03 November 2015
Many democratic governments recognize a duty to conserve environmental resources, including wild animals, as a public trust for current and future citizens. These public trust principles have informed two centuries of U.S.A. Supreme Court decisions and environmental laws worldwide. Nevertheless numerous populations of large‐bodied, mammalian carnivores (predators) were eradicated in the 20th century. Environmental movements and strict legal protections have fostered predator recoveries across the U.S.A. and Europe since the 1970s. Now subnational jurisdictions are regaining management authority from central governments for their predator subpopulations. Will the history of local eradication repeat or will these jurisdictions adopt public trust thinking and their obligation to broad public interests over narrower ones? We review the role of public trust principles in the restoration and preservation of controversial species. In so doing we argue for the essential roles of scientists from many disciplines concerned with biological diversity and its conservation. We look beyond species endangerment to future generations' interests in sustainability, particularly non‐consumptive uses. Although our conclusions apply to all wild organisms, we focus on predators because of the particular challenges they pose for government trustees, trust managers, and society. Gray wolves Canis lupus L. deserve particular attention, because detailed information and abundant policy debates across regions have exposed four important challenges for preserving predators in the face of interest group hostility. One challenge is uncertainty and varied interpretations about public trustees' responsibilities for wildlife, which have created a mosaic of policies across jurisdictions. We explore how such mosaics have merits and drawbacks for biodiversity. The other three challenges to conserving wildlife as public trust assets are illuminated by the biology of predators and the interacting behavioural ecologies of humans and predators. The scientific community has not reached consensus on sustainable levels of human‐caused mortality for many predator populations. This challenge includes both genuine conceptual uncertainty and exploitation of scientific debate for political gain. Second, human intolerance for predators exposes value conflicts about preferences for some wildlife over others and balancing majority rule with the protection of minorities in a democracy. We examine how differences between traditional assumptions and scientific studies of interactions between people and predators impede evidence‐based policy. Even if the prior challenges can be overcome, well‐reasoned policy on wild animals faces a greater challenge than other environmental assets because animals and humans change behaviour in response to each other in the short term. These coupled, dynamic responses exacerbate clashes between uses that deplete wildlife and uses that enhance or preserve wildlife. Viewed in this way, environmental assets demand sophisticated, careful accounting by disinterested trustees who can both understand the multidisciplinary scientific measurements of relative costs and benefits among competing uses, and justly balance the needs of all beneficiaries including future generations. Without public trust principles, future trustees will seldom prevail against narrow, powerful, and undemocratic interests. Without conservation informed by public trust thinking predator populations will face repeated cycles of eradication and recovery. Our conclusions have implications for the many subfields of the biological sciences that address environmental trust assets from the atmosphere to aquifers.