mean that conservationists should work to ban ballot initiatives? Yes, at least the ones that erode state management authority, argues a year-old alliance of sportsmen's groups called the Ballot Issues Coalition. BIC contends that fish and wildlife have traditionally been held in public trust by the states and that management of these resources is therefore a "non-delegable duty" that cannot be relinquished to voters. BIC's chair, the National Trappers Association, vows to file lawsuits to overturn ballot initiatives in Arizona, California, Oregon, Colorado, Washington and Massachusetts.
But what recourse will BIC and the National Trappers Association have when game and fish agencies mismanage game species and then stifle public debate? It happens all the time. "Few people in America think that ballot initiatives are the best way to decide wildlife management issues," observes Colorado bear biologist Tom Beck. "But ballot initiatives are a form of populism, and historical analysis suggests that populist approaches work best when the masses feel that government is not listening, or is being dominated by a small vested interest."
Beck learned this the hard way. In the early 1990s he and his colleagues at the Colorado Division of Wildlife, along with an unlikely alliance of sportsmen and animal-rights activists, moved to outlaw the spring hunting of bears in which you hang bags of garbage on trees, check to see which ones are ripped up, then stake out the site and shoot the bear. Among the trophies taken in the spring of 1992 were 25 lactating females. The orphaned cubs probably died; but the biologists, who depend on hunting as a tool for managing such ungulates as deer and elk, were less worried about the bear population than the image of Colorado hunters. As Beck inquired in an essay for *Outdoor Life* magazine, "How fulfilling is it to shoot a bear with its head in a barrel of jelly-filled doughnuts?"
Beck and his colleagues argued that the ban would shield hunters committed to fair chase from at least some of the floggings they receive at the hands of the ill-informed, but the policy-setting state wildlife commission didn't see it that way. It went to the bunker, ranting about a conspiracy by animal-rights fanatics and admonishing the biologists for spinelessness. Instead of outlawing the discredited and moribund sport of garbaging for bears, it extended the spring season by two weeks, thumbing its nose at sportsmen, professional wildlife managers and the public. So in November 1992 Colorado voters banned bear baiting. That's why ballot initiatives are needed.
Hurtful Ballot initiatives are largely avoidable, if only game and fish agencies would smarten up. "Historically wildlife management professionals have had very poor people skills," comments the vice president of the Wildlife Management Institute, Lonnie Williamson (no relation to Scot). "They need good information-and-education departments that don't just talk to the public but *listen* to it. Yet with most of the states, information and education is last to get money and first to get cut."
Even more important than good information is good credibility, but wildlife managers are adept at squandering it. For instance, the California Department of Fish and Game didn't have much left with which to defend trapping after it had unsuccessfully defended cougar hunting against a legislative ban in 1971, a reaffirmations of the ban by ballot-initiatives in 1990 and 1996. Instead of telling the public the truth-that there was no biological reason not to hunt cougars-it tried to frighten it with tales about how a hunting ban would result in cougars taking over California (a biological impossibility because each animal defends an enormous territory). The dean of cougar researchers, Maurice Hornocker of the Idaho-based Hornocker Wildlife Research Institute, told me he opposed the hunting ban but also said this: "Fish and Game had their own piddling little studies going designed to prove their point. So finally the preservationists said, 'Enough's enough, we're going for broke.'"
If managers give the public a chance to make itself heard and if they make it understand the agency's mission, they won't have to worry about bad ballot initiatives. But frequently the public gets cut out of the loop. In Massachusetts, for example, there were two other parts of the ProPAW initiative. One-which failed to attract main-stream environmentalists--prohibited the traditional and not unsporting use of dogs to hunt Massachusetts' well-managed bears. But the other, which won the avid support of the environmental community, did away with the archaic requirement that five of seven members of the Fisheries and Wildlife Board be licensed hunters, fishers or trappers for at least the previous five years. It's true that in states like Massachusetts sportsmen, not the general public, pay for wildlife management. But that's why "non-game"-that 99.99 percent of life that can't legally be shot-receives relatively little attention. The men and women who staff these agencies are trained, hired and legally mandated to manage *all* species. But when they are denied general funds, depending instead on the paltry revenue from sales of hunting, fishing and trapping licenses, sportsmen tend to dominate wildlife decision making, frequently injuring even their own interests. Tom Beck, an avid hunter as well as a biologist, defines the argument that sportsmen should call the shots because they "have paid the bill" as a "knee-jerk defense." "Yes we have," he declares, "but not for altruistic reasons. We paid the bill because we wanted something to shoot! And we should pay the bill and not demand control of the management process."
Gerard Bertrand, then president of the Massachusetts Audubon Society, committed the organization to help sponsor the ProPAW initiative and to write the board-reform measure, puts it this way: "The best boards are the ones that recognize the interest of the public and use that interest to save habitat." As a case in point Bertrand cites Arkansas, where there is no special-interest requirement-other than interest itself-to serve on the game and fish board and where every citizen who cares about fish and wildlife, instead of just sportsmen, can participate in wildlife decision making. In 1996 Arkansas voters approved a visionary ballot initiative that annually nets the Game and Fish Commission $17 million from an eighth-of-a-cent sales tax on all goods sold in the state. The commission polled the public on how it wanted the funds spent. The answer, now policy, was: law enforcement, habitat purchase and education.
States like Arkansas don't have to contend with the urban, anti-blood-sport element confronting wildlife managers in states like Massachusetts. Still, the Arkansas experience teaches that when resource agencies educate the public and then involve it in policy making, great things happen--for fish, wildlife, sportsmen and non-sportsmen.
*From 1970 to 1975 Ted Williams served as an information-and-education officer with the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.*