The North American Model (“NAM”) of Wildlife Conservation guides hunt management agencies across a continental scale (Canada and the US). A central tenet of the model is that “science is the proper tool to discharge wildlife policy”. A scientific basis is logical given the potential consequences of management prescriptions: across taxa, the scale of hunting mortalities is substantial, often exceeding all other forms of mortality combined. However, the extent to which management follows the tenet of a scientific basis has never been tested across North American jurisdictions. We address this gap. First, we propose 4 hallmarks as pre-requisites of science-based environmental management: measurable objectives, evidence, transparency, and independent review. We test for straightforward criteria related to each hallmark (e.g. “Is there a description of how population estimates are derived?” for transparency) in wildlife management plans ("cases", N = 667) across 52 provinces, territories, and states in Canada and the US. Finally, we test for associations between the presence of criteria and characteristics of taxa and/or jurisdiction (e.g. whether a taxon is ‘big game’ [large hunted ungulates and predators]; the size of a jurisdiction’s human population).
We found that across cases, wildlife management commonly lacked hallmarks of science. Of the 13 criteria examined, 8 (62%) were detected in fewer than 50% of cases examined, whereas the average number of criteria detected per case was 5 (of 13; 38%). We found no associations between presence of criteria and whether large predators were present within a jurisdiction, or its human population, longitude, or country (Canada vs. US). Likewise we did not detect associations with taxa being native vs. non-native. We did, however, find positive associations with 1) taxa being big game, 2) increasing latitudes, and 3) management plans being independently reviewed.
We discuss whether management might still be considered science-based, given these findings. The results seem inconsistent with the NAM tenet asserting that policy should be discharged using science. Instead, they indicate that management decisions across the continent might be made with little scientific basis, with potential for management errors, the effects of which remain unknown. These surprising findings highlight not only the considerable opportunities for improving the scientific foundation of wildlife management (some aspect of which would be financially inexpensive), but also the importance of defining terms such as “science-based”, and testing related claims.