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Public Wildlife on Private Land: Unifying the Split Estate to Enhance Trust Resources


In the United States, wildlife is a publicly owned resource, yet the majority of wildlife habitat is privately owned. This division of ownership has perpetuated conflicts over such topics as endangered species, public hunting access, and crop depredation. Tensions arise not only between private property rights and the public interest, which are both regrettably dynamic legal concepts, but more fundamentally over the division of economic rents generated from the combination of public wildlife and private habitat.

This article examines the nature of the split wildlife estate and the potential to unify it with public-private partnerships. A review of the public trust doctrine and its historical evolution reveals that state governments can and, in many instances, should share with private landowners the financial benefits of wildlife stewardship—not only the costs. Two case studies demonstrate how unifying the split wildlife estate can lead to improvements in wildlife habitat and an increase in the health and value of wildlife resources.

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