Ownership Control Management and Stewardship Responsibilities for Wildlife

According to long legal tradition in the United Kingdom, Canada, the United States, and many other nations, individual persons do not own vertebrate wildlife. Animals and birds do not belong to the landowner on whose property they are found. They move around, with dens and nests in particular places, but the larger animals and the birds can range over hundreds or thousands of square miles. They sometimes live on public land, sometimes on different tracts of private land. Continental European nations, by contrast, sometimes hold that property owners own wildlife resident on their lands.

In the Anglo-American tradition, landowners have the right to control access to their property; they control who, for instance, may hunt there. But the state determines whether and how much game may be taken. Permitted by the state, individuals can "take" wildlife—capture or kill it—at which point the animal enters their possession. State control of wildlife was long understood as state ownership, but wildlife paid no more attention to state lines than to local property boundaries; indeed, migratory birds resided in various nations. The U.S. federal government has often regulated wildlife, since much wildlife crosses state lines and much inhabits federal lands. In recent court decisions, the state ownership doctrine has been rejected as based on a flawed characterization of wildlife, which should be regulated like other natural resources considered commons, not so much owned as held in trust. State ownership of wildlife has been subsumed under the state and federal power to regulate all natural resources, an expanding public trust doctrine. Wildlife is a public good held in trust by the state for the benefit of the people (Bean).

The general idea is that there is a corporate responsibility for wildlife, a duty to persons concerning wildlife in which they have an interest, and a duty of individual persons to relate to wildlife, caring for it, tolerating it, perhaps hunting it, all within the context of a larger public interest and stewardship. Animal welfare was long subsumed under this rubric, since maintaining this public good required healthy wildlife populations. But animal welfare has increasingly become a concern in its own right, independent of human benefits. This is called the intrinsic value of wildlife, a value also held in trust. This concern becomes evident in concern for endangered species as well as in shifting attitudes toward hunting.

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