The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation and Public Trust Doctrine


In recent years, the recognition of wildlife conservation in the U.S. and Canada as distinct from other forms worldwide has led to the adoption of the term “North American Model of Wildlife Conservation.”  The Public Trust Doctrine, derived from the 1842 U.S. Supreme Court case Martin v. Waddell, is considered the keystone of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation. It represents the common law foundation for trust status of wildlife resources in the United States.


While the Industrial Revolution initiated rapid technology development and laid the foundation of the urban workforce, the movement also placed harsh demands on the natural world.  In particular, the food supply required by the rapidly growing urban population caused game to be hunted at unsustainable levels. Simultaneously, an urban upper class emerged with the leisure time that afforded hunting under self-imposed “sporting” conditions that promoted fair play, self-restraint, pioneer skills, and health. Conflicts between these distinct hunting groups resulted in successful advocacy by the upper class for the elimination of markets for game, allocation of wildlife by law rather than privilege, and restraint on the killing of wildlife for anything other than legitimate purposes.

In 1842, the Supreme Court rule in Martin v. Waddell set the foundation in U.S. common law for the principle that wildlife resources are owned by no one, to be held in trust by government for the benefit of present and future generations. The court ruling, combined with the advocacy of the upper class sport hunters, resulted in the Public Trust Doctrine.

Concern over the protection of wildlife in the United States prompted a concern in Canada over the potential for similar misuse of wildlife. The subsequent collaboration of the U.S. and Canadian wildlife conservationists led to treaties establishing certain species of marine mammals and migratory birds as international resources and to the creation of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation. The heart of the Model is composed of seven focal points (as stated in the TWS Final Position Statement on The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation):

  • Wildlife as Public Trust Resources
  • Elimination of Markets for Game
  • Allocation of Wildlife by Law
  • Wildlife Should Only be Killed for a Legitimate Purpose
  • Wildlife Are Considered an International Resource
  • Science is the Proper Tool for Discharge of Wildlife Policy
  • Democracy of Hunting

It wasn’t until President Theodore Roosevelt’s administration that the implementation of wildlife policy significantly began. Actions such as the 1930 American Game Policy and the 1937 Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act set a precedent for the role of science over partisanship as the proper tool to discharge wildlife policy. Comprehensive conservation principles and their scientific application led to increased professional management of hunting programs. As a result, hunting is accessible to citizens of all social classes in the United States and Canada, a feature not found in many other conservation models.

Relevent TWS Documents

Position Statements

Technical Reviews

  • Public Trust Doctrine (currently in development)
  • North American Model of Wildlife Conservation (currently in development)

Further Information

  • A detailed description of The Public Trust Doctrine, provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Coastal Services Center
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