In 1900, the last known passenger pigeon to be hunted was supposedly shot by a boy in Ohio. Seven decades later, he said he had no idea what type of bird it was at the time. The species, which once traveled in flocks so vast that they darkened the sky for hours at a time, had served as a plentiful and cheap source of protein for 19th century settlers making their way westward. While early Americans hunted the birds for food, professional hunters later massacred them for sport. All the while, the pigeon's nesting territory and forest habitat were gradually eliminated as white men plowed their way to manifest destiny. In 1914, when the last captive pigeon died in the Cincinnati Zoo, a species that had once numbered in the billions was extinct.
Out of this era came a new approach to managing wildlife—or rather, the first attempts to bother with a concerted approach to managing wildlife at all. European settlers who had discovered a continent teeming with game saw little need to regulate who could take how much and from where. Wildlife was an open-access resource, a "commons" to be exploited with no regard to notions of scarcity. But zero limits on hunting, combined with widespread habitat loss from clearing lands for agriculture and other uses, took their toll. We sent the passenger pigeon to extinction; slaughtered American bison indiscriminately on the plains; extirpated white-tailed deer from many eastern areas; and decimated populations of beavers, minks, and other valuable and trappable furbearers.
With many fauna depleted from sea to sea, hunters and early conservationists began to develop the "North American model" of wildlife management. One of its key tenets: eliminating markets for game and wildlife products. As a definitive report published by The Wildlife Society recounts, old boys' networks like the one found at the New York Sportsmen's Club played a significant role: "The club's membership included many influential lawyers, judges, and politicians, who often acted in their official positions on behalf of the club. At a time when there was limited or no government oversight on wildlife, they drafted, led efforts to enact, and enforced the first game laws directed against market hunting."
Eventually, states began to regulate the taking of wildlife. They instituted license systems, bag limits, and hunting seasons. The federal government played its part as well, via the Lacey Act of 1900, which effectively outlawed commercial hunting nationwide "and remains the most powerful legal tool to combat this activity," as the report put it.
The upshot is that selling products from wild game animals has effectively been illegal for more than a century, a source of great pride among many sportsmen and -women. That status quo suits most environmentalists, too. Regulation managed to close off the commons, and many species rebounded. It's an oft-touted conservation success story. Yet it has brought about new problems that stem from a new reality: wildlife overabundance.
As it becomes clearer that the current regulatory scheme is counterproductive to managing wildlife in an era of plenty, it's worth exploring whether markets could provide incentives to deal with animal populations that have gotten to nuisance levels.
By 1900, the white-tailed deer population in the United States had plummeted to 500,000. Now there are perhaps 30 million roaming our continent, where they trample crops, pick over gardens, and bound across highways. Every year, deer and their ilk are involved in more than a million vehicle collisions, causing dozens of fatalities and costing billions of dollars.
"Today, it is quite likely that more people live in closer proximity to more wild animals, birds and trees in America than anywhere on the planet at any time in history," journalist Jim Sterba wrote in 2012's Nature Wars: The Incredible Story of How Wildlife Comebacks Turned Backyards into Battlegrounds. Sterba has documented the far-fetched approaches some communities are taking to deal with their whitetail worries, like spending more than $1,000 per animal on sterilization programs on Staten Island or shelling out about a third of that to bring in sharpshooters to cull herds from Illinois to Connecticut—often to little effect, given the uphill biological battle against cervine fecundity.
Part of the reason for the rise of these programs is a steady national decline in the original wildlife management tool: sport hunting. Participation has fallen from 11 percent of American adults in 1960 to just 4 percent today. Changing preferences and shifting demographics are behind much of that decline, but there are other factors at play too. Sterba notes that in Massachusetts, "it is not legal to discharge a firearm within 150 feet of a hard-surfaced road, or within 500 feet of an occupied dwelling without the owner's written permission.…Because the Bay State is densely populated and has a lot of roads, these rules have the effect of making huge sections of the landscape"—60 percent of the state's 5.2 million acres—"off limits to hunting with guns."
The North American model and the state and federal regimes that followed it have been full of holes and contradictions. For example, they've long permitted trapping and marketing of beavers and other mammals. "If the modern system of regulations and law enforcement is enough to guarantee that fur can be taken sustainably," writes Chris Madson, retired from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, "then I struggle to understand why it can't regulate the market in other wild animals."
There are many exceptions beyond furs, including hides and meat from alligators, wild seafood, and numerous imported products. So while you can wear a beaver felt hat, buy a wallet made from American alligator leather, or eat Pacific yellowfin tuna, you won't find wild venison at a U.S. grocery store. (Hunters can give meat to friends or donate it to charities, but it remains illegal to sell wild game in most states. If you find venison at a supermarket or restaurant, it's probably farm-raised red deer from New Zealand.)
Legal markets for venison might not solve deer population problems entirely, but they could be a tool to align incentives better and help fund culls. "Instead of being donated to food pantries or sent to landfills," Sterba has contended, "the venison and byproducts could be sold, perhaps as a locavore delicacy, to recoup some costs" of thinning the herds. In a 2012 article for the Wildlife Society Bulletin, seven researchers floated the idea of licensing commercial deer harvesters to help manage overabundant whitetail. That's the basic approach Australia has taken with its most prominent nuisance animal, which also happens to be a national symbol: the kangaroo.
Australia has an estimated 50 million 'roos—roughly twice the number of Australians—that destroy crops, gorge on forage meant for livestock, and tear up golf courses. Licensed commercial shooters cull herds at night and sell the carcasses to distributors and processors. "Global brands such as Nike, Puma, and Adidas buy strong, supple 'k-leather' to make athletic gear," reports National Geographic. "And kangaroo meat, once sold mainly as pet food, is finding its way into more and more grocery stores and high-end restaurants." In 2017, the country's kangaroo industry generated $29 million in exports to more than 50 countries.
The state of Florida has a similar, if reptilian, issue. Alligators went from being one of the original endangered species in the 1960s to becoming so prolific that residents can now call an emergency phone line to get licensed trappers to remove gators from swimming pools, neighborhood lagoons, and any other body of water one might wander into. The trappers are allowed to keep and sell the skins and meat from the animals they capture. In 2017 alone, the state received more than 16,000 complaints, which led to nuisance trappers harvesting 8,184 alligators. (The statewide population is estimated at 1.3 million.)
If gators seem fierce, they're not nearly the nuisance that feral hogs are. A group of wild pigs can root up an entire crop field overnight with their strong snouts, and the swine inhabit at least 39 states. Costs attributed to them run as high as $2 billion annually.
About half of the nation's 5 million wild hogs are in Texas. Part of that state's strategy to deal with them is to allow live-trapped hogs to be sold to butchers and game preserves. That helps drive a serious hunting industry that taps into the demand to kill hogs recreationally—including outfits that charge about $2,000 per hour to shoot hogs from helicopters with AR-15s.
Protests over the harvesting techniques aside, hog hunting generates controversy because the origins of Texas' pig infestation can be traced to people intentionally releasing them onto hunting ranches to be tracked and killed for sport. The wild hogs that benefit the hunting industry cause more than $50 million in damage to the state's agricultural lands each year. Still, the delicate equilibrium of the feral and fertile swine seems akin to gators in Florida—there are a lot of them, they don't seem to be going anywhere, and the markets that have cropped up around them may stand the best chance of getting a handle on abundant populations.
A three-year study by Texas A&M's agricultural extension service found that hunting and trapping can reduce the economic impact of feral hogs by about two-thirds. In Missouri, a state rep wants to try a similar approach by allowing meat from wild hogs to be sold as bacon, ribs, and pork roast.
For some, the idea of any shift back in the direction of market hunting will be anathema. But the era in which the American bison was nearly annihilated is long gone. The extinctions and near extinctions of the 19th and early 20th centuries resulted from game being treated as an open-access resource. Today's state-led management of the wildlife commons is far from perfect—the billions of dollars in annual crop and vehicle damage caused by overabundant deer populations attest to the issues that remain—but that's kind of the point. Commons, which by definition are owned by everyone collectively, are hard to manage and easy to exploit. Embracing market tools could help turn wildlife into assets that property owners and hunters want to keep around rather than liabilities.
Despite nostalgic narratives about a sacrosanct decision to end commercialization in the 1900s, markets have a long history of playing a part in managing wildlife. Commercial hunting and trapping already underpin the management of beavers, alligators, kangaroos, and more. Much of Europe takes it as a given that wild game is sold and bought—Italy is known for wild boar (it often goes with pappardelle), and you can purchase moose meatballs in Sweden. In an era of overabundance, it seems odd, if not outright counterproductive, for so many U.S. state and federal policies to cling to long-standing prohibitions on marketing game.
It's one thing to slam the commons shut in the wake of the last passenger pigeon being shot. It's another to refuse to experiment with market solutions when, in many places, deer have gone from decimated to "eastern devils." If population trends continue, we could see state-level experiments in permitting the sale of game meat. Who knows? One day soon you might find wild venison in stalls at American farmers markets.