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51 Natural Resources Journal 1 (2011)


Over the last two decades, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (“FWS”) has come to define its conservation mission in the context of species protection. The concept of “trust species” is now a common focal point for the myriad responsibilities of the FWS. This has become problematic for one of the major programs of the agency: management of the world’s largest biodiversity conservation network, the national wildlife refuge system (“NWRS”). A major legislative overhaul of the NWRS charter and the imperatives of climate change adaptation have weakened the concept as a reliable touchstone for NWRS management and expansion. The FWS should build on its culture and history to respond to new challenges that the conservation network cannot meet with the “trust species” concept alone. While management to benefit specific species offers a simple measure of accomplishment, as a policy tool it creates more problems than it solves. Adherence to the “trust species” theme limits full engagement with, and abdicates the FWS’ leadership role in, contemporary conservation challenges and science. This article makes the case for alternative measures of NWRS conservation success that move beyond just counting populations.

We begin in Part I by tracing the rise of the trust concept to prominence as the dominant FWS conservation theme. We illustrate how the idea works in practice with three examples. In Part II we proceed to analyze what the “trust species” theme offers for conservation objectives and what problems it presents for the NWRS. We conclude that, on balance, its strengths do not justify its predominance. In particular, the trust concept has four problems. First, it fails to capture the full, systemic statutory mandate, and thus neglects an important part of Congress’ instructions. Second, it invites confusion with real federal trust duties pertaining to natural resources damages and relations with Indian tribes. Third, it risks conflation with state public trust doctrines, and therefore blurs the distinction between the FWS’ functions and the state role in wildlife management. Fourth, it narrows the FWS’ conservation vision to only a few elements of the broader ecological concerns animating landscape-level nature protection. Part III shows how climate change, ecosystem management, and land acquisition would be better addressed through a broader approach. We conclude with some suggestions for alternatives to the reductive “trust species” focus. Ecological integrity offers a more accurate theme for the NWRS goals, a more robust tool for adapting to climate change, and a concept that the scientific literature recognizes and quantifies.