White House Conference on North American Wildlife Policy


Gary Marbut, President
Montana Shooting Sports Association

On Thursday, September 25th I received by email an invitation to attend the White House Conference on North American Wildlife Policy in Reno, Nevada on October 1 - 3.  After some urgent scrambling, I arranged to be able to attend this Conference.

In August of 2007, President George Bush signed Executive Order # 13443
entitled Facilitation of Hunting Heritage and Wildlife Conservation.  This EO called for executive branch agencies of the federal government to "facilitate the expansion and enhancement of hunting opportunities and the management of game species and their habitat."  The full text of this EO can be viewed at:

This EO also required the Conference held in Reno, a Conference intended to solicit goals, policies and ideas for a 10-year (and beyond) North American wildlife management plan.  The last time such a high-level wildlife management conference occurred was in 1908 when President Theodore Roosevelt hosted all U.S. governors at a White House conference to discuss wildlife management.

People who spoke at this conference included President George Bush (by video), Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne, and Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer.  Attending and sometimes speaking were the directors of many federal agencies and bureaus (such as the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, the President's Environmental Quality Council, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) and many of their senior staff.  Also attending were the executives, directors and senior staff of many non-governmental organizations (NGO) such as the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the Boone and Crockett Club, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Pheasants Forever, Trout Unlimited, the Wild Turkey Foundation, the National Rifle Association, and many others.  The Governor of Nevada and the Mayor of Reno both made cameo appearances.  Over 500 people attended this conference.

This was truly a "high level" conference considering the type and caliber of people who attended.

In the video appearance by President Bush, he introduced VP Cheney as his favorite shooter and hunter, a poorly-veiled reference to the hunting accident in which Cheney accidentally shot a hunting partner with his shotgun, imbedding quite a bit of birdshot in the surprised hunter.  In Cheney's speech, he told about how, upon his return to the White House following this incident President Bush told him, "Here I am, sitting at a 30% approval rating, and you have to shoot the only trial lawyer in Texas who supports me."  The rest of Cheney's speech was solid but not as entertaining as that story.  Security was tight for Cheney's speech.  All audience members had to show photo IDs and pass through metal detectors upon entrance to the facility.

The most inspiring speech was given by Secretary of Interior Dirk Kempthorne, former Governor of Idaho and known outdoorsman and hunter.  Kempthorne made good reference to his many years of hunting experience, and told a few funny stories about those experiences.

I'd guess that between 30 and 40% of conferees were public employees at one level or another.  There were members of fish and game commissions and the directors of fish and wildlife agencies from several states.  There were a few state legislators and county commissioners from western states.  Many of the NGOs had multiple representatives present.  A few western ranchers attended, as did some representatives of land trusts and investment groups that seek to preserve wildlife habitat.

I arrived in Reno late Tuesday.  Wednesday was a preparation day, and an incoming travel day for most conferees.  I wanted to be on hand all day Wednesday to scope preparations and make contact with some incoming conferees.  Thursday was the primary workday for the Conference.  Friday was the wrap-up day of speeches, including Cheney's.

For Thursday, the drill was to split conferees up into four groups of more manageable size for discussion.  In preparation for the Conference, twenty-some pages of "discussion topics" had been drafted concerning several topical areas such as enhancing wildlife management funding, access to huntable land, hunter recruitment and mentoring, climate change impact on hunting, energy development in re hunting, and others.  The four discussion groups were led by panels of five panelists prominent in hunting and wildlife management, from both in and out of government (mostly in).  These group discussion meetings were held both Thursday morning and Thursday afternoon, with the two sessions led by different sets of panelists for each group.

Theoretically, these discussion groups were to solicit input of ideas about what policies should go into the intended ten-year wildlife management plan (and beyond).  However, I was disappointed that most of the discussion was directed by panelists to the "discussion topics" prepared in advance for the Conference.  Although there was opportunity for conferees to go to the microphone and broach topics independently, the two sets of panelists for my breakout group never asked, "What should we be talking about that is not on the list of prepared discussion topics?"  And, the panelists directed conversation to focus primarily, almost exclusively, on the prepared discussion topics.

I'd guess that the most discussion time in my breakout group was spent talking about ways to enhance funding for federal wildlife management programs.  Perhaps the second most discussed topic was wildlife habitat acquisition, maintenance and enhancement.  Hunter recruitment and retention may have received the next most discussion.  I was surprised that climate change and energy development received little comment in my breakout group.

There were two issues which I wanted to see discussed and considered for policy inclusion in the resulting plan that were NOT mentioned in the prepared-in-advance list of discussion topics for the Conference.  Those were:

1)  The impact of large predators on game herds and hunting opportunities, and

2)  A systematic designation of safe and suitable places for people to shoot recreationally on public land.

I came to the Conference prepared with written policy statements on both of those topics - four items for predators and two items for shooting.  I circulated copies of those prepared positions to multiple sympathetic conferees, to make sure that these issues were broached in each of the four breakout groups.  I believe the positions I prepared were presented in all four breakout groups, and the written material I provided in my breakout group was the only written position material provided by anyone.  Everything else was oral discussion.

The printed material I provided about predators (both in my group and to other, sympathetic conferees who presented this in other groups) said this:

RESOLVED by the White House Conference on North American Wildlife Policy:

1.  Pursuant to the "Executive Order: Facilitation of Hunting Heritage and Wildlife Conservation," achieving a natural predator/prey balance is not an acceptable goal or necessarily a desirable outcome.

2.  Introduction or enhancement of predator populations must not be allowed to conflict with; the heritage of and opportunity for people to hunt for food, the safety of people engaged in outdoor recreation or outdoor work, or livelihood success of people operating businesses on land where predators range.

3.  All persons have a natural and undeniable right to defend themselves and their property from immediate or apparent injury.  This right of self-defense of person and property applies to defense from animals, even if such animals are otherwise protected under law.

4.  States that conduct active predator control to protect game herds are engaging in active wildlife management according to the needs and values of their citizens.  Any such wildlife management activities may not be impeded by federal agencies, federal regulations, or federal personnel.

In addition to having this material presented to each of the breakout groups, there was an option to provide written comments to the Conference generally.  I did this as well.

Concerning shooting ranges, I provided this:

Shooting Ranges - Public Lands

1.  When the BLM and USFS revise their resource management plans, they should consider designating one or more safe and suitable places for recreational shooting within a reasonable distance from any established community near which BLM or USFS manages public lands.

2.  The BLM and USFS should develop and implement a streamlined and simple process to transfer or long-term lease land to responsible local organizations to manage and operate shooting ranges.

In my breakout group, I said this, "If people are not shooting, they won't be hunting.  To maintain our hunting heritage, people need safe and suitable places to shoot."

Will these expressions about large predators and shooting ranges find place in the final ten-year Plan developed using the ideas gathered in this Conference?  I don't know.  I did my best to inject these ideas, both in writing and orally in multiple breakout discussion groups.  Will the federal employees taking notes about Conference input include these ideas in the harvested material from the Conference?  I don't know.  Will the decision-makers who craft the final ten-year Plan opt to include these ideas as proposed policies in the Plan?  I don't know.

I spoke at some length with the Director of the Arizona Department of Fish and Game, including about the policies I proposed for predators.  He said that he felt that Conference organizers wanted non-controversial outcomes from the conference, and that the proposed predator policies would be too controversial to make the final cut for the ten-year Plan.  Maybe so.  Maybe not.  We'll just have to wait and see.

There is a larger question of what will happen with this newly-minted ten-year Plan when a new administration takes over next January.  I asked this question before and at the Conference.  Nobody knows for sure.  However, all NGO folk I talked to (a LOT) seemed committed to applying as much political pressure as possible to keep the Conference outcomes on the front burner.  Some of the items recommended at the conference can be done by executive order or by administrative change.  Some will require legislation to be passed by Congress.  We all know how dicey that can be, given the way the political winds can blow and eddy.

Other observations

It seemed to me that there sure was a lot of time spent at this Conference talking about how much it will cost in coming years to hold on to and care for wildlife habitat and our hunting heritage.  While I'm sure this is true, I also felt almost as if this were a cheerleader camp to train and motivate a cadre of ambassadors for a spending surge, mostly by federal entities.

All of the relevant and necessary players seemed to be at this conference to push and implement what the original Executive Order charges.  There was a lot of political and financial power present - a lot of commitment.  I was very impressed with the quality and volume of players assembled.  However, depending on what happens with the economy and upcoming presidential election, much of the financial and political power assembled in Reno this past week could be gone like campfire smoke in a good breeze.

Although President Bush's Executive Order clearly talked about "enhancement of hunting opportunities," most of the talk was about "conservation."  While I realize that "habitat biodiversity" and "wetlands augmentation" (and a bunch of other tangential topics) are important parts of the larger picture and of the future of hunting, quite frankly I wanted to hear more about how my grandchildren will be able to kill and eat wild game animals.  Maybe they are the same things and it's just a matter of perspective.

I sure met a lot of interesting, energetic and committed people - people my son would describe as having "lights on."

Finally, Pheasants Forever has created a program called "No Child Left Inside."  This is as good a catchphrase as any to call attention to the need for ALL of us to make extra effort to enable and foster young and new hunters - to introduce non-hunters through experience and example to our traditions, heritage and culture of hunting that are so very much our Way of Life.

Other sources of information: