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Leopold’s Land Ethic / Health Missing From Model

A new perspective piece by Dr. Robin Radcliffe, associate professor of practice in wildlife and conservation medicine at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine — alongside co-author Dr. David Jessup of the University of California at Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine, Wildlife Health Center — highlights the vital relationship between wildlife health and the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation. The perspective piece, published in the Journal of Zoo and Wildlife Medicine Sept. 26, reviews the current model and its history, posits wildlife health as a crucial missing piece and offers a path for moving forward.

“Some of our greatest conservation thinkers understood that health was a key part of conservation, but until now, its connection to the model that governs how we care for animals and plants in North America has largely been overlooked,” said Radcliffe.

The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation saw its beginnings with naturalist and conservationist movements of the late 1800s. It serves as the basis for legislation, research and conservation endeavors that support wildlife in North America, though it has no direct legal powers.

The model’s two core principles are that fish and wildlife are for noncommercial use by citizens, and that they should be sustainably managed. However, experts like Radcliffe and Jessup contend that this basis in consumptive activities like hunting and fishing, while essential to millions of Americans, misses much of what Americans value in wildlife. Therefore, the model must adapt to keep up with changing societal values.

How wildlife health intersects with the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation. Illustration: Laura Donohue/Provided

Radcliffe and Jessup propose that wildlife health must comprise three core pieces: “Wildlife health is the interaction of biologic, social, and environmental determinants that affect a wild animal population’s ability to cope with change (stability), recover in the face of change (self-renewal) and meet societal goals (ethic).”

The authors created this new definition of wildlife health by integrating modern One Health thinking with the work of Aldo Leopold, considered one of the fathers of wildlife ecology and most well-known for his concept of a ‘land-ethic,’ an ethical, caring relationship between people and nature.

The new definition offers context by demonstrating humanity’s changing relationship to nature. It highlights the importance of the land-ethic concept, and it deliberately connects health with a public trust — considered any property that belongs to the whole people.

Radcliffe concludes: “A public trust gives value and motivates people to preserve wildlife for the next generation.”


Written by Melanie Greaver Cordova; the full version of this article appears on the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine website.

Learn more about Aldo Leopold and the land ethic