In my opinion, one of the most important and commendable steps in North American wildlife conservation came in 1916, many years before Aldo Leopold wrote Game Management (1933) or A Sand County Almanac (1949). It came at a time when North Americans were really beginning to take notice of the disappearance of wildlife on this continent, signalled by dwindling buffalo, beaver, and wild turkey populations, and the complete disappearance of the passenger pigeon in 1914. August 2016 marked the 100th anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty, signed between Canada and the United States to protect North American migratory bird populations from overharvesting and market hunting.
Verleius Geist, a Canadian biologist and strong proponent of what has come to be known as the North American Model of Wildlife Management, puts Canada’s entry into the Migratory Bird Treaty in the context of alternative approaches to wildlife management in other countries. As a British colony, says Geist (2001), Canada “could easily have adopted the mother country’s wildlife policies. Instead, Canada chose a path that paralleled that of the United States, allowing the best minds on both sides of the border to engage in constructive cooperative efforts”. I believe the Migratory Bird Treaty represents a great example of these efforts. At the root of Canada’s approach to cooperatively managing migratory birds is the notion that “Canadians are temporary custodians, not the owners, of their wildlife heritage”. This is a powerfully humble and thoughtful way to conceptualize our responsibility towards wildlife on this continent.
Typically, wildlife in North America is managed at the provincial (Canada) or state (U.S.) level, but migratory birds are managed federally. Once signed, each country was responsible for enacting legislation that would guide national efforts to implement the treaty. In Canada, we have the Migratory Birds Convention Act (MBCA), and south of the border the U.S. passed the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The MBCA in Canada includes the Migratory Birds Regulations, the Migratory Birds Sanctuary Regulations, and the Migratory Game Bird Hunting Regulations, which are each responsible for regulating a different aspect of migratory bird management.
Just to put the timeline in perspective here, the Migratory Bird Treaty was signed in the middle of World War I, at a time when political attention and federal revenue were certainly being pulled in other directions. Yet, conservationists and governments recognized the value in protecting wildlife populations and habitat and I think we need to applaud the governments of that time. Difficult decisions and worthwhile sacrifices have been made in the past to conserve wildlife and there really is no excuse for our generation to ignore our responsibilities on this front. Healthy wildlife and habitat in the future is worth the expense.
This year, both the American and Canadian departments responsible for implementing migratory bird management had good reason to celebrate the 100 years of conservation efforts. To fund conservation activities, the Canadian federal government relies on revenue from the sale of Canadian Wildlife Habitat Conservation stamps (the Federal Duck Stamp in the U.S.). Beginning in 1985, with a painting of a pair of mallards by famous Canadian painter Robert Bateman, the Duck Stamp is a postage stamp that is affixed to a Migratory Game Bird Hunting Permit. The stamp costs $17 annually and has generated over $50 million in funding for more than 1,500 conservation projects throughout the country. Although it is purchased primarily by waterfowl hunters, anyone can buy a Duck Stamp and contribute to migratory bird conservation.
Ducks Unlimited Canada reports that from the first migratory bird sanctuary established in Quebec in 1919 to protect seabird colonies, we now have 92 sanctuaries across the country. Today, migratory bird legislation protects over 400 species of waterfowl. As a result, duck populations throughout North America are healthy and stable with an estimated 48.4 million breeding ducks (according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service). In other words, the Migratory Bird Treaty worked. Representing the largest international wildlife agreement of the time, it brought waterfowl populations back from dangerously low numbers and made a powerful statement about North America’s commitment to wildlife.
Though we have reason to celebrate the millions of ducks, around 9,000 trumpeter swans, and plenty of Canada geese on this continent, the work is not over. As migratory species, a waterfowl species’ habitat is spread over the length of the continent. Each year, waterfowl migrate between their summer breeding grounds and wintering grounds using four main migratory routes called flyways. Depending on its particular habitat and range, a species’ north-south migratory route may go anywhere from the Canadian High Arctic to the southern portion of Mexico and beyond. Along the way, waterfowl require healthy and productive wetland habitats for feeding, staging, breeding, and nesting. Unfortunately, we continue to lose wetland habitats every year on a continental scale due to expanding urban development, pollution, and agricultural expansion. We also continue to lose anywhere from 1.4 – 200 million ducks due to house cats, somewhere around half a billion as a result of collisions with buildings and vehicles, and thousands due to poisoning from pesticides and fertilizers, among other causes of waterfowl mortality.
Amidst contemporary conflicts over conservation status and endangered species listings, proposals to either liberalize or constrain hunting regulations, and widespread disagreement over climate policy, we have an example from 1916 that shows us how we can commit to wildlife conservation on a continental scale. I have a strong affection for waterfowl. I enjoy everything related to ducks and geese: I like watching them; hearing them; I find their biology and ecology fascinating; I enjoy the magic of sitting in a pre-dawn blind trying to call birds into a decoy spread; I have prepared many delicious meals of duck or goose meat; and there’s nothing quite like the honking of geese lighting up late afternoon autumn skies. I’m personally very thankful to the conservationists of the last century for laying the foundation that has ensured I am able to continue enjoying such an amazing group of species.