The public trust doctrine, derived from ancient property principles, is thought to mostly apply to navigable waters and related land resources. The doctrine supplies a mediating force to claims of both private ownership and unfettered government discretion over these resources, vesting the state with trust responsibility to ensure that the use of these resources promotes long-term sustainability. A related doctrine—sovereign ownership of wildlife—is also an ancient public property doctrine inherited from England. State ownership of wildlife has long defeated private ownership claims and enabled states to enact and implement wildlife conservation regulations. This Article claims that these two doctrines should be merged and that state sovereign ownership of wildlife means that wildlife—like navigable waters—is held in trust for the public and must be managed for long-term sustainable use by future generations. Merging the doctrines would mean that state ownership would not only give states the authority to manage their wildlife populations, but also the duty to do so, and would equip members of the public with standing to enforce the states’ trust duties in court. This Article shows that the public trust in wildlife has already been employed in California and several other states and suggests that it deserves more widespread judicial recognition, particularly since—as the Authors demonstrate—no fewer than forty-eight states have used trust or trust- like language in describing state authority to manage wildlife.
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