Leadership

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B&C Member Spotlight — T. Gilbert Pearson

As a young boy, Thomas Gilbert Pearson killed more than a few egrets to make money by selling their feathers. As he got older, he shifted his efforts from market hunting to conservation. Pearson would eventually become a founding member of the National Audubon Society, active member of the Boone and Crockett Club and a friend to birds and big game alike. 

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T. Gilbert Pearson may have had the smallest bank account of any early member of the Boone and Crockett Club—if he had a bank account at all. As a nine-year-old boy, Pearson grew up in the woods of central Florida, where he lived in a log cabin with his parents and six siblings. School was not his priority. Birds, though, had his attention because they were worth money. 

He bought his first gun when he was 13 and shot egrets for their feathers, which he turned into cash. The millinery (hat-making) trade used the feathers to adorn women’s hats at the turn of the twentieth century. Along the way, he became rather skilled at preserving birds and their eggs. When he turned 18, he used these skills to secure for himself what was initially a full-ride to Guilford College. He offered to collect and mount birds for the college in return for his education. The president of the school agreed to the deal, and Pearson graduated in 1897. He went on to study and graduate from the University of North Carolina two years later. 

Voracious Bird Lover 

Pearson must have enjoyed college and a steady paycheck because he became a college instructor as well as a prolific author—his first book being, Stories of Bird Life complete with illustrations. At the same time, Pearson worked to establish game laws and regulations in North Carolina—something he was rather unfamiliar with as a gun toting 13-year-old blasting egrets in Florida. 

Terns, gulls, black skimmers and other nesting birds flock to North Carolina’s barrier islands today just as they did back in 1900. Back then, though, market hunters flocked there as well to supply the butchers with meat and hats with feathers. Presumably Pearson had matured thanks to age and an education. He viewed North Carolina’s lack of game laws and regulations with disdain, and he worked to create some order with support from a fan of his first book.

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With no laws regulating take in the early 1900s, these men in eastern North Carolina took it upon themselves to rid the country of its waterfowl populations. They used the meat to feed their families, their neighbors, and to make a few bucks by selling them to local butchers and restaurants. 

William Dutcher suggested that Pearson start an Audubon Society in North Carolina, which he did in 1902. In doing so, Pearson claimed to have had the support of “gentlemen hunters.” He launched a one-man campaign for game laws and the protection of nongame birds, but as noted by James Trefethen in An American Crusade for Wildlife, there was simply no money in a state still digging itself out of the American Civil War.

The Fund Raiser 

Pearson knew how to get things done—and pay for them. He worked to draft laws that unified a hodgepodge of county codes into one state code. He also managed to impose a $10 dollar license fee on nonresident hunters—much to the objection of local hotel keepers and out-of-state owners of quail-shooting preserves. What really raised eyebrows, though, is that the money raised from the fee would go to the state Audubon society, which would use it for enforcement. Again, using his powers of persuasion and the fact that the state had no money to devote to conservation, Pearson’s bill became state law in March 1903. 

This sent positive vibes through the growing community of conservation-minded birders and waterfowl hunters of the day. Word of Pearson’s achievements made it back to Dutcher, who asked Pearson to use his powers of persuasion on one particular benefactor who was considering donating a substantial sum of around $320,000—$11 million today. His charm worked, and the money was used to create and fund what would eventually become the National Audubon Society. Pearson served as the group’s first secretary. Among other things, the money helped pay the salaries and expenses of the wardens and officers of Pelican Island bird refuge, which would become the first national wildlife refuge set aside by Theodore Roosevelt in 1903. 

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Pelican Island may not look like much from the air, but if you're a brown pelican, it means the world to you as a safe place to nest and raise your young.  In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt signed an Executive Order creating the Pelican Island Reservation and shortly thereafter appointed Paul Kroegel as its warden.

From Birds to Big Game 

Make no mistake, Pearson was a fan of saving bird populations, but the man also worked to save a number of species on the brink of extinction. In the early 1900s, the Boone and Crockett Club’s first wildlife restoration project focused on bison. When Ernest Baynes, a very early advocate of bison preservation and restoration, presented a lecture in January 1905 on saving the wooly beasts, Pearson was in the audience. He suggested to Baynes that he bring his passion for bison and lecture to the New York Zoological Society, which managed the New York Zoological Park (a.k.a. Bronx Zoo). The Society was packed with influential Club members like George Bird Grinnell and Madison Grant. After making the connection, the Club worked tirelessly to restore bison populations. Read all about that here

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Wrapping up fences on the Sheldon Hart Refuge​​​​​​​.

According to Boone and Crockett records, Pearson was elected as a member of the Boone and Crockett Club in 1926. Just two years later, as president of the National Audubon Society, he visited Anako Lake in Nevada to view some pelicans, but there was a problem. A federal predator-control hunter by the name of E.R. Sans wouldn’t show Pearson around the area unless he agreed to tour a proposed site for a pronghorn refuge. Sans had been writing to George Grinnell about a possible pronghorn refuge in northern Nevada, but his idea wasn’t getting enough interest. Sans wouldn’t show him the pelicans until Pearson agreed to the terms. 

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Read how Club members like T. Gilbert Pearson worked to restore vanishing pronghorn herds. 

After his tour, Pearson liked the idea of setting aside some land for pronghorn conservation. Thanks to his connections to both the Club and the Audubon Society, he convinced each group to raise $10,000 to purchase 2,900 acres of privately owned land with good springs for the herds in northern Nevada. The groups were then able to work to get the area expanded exponentially, culminating in the Charles Sheldon National Antelope Range at 34,325 acres. Over the next few years, hundreds of thousands of acres were added to the range, which eventually became a bonafide refuge. Today, the Sheldon-Hart National Wildlife Refuge Complex now spans 851,000 acres. 

When T. Gilbert Pearson died in September 1943, he left behind a legacy known for his devotion to conservation of America’s bird population. His legacy, though, is so much more. As an author, he wrote about birds. As a conservationist, he wrote state and federal laws that served as a template for future legislation. As a fundraiser, his charm and powers of persuasion were unmatched. His role at the helm of the National Audubon Society and as a member of Boone and Crockett Club helped restore our country’s bounty of wildlife, which we still enjoy today. 


PJ DelHomme is a writer for Crazy Canyon Media in Missoula, Montana. 


 

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