What Does it Mean to ‘Follow the Science’ with Wildlife Management?

What Does it Mean to ‘Follow the Science’ with Wildlife Management?

For better or worse, the coronavirus pandemic has brought science to the forefront of our political discourse. Phrases such as “follow the science” have become mainstream terms to describe someone’s commitment, or perceived lack thereof, to science-based decision making. These recent debates beg the question: what is science-based decision making and how can it help shape public policy?

Pandemic aside, MeatEater is an outspoken advocate of science-based fisheries and wildlife management, often reporting on research findings that are of interest to hunters and anglers. In fact, science-based policy is a core-tenant of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, the most successful conservation model ever. While it’s easy to voice support for science-based fisheries and wildlife management, the implementation is complex, and the term itself can be ambiguous at best and dubious at worst. In this article we’ll explore the utility and limitations of “science-based management,” exploring what it means and how it’s used.

How can Science Help?
Arguably, the primary way that science can aid in fisheries and wildlife management is by providing long-term monitoring of fish and wildlife populations. Most of the time, state fish and wildlife agencies are responsible for maintaining long-term data about fish and wildlife abundance. Monitoring programs that span decades, or in some cases centuries, can help to detect trends in population abundance, overall habitat quality, or even the spread of invasive species.

For example, long-term trends in abundance show the rise and fall of famous fish stocks such as Atlantic Cod. By contrast, conservation success stories can also be seen through long-term monitoring programs. In Georgia, the Breeding Bird Survey highlights the success of wild turkey conservation efforts, with the survey index of abundance rising nearly 40-fold from the early 1980s to 2015. Without monitoring data, managers would have no way to identify increasing or decreasing trends in our most valued fish and wildlife populations, and be able to act accordingly.

Typically, monitoring programs collect the same information, in the same way, with the same equipment, year after year. This consistency allows scientists to attribute any changes through time to actual changes in the population, rather than to the way in which the information was collected. As an analogy, if I got skunked at a bass lake this year that bass-extraordinaire Oliver Ngy cleaned up on last year, I wouldn’t claim the largemouth population isn’t what it used to be (or if I did, I’d be full of shit). In the same way, good monitoring programs stick with their methods through time to ensure they are measuring what they intend to measure.

While the success of monitoring programs relies on collecting the same data year after year, another way science can assist in fisheries and wildlife management is by answering research questions that are of interest to fisheries and wildlife managers—and by extension, hunters and anglers. These are the studies you hear Miles Nolte discuss in the Fish News segment of the Bent Podcast and read about in Pat Durkin’s MeatEater articles. Through a combination of laboratory and field-based experiments, genetic analyses, and computer modeling, scientists can help answer the pressing questions that impact fisheries and wildlife management.

A classic example is antler size in whitetail bucks. We’ve all heard the claim that certain areas of the country just have “good genetics” and that’s why they grow big bucks. Although genetics is a factor in antler growth, scientific experiments repeatedly demonstrate the importance of access to high-quality food, which can have generational effects on antler size. Studies like these have obvious management implications—if you want big bucks, make sure they have access to good food.

In the fisheries world, scientific research can help answer questions like “do fish learn to avoid certain lures” or “how many fish die after they are caught and released,” which can help inform specific regulations or reduce release mortality during the local bass tournament. Collectively, scientific research is responsible for a great number of discoveries that have certainly benefited fisheries and wildlife management.

Limitations to Science-Based Management
Until now, the ways that we’ve discussed science as being useful to fisheries and wildlife management have been relatively objective and pretty straightforward. Questions like “how many” and “why are there that many” generally avoid human-created value systems and judgements. However, there are ways that science can help inform fisheries and wildlife management that also require some subjective human decision making to answer questions like “how much risk is too much” or “what are our goals and how do we set rules and regulations to achieve them.”

At the intersection of science and policy are population assessments. For example, stock assessments (a stock is a fish population or subpopulation that occupies a particular region), are the foundation for the management of many fish species. In addition to determining the number of fish there are in a population (often from monitoring data), stock assessments also determine whether a fish population is above or below some pre-defined level (often called a target, benchmark, or reference point). These determinations involve answering objective questions (e.g., are we removing fish from a population faster than they can be replaced), but also rely on human-defined criteria too.

This is a nuanced distinction, but one that is worth making. After all, MeatEater is pro-nuance and anti-bullshit. Although scientists can compute the amount of fishing that results in achieving the highest harvest possible without causing a population to decline (fancy term: maximum sustainable yield), science alone can’t determine whether that amount ought to be the target or benchmark we seek to achieve. That is a question of risk tolerance, stakeholder values, and management goals.

There are many considerations that go into defining a benchmark or reference point in fisheries and wildlife management. For example, fishing at the level that results in maximum sustainable yield is often risky because there is no margin for error in the estimated size of a population or for changes in the population size due to environmental factors. In other words, fishing at the level of maximum sustainable yield leaves little “wiggle room” if there are less fish than we think there are or if some factor besides fishing causes a population to decline.

Besides determining an acceptable level of risk (a question science alone cannot answer), there are other considerations when setting target levels of fish harvest. In a fishery that is primarily catch-and-release, managing for maximum sustainable yield might not make sense because fish aren’t being kept. Similarly, in commercial fisheries that harvest forage fish like menhaden, fisheries managers also need to consider the role these fish play as a food source for other species, and take this into account when they set catch quotas.

Questions of risk tolerance and competing stakeholder values aren’t unique to fisheries—just ask anyone who has real skin in the game when it comes to wolf management. The question of how to balance the issues of livestock predation, game species predation, human-wildlife conflict, and restoring species that were extirpated from parts of their range isn’t a wholly scientific one.

But that doesn’t mean science can’t be useful. Information about a species’ biology and ecology can help to identify a range of possible outcomes, which can be used to inform management decisions and generate compromises among competing interest groups. However, balancing the priorities of stakeholder groups (hunters and anglers, commercial fisheries, ranchers, farmers, wildlife viewers, etc.) inevitably means that fisheries and wildlife managers need to assign value to competing goals and objectives, which is not a scientific endeavor.

Science-based management involves integrating scientific information to help achieve the goals and objectives set by our fish and game agencies (hopefully with our input). Through monitoring, science can help set the baseline by recording the abundance of fish and game through time. Where aspects of a species’ biology or ecology are unknown, the scientific method is the undisputed champion in discovering the way the natural word operates.

Science can also help set the boundaries by determining the number of individuals that can be harvested without causing the overall population to decline. However, below this upper threshold, there’s a gray area where determining acceptable levels of harvest depends on human-prescribed values (e.g., managing for trophy potential versus opportunity), and therefore science cannot determine what managers “ought” to do without some pre-prescribed goal or objective. However, science can certainly help explore tradeoffs between competing goals and objectives and help identify actions that optimize desirable outcomes. And, once those targets are set, science can identify ways to achieve them as well as evaluate progress towards or away from them along the way.

So, “following the science” doesn’t really mean anything, because science alone cannot generate a set of orienting values. However, science, in conjunction with a responsible and ethical value orientation is certainly the best way to achieve sustainable fisheries and wildlife populations now and in the future.

Moving Forward
So, as a hard-core hunter or angler, next time you read a scientific article or get into a heated social media debate about your local fishery or deer population, take a moment and ask yourself some questions.

First, if you find others “attacking the science,” do they really take issue with the way the science was conducted, or just the conclusion that was reached based on the results of a particular study? For better or worse, hunters and anglers, scientific researchers, and agency biologists can have competing values that may lead to differences in the way scientific information is interpreted and applied to specific management decisions. Scientific information can be valid and reliable, even if you disagree with the way management agencies are applying it to specific situations.

Second, ask yourself what are your own goals and values and do they align with those of the state fish and game agency? If you are a big buck hunter living in a state that manages for opportunity, it may be the case that your state game agency is not actually mismanaging the deer herd, it’s just managing it based on a different set of values. In this case, make your voice and opinion heard—most state fish and game agencies have regular meetings where the public is encouraged to attend and provide their input.

Finally, if you still find yourself with questions about the actual science, reach out to a fisheries or wildlife biologist. Many of us chose this profession because we love to hunt and fish and are happy to help answer any questions you might have. Science-based fisheries and wildlife management isn’t perfect—it’s a human endeavor—but it beats the hell out of some bureaucrat or legislator making decisions about our fish and wildlife resources.

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