Missouri has unique methods for managing and regulating our state’s forest, fish, and wildlife resources; however, the guiding principal behind those methods extends across all 50 states and Canada — it’s called the public trust doctrine.
The essence of the doctrine is that certain natural resources are so valuable to the public that they cannot be privately owned and controlled. They are to be held in trust by government for the benefit of present and future generations.
In 1842, a U.S. Supreme Court decision supported and reinforced the public trust doctrine. The findings of the court in the Martin v. Waddell case have helped guide the management and regulation of wildlife resources, both aquatic and terrestrial, of our nation.
Empowering the Conservation Commission
In the early 1930s, during the dust bowl years, Missouri’s landscape was significantly different than it is today. Our Ozark hills were severely overharvested. Our streams were choked with gravel and sedimentation. White-tailed deer and wild turkeys were few and far between. Furbearers, an important economic resource, were heavily harvested and difficult to locate. Our state’s natural resources had been over-exploited, with no thought given to what it would look like in the future. But some Missourians had a different vision for the natural resources of our state, and they set out to make that vision a reality.
In 1936, Missouri citizens established a new method to manage their forest, fish, and wildlife resources, one that is as unique today as it was when it was conceived. Through a statewide ballot initiative the citizens of Missouri gave the Department of Conservation a mandate by passing a constitutional amendment that provided significant authority to the Conservation Commission. The amendment states, “The control, management, restoration, conservation and regulation of the bird, fish, game, forestry and all wildlife resources of the state…shall be vested in a conservation commission….”
Using the public trust doctrine and the authority provided to the Conservation Commission by Missouri citizens, the Department works to fulfill its mission “To protect and manage the forest, fish, and wildlife resources of the state to facilitate and provide opportunity for all citizens to use, enjoy, and learn about these resources.”
Missourians Value Nature
The passage of the constitutional amendment was a reflection of how important the wildlife and natural resources of our state were to Missouri’s citizens. That value has not diminished these past 75 years. In 2011-12, more than 2.2 million Missourians identified themselves as “wildlife watchers” and nine out of 10 Missouri citizens said they had an interest in fish, forest, and wildlife resources. In fact, one out of every four Missouri citizens between the ages of 16 and 65 had a permit that allowed them to hunt or fish in our state. There were 1.1 million Missouri anglers and more than 608,000 resident hunters.
Out of all Missouri hunters, half a million of them pursued white-tailed deer. Deer hunting is big business in Missouri and supports more than 12,000 jobs and generates more than $1 billion in economic activity every year.
Management and the Wildlife Code
We have faced challenges to our natural resources throughout our state’s history. A primary challenge today is dealing with the effects of a highly mobile society. Issues that are on the other side of the globe can be on Missouri’s doorstep in a matter of days, if not hours. The movement of wildlife, plants, invasive species, and disease can happen quickly. However, our state’s Wildlife Code, which is composed of the regulations approved by the Conservation Commission, reduces the risk of exotic and invasive species, as well as diseases, by reducing their probability of establishment or slowing down their rate of expansion.
Over the past decade, there have been a number of issues that required changes to our Wildlife Code. Issues such as whirling disease that could have a devastating impact on Missouri’s trout populations and didymo, which could significantly alter our cold-water streams, have required constituent involvement, stakeholder support, and Wildlife Code modifications.
Missouri’s Wildlife Code has evolved over the past 75 years. It is evaluated through periodic reviews and regularly updated to reflect changing biological information.
Chronic Wasting Disease
The occurrence of chronic wasting disease (CWD) in our state has revealed areas within our Wildlife Code that need to be re-examined. In 2003, the Department, in cooperation with other state agencies and stakeholders, developed a CWD contingency plan for both our free-ranging and captive herds. Missouri was the first state in the nation to develop such a plan. Unfortunately, that plan had to be implemented in 2010.
CWD has only been in our free-ranging herd a short period of time. The disease is always fatal and poses a significant risk to Missouri’s deer herds. The Department has tested more than 38,000 free-ranging deer for the disease. There have been 21 confirmed cases in north-central Missouri since 2010, with 11 of those occurring in two captive facilities, and the remaining 10 occurring in free-ranging deer within two miles of one of those facilities. The Department has held nine public meetings near that location, met with landowners in the area, and has worked to keep citizens informed. A CWD zone was established in 2011 and is composed of Adair, Macon, Linn, Chariton, Randolph, and Sullivan counties in north-central Missouri.
Since CWD was discovered in our free-ranging population, the Conservation Commission has modified our Wildlife Code to reduce the number of older animals in the CWD zone by removing antler point restrictions as well as eliminating activities, such as wildlife feeding, that tend to concentrate animals. These changes will help minimize the spread of CWD.
The Department recognizes these regulation changes have affected landowners, hunters, and business owners in north-central Missouri who have made significant personal sacrifices to reduce the rate of spread of this disease. While the occurrence of CWD was the catalyst to reevaluate the Wildlife Code, future regulation changes will address the risks of all diseases for both our captive and free-ranging wildlife populations.
The Department has a long history of engaging citizens on natural-resource issues and has worked with cervid owners since the 1940s. When CWD was discovered in our state, a Captive Cervid Working Group was formed to review disease issues in our wildlife populations. The group is composed of representatives from the Missouri Department of Conservation, the Missouri Department of Agriculture, sporting organizations, the Missouri Whitetail Breeders and Hunting Ranch Association, and the Missouri Elk Farmers Association.
Based on feedback from the Captive Cervid Working Group, research, and management priorities, the Department has identified several areas of concern related to disease transmission. Those items include the separation of captive and free-ranging wildlife populations, the movement of captive wildlife, disease testing approaches, herd certification programs, and facility contingency plans.
Help Shape Future Decisions
Over the next few months, the Department will go to our state’s 500,000 deer hunters, as well as other Missouri stakeholders, with a goal of maintaining healthy wildlife populations across our state. Public input on wildlife disease issues will be sought through meetings across Missouri. It is possible that, as a result of the information received, new Wildlife Code changes may be suggested to the Conservation Commission for review.
The Missouri Department of Conservation, guided by the public trust doctrine, authorized by our state’s constitution, works for all stakeholders. Often these stakeholders have differing views and approaches, which creates significant complexities. Managing our public trust resources, using the best science available, and incorporating the needs and desires of an ever-changing society is what was mandated by Missouri citizens more than 75 years ago. This same expectation exists today and will continue to shape our state’s natural resources into the future.
The strength of the “Missouri Plan” for conservation has always been citizen involvement. Conservation works here because Show-Me State citizens cherish their forests, fish, and wildlife and have a personal commitment ensuring the future of those resources.
That certainly has been the case with the challenge presented by chronic wasting disease (CWD). Landowners in 29 sections of land in the Core Area of the CWD Containment Zone have stepped up to meet this challenge. Their help has been critical in CWD sampling that enables the Conservation Department to determine where the disease has spread to free-ranging deer. As we learn where CWD has spread, committed landowners are helping check the spread of the disease by reducing deer population density in affected areas. Some are harvesting more deer. Others allow the Conservation Department to come onto their land and remove deer.
This is no small thing. These landowner conservationists treasure Missouri’s deer-hunting tradition and the connection it provides to the land, family, and friends. They are making a painful sacrifice in the interest of the greater good — protecting this tremendously valuable resource for the rest of the state.
We owe a debt of thanks to these dedicated conservationists. They join a long and illustrious line of Missourians extending back to 1937, folks who have stood at the front line of conservation and done what had to be done.
Citizens often tell Conservation Department employees how much they appreciate our work, but the truth is that conservation works because of you. Without your support, our efforts would be in vain. We are deeply appreciative of all YOU do for conservation.