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Will the Real Architects of Conservation Please Stand Up

There was a time in North American history when "dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth" (Genesis 1:28 ) was interpreted as, "there for the taking." Somewhere along the way the right to take was replaced with a responsibility to conserve. It may be hard today for the uninformed to comprehend or accept, but those who were among the first to recognize the need for, and practiced conservation were hunters, anglers, and trappers. Sadly, few people today, even among the ranks of sportsmen, know the full story.


Back Then
The mid-1800s marked the turning point in North America. To early settlers and a growing nation the abundance of forest, plant, and wildlife seemed inexhaustible. At this time in history North America's wildlife and the wild habitat that supported them were already in serious jeopardy from unregulated harvest. Later irresponsible land use practices started their effect. Our nation's population was growing and along with this growth was a thirst for timber, agricultural land, minerals, fuels, water, and meat. Back then there were no laws, rules, or regulations regarding the taking of wildlife, the clearing of land, use of our waterways, or extraction of natural resources. Likewise, there was no governing body setting and guiding policy for the use and protection of these precious resources. The cattle industry was in its infancy and unregulated market hunting for hides and meat, and extensive sustenance hunting was taking a heavy toll on big game populations. In the West, the U.S. Army had slaughtered entire herds of game in an effort to deprive the Plains Indians of their nomadic lifestyle and force them onto reservations. The domesticated livestock that accompanied the empire builders passed on deadly diseases to wildlife populations. Combined, all these factors had severely depleted all wildlife, especially big game. Something had to be done, someone had to recognize that something had to be done, and someone had to accept responsibility for making sure something was done.

Wise Use – The Start of a Revolution
Theodore Roosevelt witnessed first-hand the un-checked exploitation of our country's natural resources, especially its diverse big game populations. In December of 1887 he called a meeting of several of his friends who shared his passion for hunting and the outdoors. One of these gentleman hunters, George Bird Grinnell, described this gathering as "an association of men bound together by their interest in game and fish, to take charge of all matters pertaining to the enactment and carrying out of laws on the subject." These were successful men of science, business, industry, politics, and public service. Above all, these were riflemen hunters who were deeply concerned about the future of our hunting heritage and wildlife resources. The result of this meeting would lead to the foundation for the greatest conservation revolution in the history of mankind. The blueprint these sportsmen laid is known as the North American Model for Wildlife Conservation. The conservancy they founded to establish the components of this Model was the Boone and Crockett Club.

Sportsmen of Vision and Influence
Early Club members included Grinnell, editor of Forest and Stream magazine, which later became Field and Stream magazine. Grinnell also went on to form the National Audubon Society and was the first editor of its magazine and coined the term "conservation" and defined it as "wise use." Other charter members were well-known artist Albert Bierstadt; General Philip Sheridan; U.S. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge; lawman, Ben C. Tilghman; sculptor, A. Phimister Proctor, and forester, Gifford Pinchot. The modern science of wildlife management is credited to Club member Aldo Leupold. Pinchot was to become the first Chief of the U.S. Forest Service.

We Defined Conservation
Sportsmen were not alone in noticing the problems to land and wildlife. To a degree the public did engage, but some landed on a different solution. Theirs was called preservation or non-use. To advance conservation over the preservationist approach the Boone and Crockett Club had a ringer. Its founder would be President. When Roosevelt took the office of President in 1901 the common thinking on all natural resource matters was that of protection and preservation. Through his discussions with Grinnell and Pinchot "conservation" became the focus of his presidency. The word soon appeared in dictionaries defined as "wise use without waste." Roosevelt’s administration produced a federal natural resource program that was well balanced between use by its citizens, economic development, and aesthetic preservation. In total, Roosevelt set aside and protected 150 million acres of national forests. In the seven years of his presidency his programs, often guided by B&C members, produced more progress in natural resource management than the nation had seen in a century, or has seen since.

Throughout the 20th century, with the support and cooperation of sportsmen, Roosevelt and the Boone and Crockett Club were able to achieve several significant and sustaining contributions that saved and recovered wildlife and the habitats that support them. Some of these early contributions include:

  • The establishment of the first game laws and enforcement, hunting seasons, bag limits, and the abolishment of market hunting practices
  • The protection of Yellowstone Park and the establishment of Glacier and Denali National Parks
  • The establishment of the National Park Service, the National Forest Service, and the National Wildlife Refuge System
  • The passage of laws to fund conservation including the sale of hunting licenses; the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration (Pittman-Robertson) Act, the Dingle-Johnson Act, and the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act of 1934
  • The creation of the educational systems and curriculum to establish the wildlife and environmental sciences

Essentially every law, institution, the science of wildlife and natural resource management, new state and government agencies, the trained professionals to man these new agencies, all were ushered forward through the efforts of sportsmen and women.

These are historical facts that every sportsmen should take pride in.

What’s Still Working
Those who do not hunt, fish, farm, or ranch are falling easy prey to the re-emergence of the preservationist attitude we are witnessing today. When you are three generations removed from the revolt lead by sportsmen that saved wild places and wild things, and this part of national history is not being taught in schools, it is easy to understand why so many people today believe that wildlife has always been there and will always be there because its "nature."

The wise use of wildlife that is the North American Model, is the envy of the World. Why? Because it works and no other system has yet to be devised that works as well to keep natural resources sustainable. It is a system that works because its stakeholders have access and a vested interest in the welfare of the resources. It is basic and proven. Its cornerstone is that wildlife belongs to the people. It further directs that wildlife is to be managed for the people by state and federal agencies; that the sale of wild game meat for commercial purposes is prohibited; laws developed by the people and enforced by government agencies will regulate the use of wildlife; every citizen in the U.S. and Canada has the freedom to hunt and fish; wildlife is not to be wasted by frivolous use; wildlife is an international resource; and the best science available and trained professionals will manage these resources. These are the pistons. What fuels the engine is those who use the resource pay for its care and management. To date, no other group has stepped up even close to the level of funding for conservation that sportsmen have.

A Better Plan
It is admittedly hard for sportsmen to accept the agenda and tactics of today's "environmental" and anti-hunting groups -- a head scratcher made even harder because these groups have not offered a better plan for something all sides can agree upon -- we must not lose wildlife. Stopping hunting and fishing, cutting off the financial lifeline provided for our wildlife from these activities, diminishing access and therefore interest, and serving public wildlife up for whatever comes its way is not a plan, or at least not a plan that will hold up to what’s coming.

There will be more people, perhaps as many as 40 million in Canada, 438 million in the United States, and 153 million in Mexico, in North America by 2050. This growing population will place great, additional pressures on the natural resources of the continent. These people will be more urbanized and older. There will be more ethnic and cultural diversity in North America, including people from places with no experience with the major features of American conservation. Good news – the framework for conservation to meet these changing demographics is already in place and working.

Letting nature take its course is no longer reality. That ended with the landing at Plymouth Rock. Our wildlife and their habitats need real vision. The kind of vision applied by the sportsmen who lead the first environmental revolution -- the same people who have stood guard for wildlife over this past century. One thing that is a reality is that under the weight of our growing population more than just sportsmen need to be carrying the flag for wildlife. We are simply just too small in numbers.

Our Fault
The irony is, instead of trying to cut the legs out from under sportsmen, everyone who enjoys wildlife and the outdoors should be thanking sportsmen. If there is blame that preservationist attitudes are resurfacing, that people remain largely uninformed about conservation and hunting, that anti-hunting groups are gaining traction, that voters and judges are holding back sound wildlife management, and that bad policy is allowed to be passed, it is because sportsmen have been remiss in telling the true story of American conservation. The good news is there is no political spin here to make a point. This is American History; we just need to do a better job of telling it.