The Fracking of Conservation: State Wildlife Agencies Invite Oil and Gas Industry to Fund Wildlife Management

In early March, 2016, the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (AFWA), through which the various state wildlife agencies act collectively, proudly announced the recommendations of its Blue Ribbon Panel on Sustaining America’s Diverse Fish and Wildlife Resources. The Panel emitted two recommendations in response to what it described alternately as a “fish and wildlife crisis” or “conservation crisis.” As we shall see, the manner in which this crisis was defined, and the identity of the individuals permitted to perform the definition, prefigured the contours of the solutions that were proposed.

Since the Panel’s report informed us that “The Future of America’s Fish and Wildlife” is at stake, one might have thought that the nominal owners of America’s wildlife, the American people, would be accorded a healthy level of representation on the Panel. But the profession of wildlife management, though it pays lip service to the notion of wildlife as a public trust, has a pronounced tendency to listen only to the voices it deems sufficiently qualified to speak. That means hunters, groups that do not object to hunting, and sympathetic academics, like Steven Kellert, Professor Emeritus of the Yale School of Forestry, who see hunting as an expression of reverence for the natural world. Organizations that dare to object to hunting, whether on scientific or ethical grounds, are not welcome. With those realities understood, the affiliations of 23 of the Panel’s 26 members make a great deal of sense. The real surprise comes in the form of the remaining three: corporate executives from Toyota, Shell, and Hess. Why, one wonders, did these people deserve blue ribbons, when the ASPCA, the Sierra Club, and the Western Watersheds Project did not?

Perhaps we will find a clue in the identity of the Panel’s co-chairmen. The Republican co-chair was John Morris, the founder of Bass Pro Shops, who – presumably in the best interests of our wild animals and places – managed to steer the Panel away from any recommendation to levy additional taxes on consumers of outdoor recreational goods. Of greater interest, however, is the other co-chair, former Democratic Governor of Wyoming, Dave Freudenthal, who presided over Dick Cheney’s home state during its early boom years for oil and gas extraction through hydraulic fracturing (fracking). Freudenthal, a hunter of course, is now a senior counsel with a Cheyenne law firm, specializing in matters of concern to the oil and gas industry.

Could it be that hunters, and the agencies that service them, have found themselves some new friends who will let them play their deadly little games instead of calling them nasty names? What do the new kids on the conservation block expect to gain from this relationship? Dazzled by the wealth of their new friends, how will the agencies behave toward those groups that have long been excluded from their club? And how, if we allow ourselves to empathize with them, would our wild animals feel about the “vision” that is to be imposed upon them by humans who have always regarded them not as individuals, but as resources?

Shell Game: Recommendation One and the Endangered Species Act

[T]here is urgent need of predictable ecology at this moment. The reason is that our new physical and chemical tools are so powerful and so widely used that they threaten to disrupt the capacity for self-renewal in the biota. This capacity I will call land health. – Aldo Leopold 1

The Panel’s primary recommendation was for the U.S. Congress to “dedicate up to $1.3 billion annually in existing revenue from the development of energy and mineral resources on federal lands and waters to the Wildlife Conservation Restoration Program,” which would distribute the funds to the state agencies to assist them in the implementation of State Wildlife Action Plans. 2 It is claimed that this additional revenue will enable the state agencies to close a funding “gap” that has prevented them from dealing with the “fish and wildlife crisis.” Touting their prior successes with Trump-like levels of immodesty, the agencies now offer themselves to the American public as worthy guardians of all species of wildlife. Those of us who have witnessed what “success” looks (and smells) like in the real world can surely be forgiven for wondering what this all means for the creatures who have yet to receive the full attention of agency managers.

At first glance, the report of the Blue Ribbon Panel appears to be a sincere attempt to respond to a criticism of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation (the set of hunter-centric principles that agencies claim to follow). The Model undeniably succeeded in helping populations of game species to recover from the unregulated market hunting that threatened them at the turn of the (20th) century, but this “success story” song is beginning to crackle and hiss like an old record on a gramophone, inducing foot-taps only from camo-clad audiences. State agencies derive much (though by no means all) of their revenue from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses, and have used this to justify catering to a small subset of the American population by managing the animals that hunters prefer to kill, maximizing the crops of flesh, fur, and ornaments that can be “harvested.” However, the protection of non-game species has been incidental, not central, to the agencies’ mission. For years, agencies have refused to acknowledge what Leopold told us 70 years ago: that managing habitats for game is often inconsistent with sound ecosystem management benefiting all species. But now, all of a sudden, the State Wildlife Action Plans to be funded by oil and gas revenue are presented as efforts to nurture non-game species as lovingly as the agencies have protected game species, conceding that non-game species have been given short shrift. Apparently, goes the narrative wrapped around the pretty pictures in the document, state agencies really wanted to protect all our fish and wildlife, but just couldn’t afford to. There is no discussion of who might monitor implementation of these Action Plans; presumably, the agencies will automatically do what is best for the wildlife. After all, the crisis, according to the Panel, is purely one of financing, not philosophy, or governance.

Enter the oil and gas industry as the agencies’ white knight. Lionized (see p. 7) as providers of vital services that fuel our way of life, the industry is portrayed, in a supreme act of greenwashing (or brown-nosing), not as the most despicable polluter of our public trust assets, but as the savior of our wildlife and our budget. There is no talk here of a polluter-pays principle, or even an expansion of the user-pays principle, charging users of land and users of wildlife. There is nothing to see here but civic virtue. Much as hunters and anglers selflessly agreed to tax themselves in the past,3 these hard-working corporate citizens have stepped up to the plate to pay billions into public coffers. American taxpayers need not pay any new taxes; all they have to do is sign off, through their ever-faithful representatives, on a re-direction of existing revenue. This, it is said, will enable “all Americans” to “invest” in conservation. (We shall return to the sincerity of this appeal to democracy in a later section.)

When evaluating “win-win” propositions, it is helpful to consider which interests are going to do most of the winning. Let us, therefore, watch the shells as they are moved around. Consider this extract from the report (p. 2):

For every game species that is thriving, hundreds of nongame species are in decline…. [T]housands of species of birds, frogs, turtles and even the iconic monarch butterfly are slipping through the cracks and could become endangered in the future…. A lot is at stake if we don’t act soon. Every American benefits when we have healthy and accessible fish and wildlife. We need to start down a new path where we invest proactively in conservation rather than reactively. Doing so will help us avoid contentious endangered species battles that inhibit business, slow the economy and pass on the high cost of species recovery to the next generation. We invite you to join us in our quest to advance a 21st century vision for fish and wildlife conservation. [Emphasis added.]

Now, if our fish and wildlife were able to speak for themselves, and if we cared to listen, they might tell us that they would prefer to remain inaccessible, thank you very much. Indeed, one or two ecologists have noted that many species require large areas of true wilderness – roadless areas from which the master species, homo sapiens, is excluded on the grounds that his presence is demonstrably detrimental. But such thoughts, it would seem, have no place in the future of America’s fish and wildlife – a future that is starting to look a lot like the past, but with VIP members admitted to the club. The solution to “the crisis” is one that allows consumptive users of wildlife to continue their consumption patterns, while facilitating the consumptive use of wild places by extractive industry. This section from p. 6 further clarifies the true motivations of the Panel:

It costs taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars each year to restore threatened and endangered species, outlays that might be avoided or greatly reduced if proactive conservation measures were implemented first. The cost of complying with endangered species regulations and lost revenue from project delays also impacts business. [Emphasis added.]

Before we elaborate on this solicitude for the needs of business, it must be noted that these professions of concern for the costs imposed on taxpayers ring just a bit hollow. What, one wonders,
might be the cost for cleaning up the groundwater that the oil and gas industry is contaminating with a toxic brew of fracking chemicals, the identity of which it has not been required to disclose? What might be the costs imposed on society of seismic disturbances caused by underground injections? What about climate change, which fracking exacerbates, not just by deepening our dependency on fossil fuels, but by leaking methane (a potent greenhouse gas) at well heads? The report is mute on these questions. Nor does it dare to suggest that various organs of the state have been as dedicated to the commercial exploitation of our wild places as the wildlife agencies have been dedicated to the hunting of wild animals, a fact that might explain why so many species (the report says 12,000) are in need of attention in the first place. Apparently, for men with blue ribbons pinned to their chest, the externalized social costs of capitalism are not merely outside the market, they are outside the mind, never to be admitted. The only costs that matter are those that actually appear on the balance sheet.

In a predictably glowing review of the Panel’s output, Field & Stream provided a concrete example that illustrates the Panel’s animating purpose:

Dave Chanda [the AFWA’s president] mentioned the recent successful attempt to keep greater sage-grouse off of the endangered species list. “The money raised for landscape-level conservation resulted in no ESA listing for the sage-grouse,” he said, which prevented a tremendous loss of revenue resulting from a listing. [Emphasis added.]

For ecologist George Wuerthner, who is more concerned with saving a species than saving revenue, the federal government’s decision not to list the sage grouse dooms it to extinction. The plans being celebrated by Chanda, the Audubon Society, and the National Wildlife Federation, will do nothing more than tinker with the margins of the problem. The real threats to the grouse – chiefly, livestock and energy extraction, both of which transform the land in obvious and subtle ways that harm grouse – will continue more or less unabated. Wuerthner’s discussion of the political calculations made by the Obama Administration foreshadowed Louisa Willcox’s analysis of ESA appeasement, in which many putative defenders of the ESA advocate for delisting as a means to protect the much-hated legislation from its vehement critics on the right. But in this arena, the motives of the appeasers may be less important than the motives of the corporate state, the highest levels of which have decided that frackingoffers the United States the key to the 21st Century. To the extent that grouse, or charismatic megafauna like grey wolves and grizzly bears, block this poisonous path to greatness, they will be sacrificed, the protests of the citizens who love them mere potholes easily absorbed by the suspension of the elite’s limousines.

Thus, as the AFWA’s scheme, with bipartisan backing, wends it ways through the House of Representatives in the form of HR 5650, the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act of 2016, we have every reason to believe that a federal government deeply committed to fracking will embrace this particular vision of the future of America’s fish and wildlife. The states’ new wildlife-management plans will provide convenient cover for a federal bureaucracy looking for an excuse not to list, ensuring that the greatest burdens fall not on our beloved corporations but on our forsaken wild creatures. For a taste of what this means for the animals who were not consulted, let us consider the bloodbath that has been allowed to proceed by federal courts that had little choice. The grey wolf – a non-game species whose ESA protection is being whittled away – is to be hunted back to a level that Idaho’s hunter-services department (otherwise known as Fish & Game) deems compatible with healthy elk herds. Withno quota for the “harvest” in most of Idaho’s wolf zones, the American people are watching their multi-million dollar investment in wolf recovery be converted into spectacular trophies for the agencies’ most-favored clients. In Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, the taxpayers’ investment in grizzly recovery is about to meet the same fate. So much, then, for the concern about the burden on taxpayers. And no wonder the agencies have to resort to shell games to finance their activities.

Repelling the Enemy at the Gates: Recommendation Two and the Crisis of Governance

[M]itigative or tactical change… seeks to redress a situation or condition without significantly modifying power relationships. – Sheldon Wolin 4

It is difficult to characterize the AFWA’s Blue Ribbon reforms as a deal with the devil, because it is not clear which side is sporting the horns. Nonetheless, a deal has been made and, having looked at the benefits for the oil and gas industry, we need to consider the agencies’ side of the bargain. For them, the win is arguably even bigger, and we can see this clearly in the breathless excitement of the AFWA’s president, Dave Chanda, as he introduces the ribbon-wearers to the press. The truth is that the agencies are desperate, and it’s not just about the money.

With hunter-participation rates in secular decline, the agencies have known for years that their peculiar little institution was heading for financial trouble. The cost of license fees has been kept low – often lagging well behind inflation – adding a form of state subsidy to consumptive users who already benefit (though they never acknowledge it) from federal expenditures on vast areas of public lands that provide habitat for the animals they kill. With rare exceptions like Missouri, which funds its Department of Conservation partly through a fractional share of sales tax revenue, attempts to broaden the base of agency financing, beyond gimmicks like specialty license plates, have been dead on arrival or carefully managed to ensure that policy would not be swayed by anti-hunting sentiment. (See, for example, George Wuerthner’s discussion of Montana’s wolf conservation stamp.) The reason is simple: professional wildlife managers do not want the general public telling them what to do.

A classic expression of this condescension was provided by Dr. Michael Hutchins, the former Executive Director of The Wildlife Society, which publishes one of the profession’s leading journals. In a multi-part interview with National Geographic, Hutchins, echoing the language of many hunters, essentially alleged that anti-hunters possess neither the brains to understand the need for lethal management of wild animals, nor the testicular fortitude to take the necessary actions. Those scientists, like Jane Goodall and Marc Bekoff, who insist that animals deserve to be valued as individuals and not just managed as data points in a population, are accused of exploiting the ignorance of an increasingly urban citizenry suffering from “nature deficit disorder” and overly attached to their pets. The argument of the late Professor Joseph Sax, our leading exponent of public-trust principles, that evolving social preferences must be respected by trust managers, is not acknowledged, though its implications for the profession are surely understood – and resented. Panel-member Kellert would have been well aware that recent research replicating the methods of his landmark 1984 paper on attitudes toward wildlife has shown a significant, positive shift in attitudes toward animals that were historically stigmatized, including the wolves of Idaho. How, then, to keep those attitudes from impinging on the sanctity of the profession?

Against this backdrop, let us consider the Panel’s second recommendation:

The Blue Ribbon Panel will examine the impact of societal changes on the relevancy of fish and wildlife conservation and make recommendations on how programs and agencies can transform to engage and serve broader constituencies.

This kind of language is reminiscent of the Environment Chapter of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. We have a recommendation to make further recommendations, and those recommendations are intended to help the existing agency structures navigate a forest full of bleeding-heart liberals. While we have a concrete proposal for the reform of agency funding, and a plan for making it happen (which is being implemented now), there are no concrete proposals to reform the institution itself. There is no recognition that non-consumptive users must be given a seat – or several seats – at the table. There is no clause in the pending legislation requiring states receiving federal funds to ensure that their wildlife commissions reflect today’s demographic diversity, or even requiring states to offer their citizens an opportunity to propose recommendations of their own. It’s business as usual, but with more spending money.

The Panel’s report reassures the reader that a great many funding options were considered. The oil and gas option is supposedly the easiest to enact, because it does not require new taxes. But the report shows (p. 7) three options with the same overall level of popular support (95%), according to the market research the Panel chose to use. Crucially, two of those options involved diverting existing federal or state general revenues to conservation. (We can be sure that survey respondents were not told that “conservation” can include such green activities as coyote-killing contests or bow-hunting bear cubs over bait, as David Chanda’s home state of New Jersey will allow this October. They were also probably not asked if they would like the United States to close one or two of its global assortment of military establishments, or do without nuclear weapons, and spend the savings on wildlife.) The report’s numbers, conveniently, show a very slightly higher level of strong support within that 95% for the oil and gas option, making it the recipient of the big, blue rosette. This is marvelous for the agencies, because it weakens the ability of taxpayers to say that they pay for conservation. Democratic rhetoric notwithstanding, the AFWA is pushing a system that will be funded, in their eyes, by hunters and by business. Anti-hunt activists who have long been slapped down with the retort that “hunters pay for conservation” – even though it has always been disingenuous – will soon have to contend with a reality in which frackers pay for conservation.

Thus, a broader constituency will indeed be served, but it will be a constituency that demands very little change from the established institution of wildlife management. In a truly symbiotic relationship, both the agencies and industry will be able to burnish their environmental credentials while pursuing their core missions with little meaningful interference from the public. As long as the agencies keep the Fish & Wildlife Service off the industry’s back, they can have all the hunter fun they want. For the two major contracting parties, it’s a splendid exercise in risk management, and a triumph for a system of values based on the consumption of natural resources. For those of us with a different set of values, it portends the conservation of disenfranchisement, impotence, and, ultimately, grief. But at least our wild animals can console themselves with the knowledge that their monetary value has finally been recognized. Worldwide, the Blue Ribbon Panel tells us that nature provides mankind with a minimum of $18 trillion-worth of “ecosystem services” each year (p. 5). What a wonderful feeling it must be to serve such an appreciative master.

  1. The Land Health Concept and Conservation, 1946.
  2. For readers who are interested, Florida’s Plan may be accessed here. The pdf is 662 pages long, and seems to have escaped Governor Scott’s reviewers, using the forbidden term, “climate change” on more than one occasion.
  3. The Pittman-Robertson Act of 1937 taxed sales of firearms, ammunition, and archery equipment; the Dingell-Johnson Act of 1950 taxed fishing and boating equipment. Both taxes affect purchasers who neither hunt nor fish, but the agencies never admit that to protect their “user-pays” narrative.
  4. Preface to Democracy Incorporated, 2010.

Richard Foster lives in Central Florida. His writing appears at