Modern day Wildlife Management in North America may be the best story never told.
Sadly, most of us were never taught about wildlife management and conservation in our primary education. We can calculate angles of a triangle (if given a couple measurements) and we know when Columbus sailed the ocean blue but somehow wildlife and natural resources did not make the cut. Not as an ordinary part of the curriculum anyway. Did you know that at one time deer, turkeys, waterfowl and a number of wading birds were teetering from threatened to extirpated across much of their range? Do you know the story of how these critters and more went from the edge of extinction to becoming nuisance threats? Pity, as it may well be one of our nation’s greatest success stories.
Its not all sunshine and rainbows, just ask the passenger pigeon. Another pity, but one that helped pave the way for the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation. In 1850, as settlers were moving west with the “gold rush”, what was likely a slow decline in pigeon numbers went hardly noticed. That decline began to pick up steam in about 1870 and rapidly progressed until the last known wild passenger pigeon was shot at the turn of the century. An article from Michigan (1878) reads: “An average of 50,000 pigeons were taken per day for nearly 5 months consecutive”, this was one of the last large nesting attempts for the species.
Whenever modern-day debates spark up on expanding harvest opportunities, the folks against such things are quick to bring up the passenger pigeon’s plight as evidence supporting their cause. It is a story that is easy to understand. Pigeons were thought limitless, millions and millions were killed by people and now they are gone forever. Really tugs at the old heart strings, but it’s not the whole story. I have wondered what the sight of a passenger pigeon migration would look like more times than I care to admit. I have gotten downright angry about not having that opportunity! That emotional connection to a bird I will never see does not make the argument a valid one against modern day hunting.
Much occurred during the 1800s across North America. The Louisiana Purchase, Gold Rush, the Civil War and the Wild West just to name a few. Its no wonder that with all that, something like conservation was not yet well established. The loss of the passenger pigeon along with the near loss of bison, pronghorn, white-tailed deer, wild turkey and black bears across the country helped give birth to a new attitude. Just as the passenger pigeon is proof that we can drive a species to extinction, the other critters mentioned above are proof that modern day wildlife management techniques not only work but can be used to aid in species recovery.
Oh, to go back to 1857 when one of the first bills concerning passenger pigeons reached the Ohio State Legislature. To listen to the discussion, the scoffs and the justification from the special senate committee when they ruled the passenger pigeon did not warrant any protections. “Pigeons are wonderfully prolific” they said, no doubt depending on their vast knowledge of the natural world to arrive at that conclusion. Fun Fact: Passenger pigeons would normally lay one egg. When the last captive passenger pigeon (Martha) died in 1914, she became the proverbial canary in the coal mine. The sting of losing something irretrievable and knowing that it was within our power to stop it, is enough to drive any naturalist mad.
You can call this period from around 1800 until around 1900, the period of exploitation and extermination. Luckily, some of those “mad” naturalists were Theodore Roosevelt, Aldo Leopold and George Bird Grinnell (all hunters). As president, Roosevelt started the National Forest Service, started the National Park system and used executive orders to set aside large amounts of public lands unapologetically. Along with George Bird Grinnell, Roosevelt founded the Boone and Crockett Club. The club helped set aside several refuges for non-game wading birds, sought to “regulate” hunting and pushed for a science driven management approach. Aldo Leopold expanded on that foundation laying out a long-term vision of wildlife management that we are still playing out to this day.
Just a couple years after the loss of Martha, and with her an entire species, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act was passed in 1918. Then came the duck stamp act in 1934 and the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration (Pittman-Robertson) Act of 1937. With public support for a transition from “market” hunting to what they called “sport” hunting, along with a solid funding source for conservation efforts provided by the later two Acts mentioned above, the modern era of conservation was initiated.
With the duck stamp and other license fees that hunters were paying along with the excise tax on firearms and ammunition that the Pittman-Robertson Act created, conservation could be funded by folks who were enjoying it, the hunters. This was important because when other things popped up like gold rushes, Louisiana Purchases or Civil Wars from the past century, the funding mechanism wasn’t cutoff. Being directed by science, not politics and almost entirely self-funded, many species have successfully rebounded. Rebounded at a time when habitat threats are greater than ever, I might add. It’s truly remarkable really.
My grandpa used to tell me stories from when he was young, and he could first deer hunt in his area. “First thing you had to do was find a track”, he would say. Deer were scarce back then so not all properties had them. Today when we think about hunting deer, we think about habitat, land features and food sources. This is because back when my grandpa was hunting long hours not seeing nothing, his dollars were used to help recover species, recover habitat, and learn about the natural world. Today the tracks are there, the tracks are everywhere.
The three pillars of modern-day wildlife management and conservation are: 1) user groups – hunters, trappers and anglers who fund the system, 2) Science based wildlife mangers and researchers who study wildlife and set regulations to achieve management goals while ensuring the preservation of biodiversity and 3) Conservation Police Officers to enforce the regulations. Working together, the three groups have achieved what they could not alone. The remarkable restoration of a number of species both game and non-game animals for the benefit of hunters and non-hunters alike.
Leopold laid out a fourth pillar, a fusion with human dimensions pillar. Wildlife managers started working with social scientists to learn more about hunters, non-hunters and their motivations several decades ago, but the approach is still in its infancy. Facing budgetary uncertainties, political pressure, and a declining hunting population, state and federal wildlife agencies are having a tough time treading water, much less exploring new territories.
We have a century or so of operating under this modern era of conservation. During this time, regulated hunting and trapping have never led to a species becoming endangered or extinct. Species, even those that are hunted continue to expand in many cases. At a time with so many uncertainties, the model of wildlife conservation in the US and Canada is certainly at the top of the heap. Similar conservation approaches have been used with great success in Africa and across the globe since. Will the successes of the past century or so continue or will the success bring about the sort of complacency that allows the pathway to progress to be disturbed?
For some reason, the feel-good stories don’t seem to sell as many tickets as the doom and gloom ones. Just turn on your favorite nature channel. The loss of the coral reefs, the loss of the rainforest, the ever-growing amount of plastic trash. Let’s not forget that although these threats are real, there are many modern-day conservation success stories that we need to talk about as well. Maybe we can even learn from them? Knowing that positive long-lasting changes can be made, frees us from being paralyzed by an overwhelming sense of futility that an unchanging story is playing out in which our actions have no influence.
What would folks like Leopold and Roosevelt say if they were here today? Looking at the conservation successes since their tenure, I think they would be quite pleased and eager to face whatever challenges come next. As for what you can do. Well, thanks to some forward-thinking fellas long ago, you just need to go hunting!