Perhaps no other story is more compelling and more important in American history as that of how our natural resources came to be one of the most important elements in our lives. The history of our citizenry’s strong land ethic ties us to the natural world long after other nations have forgone this relationship. We value how the common person from a common family can participate in the thrill of the chase, experiencing wildness to its fullest.
The North American Model of Conservation is a philosophy that evolved in the United States to manage wildlife in a sustainable manner. Historians debate how this land ethic began. Some say our model of conservation began in 1937 with the passage of the Pittman-Robertson Act, a move that provided funding for wildlife conservation at the national and state level. The source of this funding came from the sale of hunting and shooting equipment. Others may say that it began when the conservation giant, President Theodore Roosevelt, brought management of natural resources to the political forefront. Others would argue our model of conservation was birthed under the Magna Carta, which transferred the ownership of wildlife from the King of England and the English nobles to all of the people of England. In reality, our model has been under development for several thousand years, combining what we have learned from other nations, peoples, cultures and experiences to shape a philosophy ingrained in our culture, supported by hunters, anglers and shooting sports enthusiasts, benefiting all wildlife and wild lands in the United States.
First wildlife managers
The concept of managing wildlife or natural resources was not conceived by our young nation. For thousands of years, humanity has been manipulating and controlling the land and all its inhabitants to benefit our needs. Ever since the first hunter followed that wooly creature across the Bering Straight, embarking on an epic journey that would result in settling of North America, man has “managed” wildlife in North America.
Throughout history, many leaders have shown some element of concern or conservation ethic towards wildlife. The great Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan and founder of the Yuan Dynasty in China, forbade harvesting of many species of wildlife during critical reproductive months of March through August so species could “increase and multiply.” Conservation of wildlife is even found in Mosaic Law in Deuteronomy 22:6, representing some of the first written wildlife management ideals—“ If you come across a bird’s nest in any tree or on the ground, with young ones or eggs and the mother sitting on the young or on the eggs, you shall not take the mother with the young” (English Standard Version, 2001).
As populations expanded throughout Europe, wildlife resources fell under ownership of powerful kings who enacted harsh punishments for anyone found taking the king’s game. In 1215, a rebellion against King John of England resulted in the Magna Carta, transferring ownership of lands and game from the crown to the people. This “privatizing” of wildlife ownership had profound impacts in America over 500 years later.
Today, the wildlife of North American belongs to all the people. The story of our North American Model of Conservation is best described as the story that resulted in the ownership of wildlife by the American people as a collective.
Era of abundance (1600–1850)
When our forefathers first landed on the eastern shores of America, they brought with them science, religion and a new hope. They found plentiful game and soon began a relationship with the land that provided them with many of their daily needs. Wildlife was viewed as a limitless resource in a relatively untapped land. These early settlers had left Europe where few had access to wildlife and entered a world where everyone had access. Furs, feathers, hides—all had value to these young pioneers.
English Philosopher John Locke (1632–1704) observed, “Once all the world was America,” as they in fact began speaking of America as “the new world.” John Locke also helped develop a revolutionary ideal in that “all men were created equal before God and each other.” These ideals were revolutionary, being born of men struggling with the bondage from a European nation that allowed kings to kill a man and his family for hunting or possessing the king’s wildlife.
Born of Locke’s ideals, in 1776, the Declaration of Independence revoked the King’s rights to land and people in this new world. After a bloody war led by revolutionaries such as Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson and Adams, the United States gained its independence. Of all the documents written in this Declaration period, none mention our nation’s wildlife and our relationship with the natural world. American was just learning how this new concept of the people governing themselves would work. It would be the newly developed judicial system that would provide America and its wildlife with definition.
Era of exploitation (1850–1900)
The 1800s brought a commercialization of our wildlife resources. Market hunting and habitat destruction began to decimate wildlife populations such as the American bison and passenger pigeon. After the American Revolutionary War and the Civil War—which nearly destroyed our “democratic experiment” altogether—few people were looking after the interest of wildlife, and even fewer rules existed governing the management of a resource everyone had ownership of yet no one had responsibility for.
In 1842, an oysterman collecting oysters in the New Jersey meadowlands would have a most profound impact on our model. The landowner disputed the ability of the oysterman to collect wildlife on his property, tracing his claim of land ownership and all things wild on it back to a land grant from the King of England that included language of that era, the “fishings, huntings and fowlings.” The oysterman thought things wild belonged to all the people in this “New Land,” and the United State Supreme Court agreed with him. They ruled “when the people … took possession of the reins of government, and took into their own hands the powers of sovereignty, the prerogative and regalities which before belonged either to the crown or the parliament, became immediately and rightfully vested in the state.” The Public Trust Doctrine was born of this identification of the states as the trustees of the public interest in fish and wildlife. Later in this era, the Supreme Court would once again rule on this issue, further defining this “trustee” relationship in that this effort was to be exercised, like all other powers of government, as a trust for the benefit of all people and not a prerogative for the advantage of government, as distinct from the people, or the benefit of private individuals.
In 1864, George Perkins Marsh, former U.S. ambassador to Turkey and noted author, published the thought-provoking book “Man and Nature.” Growing up near Woodstock, Vt., March had witnessed firsthand the destructive impact we were having on our nation’s resources. While serving as ambassador to Turkey, Marsh studied the histories of collapsed civilizations in the Middle East. March could easily visualize the epic saga of nations destroying their environment, leading to their own downfall, and he could see this predictable sequence of emergence, prosperity, desert and doom being played out in his own nation. During this time, Nebraska would publish its first game laws.
In 1876, America would celebrate its first centennial, and buffalo hide shipments from Benton, Mont., would peak at 80,000. The centennial was observed with celebration, continued exploitation of the vanishing bison and the killing of General Custer at the Little Bighorn River. During this same year, a young man by the name of Theodore Roosevelt would enter Harvard to begin his scholarly, wild and colorful career. For perspective, Nebraska’s amended game code is only one year old at this time and includes an effort to protect the remaining bison in the state.
The railroad provided settlers with the means to access new lands, expanding the markets for meats, hides and fur. Advancements in technology, such as the repeating rifle, further aided the unbridled destruction of wildlife resources. In 1881, the last wild bison was killed in Nebraska. Three years later, the bison hide shipments from Fort Benton, Mont., that had peaked at 80,000 in 1876 had fallen to zero.
During this time, the hunter, who would take to the field each year in search of game, was finding game increasingly difficult to locate. Theodore Roosevelt would take his first trip west in 1880 to hunt, following a childhood dream. It would have a most profound impact on his life. Game was scarce, and the trip was somewhat of a disaster. In 1883, Roosevelt would again return to the west to hunt bison. His hopes were not high, based on his previous exploits, but soon he was able to find and kill a large bull. While Roosevelt was returning from his second hunt west, a ranchman from Montana made a journey of a thousand miles across northern Montana. He told Roosevelt that, during his whole distance, “he was never out of sight of a dead buffalo and never in sight of a live one.” The “west” that Roosevelt had dreamed of as a child, with all its wildness, was gone, and the few remnants that remained were vanishing at an alarming rate. Within young Roosevelt, a conservation ethic was brewing, ideals were forming and the direction of a new national conservation ethic would begin.
Part two of this article will discuss the eras of protection, game management and environmental management that have led to such success in North America’s wildlife conservation.