The year 1937 presented daunting challenges to wildlife conservationists. The nation was in the midst of an economic depression, and the Dust Bowl and its resulting habitat degradation left wildlife and habitats in serious decline. Across the oceans, a second cataclysmic war was brewing and divergent ideologies threatened our national complacency. Yet amid the turmoil, 1937 culminated with opportunity and hope, giving rise to The Wildlife Society (TWS) and formalizing a scientific approach to wildlife conservation that thrives to this day.
Our Society’s 75th birthday provides time to reflect on the motives and ideals of our predecessors. We do this not for nostalgia’s sake, but to understand and appreciate how the wildlife profession evolved from fledgling idea to full maturity. Our Society has played a fundamental role in that evolution.
Roots of the Profession
One of the ironies frequent in history is a group of men attempting one thing and accomplishing another. We are attempting to manage wildlife, but it is by no means certain that we shall succeed. … We may, without knowing it, be helping to write a new definition of what science is for.”
– Aldo Leopold (JWM 1940)
In the early part of the 20th century, wildlife conservation largely focused on game breeding. But in the late 1920s, notable conservationists such as Aldo Leopold, Arthur Allen, and Herbert Stoddard began to speak about ecology and management, prompting the American Game Institute (now the Wildlife Management Institute) to ask Leopold and others to draft a comprehensive policy for wildlife conservation. The resulting American Game Policy called for a program of restoration implemented by scientifically trained professionals with a stable funding source. The time had come for wildlife management to “be recognized as a distinct profession and developed accordingly” (Leopold 1930).
That policy began to come to life in the 1930s with the establishment of wildlife-focused university programs (beginning with Wisconsin and Michigan), the rise of Cooperative Wildlife Research Units, and the passage in 1937 of the Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration Act. Even so, wildlife conservation and management still lacked a nucleus — an organization that would establish professional and ethical standards and promote communication.
Recognizing this need, many wildlife pioneers of the day — including Ted Frison, David Thompson, Ralph T. (Terry) King, Reuben Trippensee, Paul Errington, Aldo Leopold, and Ernest Holt — held meetings with colleagues to discuss the feasibility of forming a professional society. That notion came to a wide audience in February 1936, when the first North American Wildlife Conference convened in Washington, D.C. There, the Society of Wildlife Specialists was formed, with King as its first president. One year later, after much discussion at the second North American conference in St. Louis, Missouri, the group was renamed The Wildlife Society, and its founders chose to name their professional journal The Journal of Wildlife Management (JWM), which would serve as a credible outlet for peer-reviewed science. Thus began two cornerstones of our profession — a society for skilled wildlifers and a scholarly journal through which they could share and expand their knowledge. Next began the journey through adolescence.
Finding an Identity
As members of our profession, we have a responsibility to contribute to the highest thinking in this field.”
Though initially skeptical about whether there would be sufficient support to launch a professional wildlife society, Leopold soon displayed obvious pride in the group he helped found. Addressing the Society as president at its annual meeting in 1940, he said, “Our profession has attained in four years a maturity which might well have taken a decade” (Leopold 1940).
The move toward maturity began with finding an identity. The Society created a structure of seven geographic regions throughout North America and a governing board including one representative from each region and four officers: a president, vice president, secretary, and treasurer. They established bylaws setting forth four key objectives: (1) create professional solidarity and maintain professional standards, (2) develop wildlife management along sound biological lines, (3) publish papers that advance these goals, and (4) protect the interests of the members.
The Wildlife Society made significant progress toward these goals during its first 10 years. Fueled largely by Pittman-Robertson and hunting-license funds, wildlifers conducted myriad research projects to fill gaps of understanding within the young profession, and JWM became flush with papers on basic issues such as duck nest identification, raccoon productivity, mourning dove migration, and effects from exposure to chemicals like DDT.
At its tenth annual meeting, held in New York City, TWS promoted collaboration with other scientific organizations—especially state wildlife agencies and the Society of American Foresters—and made the first attempt to launch a Canada Region, signifying a broader world view. In addition, the Society’s Employment Committee—chaired by Albert Day, the first Pittman-Robertson federal aid director— discussed creating a catalog of jobs, salaries, and skills for the wildlife field. In short, TWS was do- ing what every youth on the verge of adolescence does: develop a greater sense of self-awareness and purpose.
The key to that effort lay in defining what it meant to be a wildlife biologist — a definition that has evolved significantly throughout our history. Prior to the formation of TWS, wildlife management was considered an art practiced by people with scientific training. Aldo Leopold saw it differently, describing a wildlife professional as one committed to using science as a tool for conservation, with an ability to diagnose issues, predict trends, and take actions to affect positive change in wildlife populations and habitats. Rudolf Bennitt, TWS’s first president, pushed for development of professional wildlife training focused on science, and felt that the Society should help set standards for university education in the field—an early precursor of what would become our certification program.
During the 1950s, the concept of professionalism evolved further when Robert McCabe, Leopold’s successor at Wisconsin (and later TWS president), redefined wildlife managers as ecologists who required an ethical code along with specific academic training. Olaus Murie (the Society’s eighth president) expanded on the idea of professional ethics, saying the wildlife professional should embed a sense of stewardship into the national consciousness (Murie 1954). Biologist Clarence Cottam — recipient of the Aldo Leopold Award in 1955 — synthesized the concepts of professionalism, ethics, and public responsibility, noting that wildlifers had to help the public understand that managing wildlife resources requires a complex set of skills. His analogy: Just as someone practicing law or medicine needs professional training, so do those who practice professional wildlife management.
The Wildlife Society already had a Committee on Professional Standards, established in 1938 to assess the quality of professional instruction in wildlife management. In the early 1950s, that committee analyzed university-level wildlife education and surveyed hiring agencies. They found that wildlife graduates lacked sufficient grounding in basic science, had little experience in applying research and management techniques, and had poor communications skills. At the Society’s annual meeting in 1957, the committee presented six recommendations to address these and other issues, saying that TWS should (1) offer guidance and leadership in establishing minimum standards for the practice of fish and wildlife conservation, (2) define specialized areas within the field, (3) protest the practice of filling professional positions with political appointees, (4) seek fair compensation for wildlife work, (5) recognize professionals for their accomplishments, and (6) review and publish minimum professional standards.
Eight years later, in 1965, TWS’s Council officially approved these recommendations and adopted a new definition of wildlife biologist as “a professionally trained individual who has the capacity to apply scientifically sound solutions to biological and land management problems” (The Wildlife Society News 1966). But the question remained: How could adequate professional training be ensured?
In 1972, TWS President Tony Peterle tackled that issue by appointing a committee to develop an official certification program. The goal was to establish minimal education and experience requirements to qualify as what would ultimately be titled a Certified Wildlife Biologist (CWB) or Associate Wildlife Biologist. The membership voted to approve the certification program in 1976, and applications became available the following year. Though the standards for certification have evolved over the years, the basic structure remains intact, requiring applicants to meet minimum educational standards in areas including biological, physical, and quantitative sciences; humanities and social sciences; communications; and policy, administration, and law. With certification in place and a clear sense of professionalism, TWS had paved the way for full-fledged maturity—and faced some mid-life crises on the road ahead.
Refining the Mission
Do we want to be a technical society, primarily confining our activities to the advancement of knowledge, or do we want to be a professional society in that we undertake to advance all activities that influence the field of wildlife biology, ecology, and management … ?”
– Wendell Swank (WSB 1987)
As our profession grew, TWS leaders and members grappled with fundamental questions about professional identity. Many non-governmental wildlife organizations and societies had evolved over the years to focus on advocacy, policy, science, management, or some combination of these. Ultimately, TWS found its way by refining its mission and the tools that sustain true professionalism. Chief among them: a code of ethics and a strategic plan to lead the way forward.
The Society recognized the need for strong, well-codified professional ethics to ensure the credibility of wildlife work and help it withstand attack from special interests. To that end, in 1963 TWS added a formal Code of Ethics to its bylaws. In essence, the code requires wildlife professionals to work in the public interest to conserve wildlife resources and the environment, to do no harm to those resources, to only perform services they are qualified to conduct, and to uphold the dignity and integrity of the profession.
The code faced a serious challenge when the rules of enforcement diverged with the establishment in 1977 of the CWB program, which had different ethics-enforcement provisions for CWBs than for non-CWBs. This problem reached a crisis in the early 2000s after a team comprised partly of TWS members (some CWBs and some not) was alleged to have falsified data used in a national survey designed to detect the presence of Canada lynx — accusations that led to a federal investigation and a slew of bad press. Writing about “the lynx affair” in the Wildlife Society Bulletin, Jack Ward Thomas and Daniel Pletscher implored TWS to investigate, judge fairly, and act accordingly: “To do otherwise is an abdication that leaves judgment of these acts to those outside our professional ranks” (Thomas and Pletscher 2002). TWS President Diana Hallett appointed a Board of Inquiry that eventually determined the biologists exercised poor judgment, but did not violate TWS’s code of ethics.
As president of TWS in 2007, I appointed a committee to review TWS’s ethics policy and procedures. The committee recommended a unified code of ethics and uniform enforcement for all members, then drafted bylaws revisions to bring that about. In July 2010, TWS amended its bylaws with the revised code and enforcement procedures, which apply equally to all members. An Ethics Board appointed by the TWS president handles investigation, judgment, and assignment of penalties — which may include censure or loss of membership. This major revision ensures a defensible process whereby TWS can uphold the integrity of the profession and foster credibility — what Thomas and Pletscher call “the very essence of professionalism.”
Another essential element in the Society’s professional evolution has been development of a strategic plan to establish TWS’s mission and outline the steps needed to accomplish it. At its annual meeting in 1988, Council agreed that TWS needed a roadmap to improve the effectiveness of the Society and its leaders. Planning began in 1989, and in March 1991, Council adopted the first official mission statement —“Excellence in wildlife stewardship through science and education” — a succinct motto that still defines TWS’s focus. Soon thereafter, Society President Alan Wentz also presented five long-term goals: (1) develop and maintain professional standards, (2) enhance knowledge and skills of wildlife professionals, (3) advance stewardship of wildlife resources, (4) advocate use of sound biology for policy and management decisions, and (5) increase public awareness and appreciation of wildlife management.
To achieve those goals, Council developed 19 high-priority objectives, which it adopted in March 1993. They included maintaining the scientific rigor of TWS’s technical publications, communicating policy positions to federal natural-resource administrators, and testifying on legislation affecting wildlife conservation. Council unveiled the first official Strategic Plan for the Society in 1995. It included the original five major goals and a sixth focused on ensuring excellence in basic service to TWS members.
Council has continued to refine the Strategic Plan over recent years. In 1997, for example, TWS adopted a revised vision statement that began: “The Wildlife Society participates in a global society in which the conservation of wildlife is a common goal”— a clear signal of the Society’s expanding identity as an international organization. During a major offsite planning session in 2008, a committee comprised of some Council members and representatives of the membership created the foundation for the current Strategic Plan for 2008-2013, developed with input from the membership. It incorporates new mission and vision statements that reflect TWS’s mission to serve the entire range of wildlife professionals and its ultimate goal to sustain a world “where people and wildlife coexist.”
Tools of Our Trade
Knowledge is power, and wildlife professionals need to be informed about all aspects of wildlife biology, the habitats wildlife depend on, and how humans impact and interact with wildlife.”
– Paul R. Krausman and Michael Hutchins (WSB 2011)
Like all successful scientific societies, TWS employs several means to inform, acknowledge, and unite its members in common purpose. Among the most powerful tools:
Publications. Our founders knew that scholarly publications would be a cornerstone of our profession — as evidenced by making JWM part of our formation. Yet debates about publications have simmered ever since. As early as 1939, some members expressed concerns that JWM lacked relevance for man- agers. When Editor W. L. McAtee discovered that only 17 percent of JWM’s papers were management oriented, he asked for more management content. But in 1940, TWS President Aldo Leopold disagreed: “Some fear that we are getting too much research and not enough management into our journals …. I do not share this view …. Until we know more it is proper that a high proportion of our professional effort should go into research” (Leopold 1940).
To provide an outlet for longer manuscripts, TWS launched Wildlife Monographs, the first of which was published in 1958. Concerns about science over man- agement persisted until TWS President Tony Peterle convened a meeting in 1972 to discuss creating a new journal for management-focused papers. In response, TWS launched the Wildlife Society Bulletin (WSB) in 1973 as an outlet for papers on management, law enforcement, education, opinion, and human dimensions.
Change hit again when, at a 2004 Council meeting, some suggested starting a magazine for all TWS members as a new benefit of membership. To afford the new magazine, TWS leadership chose to cease publication of the WSB, shifting its management papers to JWM and its general- interest content to the magazine. Council approved a formal proposal in 2005 and The Wildlife Professional (TWP) was born, publishing its first issue in 2007. TWP has became a popular outlet for articles by and about the work of TWS members, yet calls to bring back the Bulletin persisted. After much deliberation, Council re-launched WSB as an electronic journal in 2011.
Conferences. As vital as publications are to keeping wildlifers informed, there is no substitute for the dynamic exchange of ideas that occurs face-to-face through professional conferences. The Wildlife Society got its start at the second North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference in 1937, and for many years thereafter held its annual membership meetings in conjunction with that conference. Rumblings arose about the need for TWS to have its own annual conference, and in 1966, Albert Erickson of the University of Minnesota argued this case, citing two specific reasons: that TWS risked a loss of identity by being consumed within the larger North American (which had expanded its focus to broader natural-resource policy), and that TWS needed an outlet for peer-reviewed confer- ence transactions (Wildlife Society News # 103).
At a 1988 Council meeting, President Jim Teer appointed an ad-hoc committee to investigate the desirability of a separate TWS technical conference. Council approved the idea in 1991, solicited proposals from subunits willing to host such a meeting, and accepted a plan from the Southwest Section in 1992. In September 1994, TWS held its first solo Annual Conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and has been holding such meetings ever since. These conferences — as well as the TWS-sponsored International Wildlife Management Congresses held periodically since 1993 — provide a forum for professional exchange of ideas through symposia, workshops, panel discussions, and relaxed conversation with colleagues.
All such endeavors need fine-tuning over time, and the Annual Conference is no exception. Indeed, many members strongly opposed moving the annual meeting away from the North American, a fundamentally important meeting for our profession. Council has tried to be responsive to such member concerns, however. In response to member requests, leadership shifted the timing of the TWS’s Annual Conference to avoid conflicts with the start of the academic year and to avoid overlap with the annual meeting of the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, acknowledging the needs of TWS’s academic members and the strong alliance between TWS and state agencies.
Awards. The goal set in 1957 — “to recognize profes- sionals for their accomplishments” — has remained fundamental to TWS’s mission and sense of professional identity. Our earliest and highest honor is the Aldo Leopold Memorial Award, created in 1950 to acknowledge “distinguished service to wildlife conservation.” Since those early days, numerous other awards and honors have been established to recognize excellence in areas such as publications, applied research, and education. The Fellows Program, established in 2003, honors individuals who have made significant contributions not only to wildlife resources, but also to the Society and the profession. As the ranks of these notables grow, so does our legacy to future generations.
Policy Program. As the Society’s sense of professional- ism has grown, so has its resolve to act—using science to influence wildlife policy. “TWS has evolved … from a professional group to an advisory group reflecting that professionalism,” wrote Chris Eder in a WSB issue commemorating the Society’s 50th anniversary (Eder 1987). Since then, TWS has created a Government Affairs division with three full-time staffers and two interns who work with Council, members, and partners to promote science-based wildlife policy at the state, provincial, and federal levels. This commitment of time and resources upholds a key goal of the Society’s strategic plan: “To advocate for practical, science-based approaches to wildlife management and conservation, based on policy positions guided and supported by member expertise.”
Membership. The concept of membership itself is a vital tool to advance TWS’s professional mission — but defining membership and nurturing its growth present unique challenges. Membership in TWS has always been synonymous with being a wildlife professional, yet the Society’s structure of sections and chapters—which can have members who don’t belong to the central organization — has long been a source of controversy.
In 1983, TWS President Dale Jones asked the membership to consider various options regarding membership, essentially calling for a vote on whether TWS should move to unified membership, where all members would be required to be members of the central organization with subunit membership optional. Council put it to a vote in 1985, but the measure failed by a margin of nearly two to one — and the debate simmers to this day. The Society has continued to enhance member services hoping to entice all section and chapter members to join, but data suggest that many chapter members still are not TWS regular members, meaning that a significant percentage of those who benefit from available services are not supporting their professional society—a hard pill to swallow.
No doubt the issue will come to a vote again, and perhaps we can learn from our history how we might bring about unified membership without negatively affecting subunit viability. The key will be to continue excellence in our publications, meetings, and services, and to provide strong leadership in the policy arena that visibly moves the needle of conservation.
With Age, Wisdom
Wildlife biologists have assumed the mantle of influence and power. Now will come the test of wor- thiness, and the test will be ongoing.”
– Jack Ward Thomas (JWM 2000)
On The Wildlife Society’s 50th anniversary in 1987, TWS Past President Ted Bookhout speculated on the question of membership and the Society’s future.
His words are worth repeating, as they still ring true today: “The future will be challenging, exciting, productive, and enduring for TWS because of our most valuable resource — the membership. Professionally oriented biologists are willing to pay the price—money, time, and talent — to meet TWS objectives. The spirit, dedication, and altruism demonstrated repeatedly by our members, and which will not diminish, assure continued service in the stewardship of our wildlife resources and their environments and in the maintenance of the highest standards in the wildlife profession” (Bookhout 1987).
I can only echo that sentiment and express my own conviction that, after 75 years, TWS remains committed to evolving with the needs of its members. Further, it strives to lead the vanguard of conservation as an indispensable resource not only for the wildlife profes- sional, but for the wildlife and habitats that we spend our lives working to sustain for generations to come.
Author Bio: John F. Organ, Ph.D., CWB, is Chief of Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Northeast Region, Adjunct Associate Professor of Wildlife Conservation at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, a Past President of The Wildlife Society, and Chair of TWS’s History Committee.