If you’ve gone to law school, you’ve undoubtedly read the famous decision in Pierson v. Post, and you know that the question of who owns wild animals comes down to who catches them. If you haven’t gone to law school, or if your memory needs refreshing, the gist of that case is that a certain Mr. Lodowick Post was running his hounds in hot pursuit of a fox, when all of a sudden Jesse Pierson swooped in, killed the fox, and claimed it for himself. After comparing various theories of property rights, the New York Supreme Court of Judicature decided in 1805 that whoever captures the fox gets to keep it.
The beauty of this rule is that it’s easy to apply, but the problem with the rule of capture was that it incited frontier hunters and trappers to kill as many wild things as they could. Free taking policies, moreover, which were established as an alternative to British land monopolies, gave American hunters the right to roam freely even on private lands. Coupled with poor enforcement of the limited game laws that existed, the whole system just encouraged poaching and exploitation went on as if wild animals were an inexhaustible resource. But before long, wealthy sportsmen started to notice problems: all manner of wild things were starting to disappear, and some—like the heath-hen and passenger pigeons—were wiped out altogether.
To stop the extinction of species and preserve game hunting for the wealthy elite, sportsmen’s associations were formed during the nineteenth century and they lobbied for regulations that would exclude poor and subsistence hunters. Seasons were restricted, overly-efficient hunting techniques were banned, and license fees were established. At the same time, fish and game agencies were created to enforce regulations that local officials would not. And while the British elite had secured wildlife resources for themselves by giving property owners control over the wildlife found on their land, American sportsmen didn’t contest the rule of capture. Instead, they justified restrictive hunting regulations on the basis of a state “ownership” interest in wildlife, saying that wildlife was a common resource that had to be preserved against the poor and hungry masses.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the issue in the 1896 case Geer v. Connecticut, which upheld a state law that made it illegal to export game birds. Quoting a Minnesota court decision, the Court explained that “the ownership of wild animals, so far as they are capable of ownership, is in the State, not as a proprietor but in its sovereign capacity as the representative and for the benefit of all its people in common.” This is really a variation of the public trust doctrine, which says that common resources like navigable waters can’t be “owned” by individuals but are instead held in trust by the state for the benefit of all. So even though the state ownership rule was created as a way for wealthy sportsmen to take control of wildlife resources, their motivations were rooted in the conservation movement.
Nearly a century later, in 1979, the Supreme Court overturned Geer in Hughes v. Oklahoma. The case involved another ban on wildlife exports, but this time the Court found the restriction violated the Commerce Clause. In reaching this result, the Court explained that the concept of state ownership was nothing more than an antiquated legal fiction. But the Court was careful to emphasize that the states still had the power to protect, conserve, and manage wild animals, so long as their regulations didn’t violate the Commerce Clause or other constitutional provisions.
Even though the Supreme Court made it clear that states don’t own wild animals, a lot of states basically ignored this holding and continued to rely on the fiction of common ownership. Consider the Oregon wildlife statute, which says that “Wildlife is the property of the state.” A group of game ranchers in Oregon recently wanted to know exactly what that meant—in particular, whether it meant that they didn’t actually “own” the elk, ibex, water buffalo, and other animals raised on their property and either born in captivity or purchased from license holders. The Oregon Court of Appeals decided the case in April, and the judges held that, yes, the state “owns” wild animals, but only in a sovereign sense, and not in a proprietary sense. In other words, the state owns wildlife insofar as it can regulate hunting and conservation, but doesn’t own it in the way that you or I can own a fox after we’ve captured it. It’s the same legal fiction, still on the books.
So who owns wild animals? The best answer is probably either nobody or everybody, at least until the wild animal is captured, and then the first person to get the fox still wins as long as he complies with all the hunting regulations. Maybe the Texas parks and wildlife law says it best by emphasizing that wild animals aren’t owned by the state itself, but “are the property of the people of this state.”
Thomas A. Lund, Early American Wildlife Law, 51 N.Y.U. L. Rev. 703 (1976).
Thomas Lund, Nineteenth Century Wildlife Law: A Case Study of Elite Influence, 33 Ariz. St. L.J. 935 (2001).
Michael C. Blumm and Lucus Ritchie, The Pioneer Spirit and the Public Trust: The American Rule of Capture and State Ownership of Wildlife, 35 Envtl. L. 673 (2005).