Nationwide hunting rules and policies are largely not based on science, according to a recently published study.
However, regional wildlife officials said that rather than revealing a flaw in management practices the study debunks a long-held stereotype – namely that wildlife decisions are made based solely on science.
“I think it’s also fair to say that rarely, if ever, does conservations science make the decision,” said Eric Gardner, the Washington State Department of Wildlife’s wildlife program assistant director. “It informs the decision.”
In Washington, Gardner said science is “held in pretty high regard.” However, when crafting hunting rules officials have to consider more than just what the numbers say. Officials also consider public opinion, historical context and other social science factors.
That’s different, he said, when discussing endangered species. In those cases the science is held over and above whatever social pressures there might be.
Wolf management is a perfect example of the balancing act between science and other considerations, Gardner said. Biologists and policy makers consider more than just the hard science of the issue when setting wolf policy – including social acceptance, rancher concerns, etc.
Compare that to waterfowl hunting rules, which are almost exclusively based on the science of migration routes and seasons. That’s because, unlike wolves, waterfowl don’t have a huge impact on humans, Gardner said. Or, put a different way, they aren’t particularly controversial.
“Wildlife conservation is sometimes described as an art,” he said. “Part of that has to do with knowing and understanding when some of those other factors become more important.”
Gardner said public forums and comment periods are examples of how WDFW mixes science with other considerations.
The study was published in Science Advances on March 7.
Authors of the study selected 11 criteria which they said indicated the application of the scientific method. Those criteria included measurable objectives, techniques for determining hunting quotas, information about independent review and estimations of the number of killed animals.
Of the 667 programs analyzed, less than 10 percent contained eight or more of the 11 criteria.
In addition, 60 percent had fewer than five. The average was 4.6 of 11 criteria, according to the study.
“These results raise doubt about the purported scientific basis of hunt management across the United States and Canada,” the study states.
The study found that, generally speaking, policies pertaining to big game animals were more scientifically rigorous.
Gardner emphasized that in Washington at least the foundation of any management decisions have to be based on science.
“(We) don’t want to do it absent the science and none of us want to do it contrary to the science.”
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