The North American Model of Conservation, part two


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By Jeff Rawlinson

Part one of this article discussed the history of wildlife management in the United States from its founding through the era of exploitation that occurred in the 1800s.

Era of protection (1900–1930)

The early 1900s brought an industrial boom. Abuse of natural resources had taken its toll throughout the nation, and evidence of this abuse was clearly visible in the decline of various waterfowl and large mammal species. Nebraska’s deer population was estimated at a mere 50 animals. America was becoming an economic giant, yet through the roar of machines, both political and metal, a small voice could be heard. It was the hunter, and the voice was of concern for the direction our wildlife resources were heading. Conservation-minded men and women had continued a relationship with the land and the wildlife.

Although Roosevelt’s career included many important positions, it was the dislike for Roosevelt by Republican Party leaders such as boss Platt, along with divine intervention, that would firmly place this conservation giant in the White House. In 1900, two years after Roosevelt’s triumphant charge up San Juan Hill, he was placed on the McKinley ticket as vice president, a position Roosevelt feared was “not a stepping stone to anything but oblivion.” On Sept. 6, 1901, shots were fired that were heard around the world as the bullet from an assassin would claim the life of President McKinley, propelling Roosevelt into the most powerful position in the world.

During his presidency, Roosevelt would have profound impacts on conservation, bringing this struggle to the political forefront. As president, Roosevelt set aside 230 million acres, 9.9 percent of America, for conservation, including

  • 150 million acres of forest reserves
  • 18 sites through the Passage of the National Monuments Act
  • Five new National Parks
  • 51 National Wildlife Refuges
  • Four big game ranges

In all, Roosevelt protected 84,403 acres each day of his 1901–1909 presidency! During this time, Roosevelt called seven national conferences on conservation, and in 1908 called the governors to the White House to urge adoption of conservation principles. In the words of noted author and historian Jim Posewitz, “Conservation was coming from the top down and it was becoming a growing reality.”

Era of game management (1930–1966)

The “dirty thirties” were marked by the dust bowl and an impoverished nation. Agricultural practices unchecked by environmental stewardship had left the nation’s heartland in ecological peril. Politically, the conservation movement was supported by the footings laid by Theodore Roosevelt. New federal acts moved forward to provide for environmental protection due to the outcry of hunters in panic over the vanishing wildlife resources of the nation.

Wildlife conservation had support, yet it lacked the science to properly manage our nation’s resources. A young biologist name Aldo Leopold changed all this with his writings, including the book “Game Management,” which led to universities across the country developing wildlife conservation programs. These programs spawned a new breed of professional game managers who utilized science to support management methods that ultimately led to the greatest wildlife conservation success story in the world.

The disaster of the dust bowl years was clearly evident. President Franklin D. Roosevelt called for a verdict by his appointees, and the nation learned that this great ecological disaster was caused not by climate or environmental change but, rather, man’s mistaken public policies, land use and ignorance. America was finally beginning to understand habitats and wildlife, but soils were another matter. Perhaps one of our most precious resources, the fertile soils of America’s Midwest, had nearly been decimated. FDR developed the Soil Conservation and the Civilian Conservation Corps to help farmers and ranchers recover from this harsh and valuable lesson. FDR would host the first North American Wildlife Conference, challenging the people to lead us out of our peril. The response was noted in such conservation leaders as Jay Ding Darling, who led the dispersed rod-and-gun clubs, made up of local hunters and anglers, and forged a national force for conservation. One year later, the Pittman-Robertson Act would fly through Congress, providing funding through a sales tax on firearms and ammunition, creating thousands of jobs for young wildlife professionals along with a greater number of “game wardens,” supported by individual states to further the development of the Conservation Model, which now had science and funding to support it.

Era of environmental management (1966–present)

Science and funding led to a broadening view of conservation as focus shifted from managing “game animals” to managing the entire biota (environment and all living things in it). Further federal acts, such as the Endangered Species Act of 1966 and the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, provided greater protection for species by a nation that had finally changed its course, providing time to review and perfect conservation efforts. Recent acts, such as the 1980 Farm Bill, continue the effort to help landowners provide quality habitat for wildlife and hunters by providing incentives to landowners to set aside highly erosive lands and plant them into wildlife habitat (grasslands) that benefit wildlife and hunters.

Just 73 years since the passage of the P-R Act and 101 years since America wept as Roosevelt left office, the Nebraska deer herd has grown from 50 animals to over 300,000. The call of waterfowl is heard each spring and fall from healthy and well-managed populations. The bugle of the majestic elk is heard in many locations across Nebraska, and the gobble of the wild turkey rings out from every creek bottom, hollow and river. No other culture in human history has been able to accomplish what we have done. What became the concern of a few hunters, anglers and landowners has become a pivotal concern for the greatest nation in the world.

We have been lucky

Although our story is positive and encouraging, others are not. It can be stated that the wealth and prosperity of a nation rests within the land ethic held by its people. Marsh clearly understood this when he wrote “Man and Nature.” Unfortunately, the other side of this coin is also clearly visible in our world today: the tragedy of cultures that have lost their love of wild things and wild places, their appreciation for the outdoors and their land ethic. Perhaps there is no greater evidence of this than the Middle East, where it seems many cultures have lost their land ethic along with their value of human life.

Many years ago, in the development of civilizations where the focus was on building city kingdoms, existed a ruler name Gilgamesh. He faced an obstacle described as a forest so dense that the sunlight could not reach the ground. Determined to build his epic kingdom, the forest began to fall. It fell when the Bronze Age needed the forest to smelt bronze from the ore. It continued to fall when the Iron Age needed its charcoal to smelt iron from the slag left over from the Bronze Age. In mythology of the time, there was a forest deity named Humbaba, who protected the forest using fire, storm, flood and death as his weapons. The contest between man and nature had begun.

The place where this epic battle took place, where the forest was so dense that sunlight could not reach the ground, was located between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. It was Iraq. It is the same Iraq we now see each night on the evening news. It was in the landscape that once hosted the passing of civilizations, that so concerned George Perkins Marsh.

In a book featuring exit messages left behind by suicide bombers, one passage is particularly relevant to this story. From a young person about to blow himself up in Gaza, addressing the environment he knew, his last words are “We have seen the ‘dunya’ [physical world] and … it doesn’t amount to anything.” (Hari, 2005). He then went out to kill himself and as many other people as he could.

This is the direction of a nation that loses its land ethic. George Perkins Marsh witnessed this on his journey to the Middle East and warned us in his writings. Jay Darling urged for greater conservation of soil, water and wildlife, telling us “when these are gone, prosperity, … and happiness among our people will vanish with them.” Chief Luther Standing Bear also gave us a consistent perspective on all of this when he said, “Man’s heart away from nature, becomes hard; [the Lakota] knew that lack of respect for growing , living things soon led to lack of respect for humans too.” (Louv, 2005)

It is obvious why our conservation story, one which has had a profound impact on our current lives and will continue to have on our futures, is so important. It should be told to every child in school, and it should help remind us of where we came from and where we are heading. For our nation, our land ethic suggests a prosperous future. But what will happen as this land ethic is lost? As young leaders lose their appreciation for wild things and wild places, as hunters no longer understand or participate in the “thrill of the chase,” our values are sure to change.

The story of our unique model of conservation is still being written. New challenges today threaten our coveted resources and new professionals are entering the arena to further the plight of our nation’s wildlife and hunting and natural heritage.

Seven pillars of the North American Model of Conservation

Seven main pillars have been highlighted as the foundation of support for the North American Model of Conservation. These include

The public trust

The wildlife of the United States are owned by the people. This is very different from the European Model, where wildlife is privately owned. The North American Model recognizes wildlife as a public resource that is so important, it cannot be owned or managed by any one segment of our society, but rather is managed by professional state and federal entities for the benefit of all. This concept, known as the Public Trust Doctrine, began development in 1842 when the Supreme Court ruled that the Magna Carta had settled the question of who owns fish and wildlife and that King Charles II did not have the authority to give away the “dominion and property” of lands in colonial America. The court further ruled that since the American Revolution, the people held public trust responsibilities for fish and wildlife except for rights specified in the U.S. Constitution.

Prohibition on commerce

It was the hunter who brought forth stringent laws that protected wildlife from peril in the 19th and 20th centuries. Because we all own and appreciate our wildlife as a national resource, wildlife should never find themselves on the public market to the highest bidder. This path led to a large-scale loss of many species, including the passenger pigeon and the near loss of the American bison. As our country was developing, these practices were common as people moved west in search of prosperity, capitalizing on a land seemingly untouched by the modern world. Today, many laws in place serve to protect our most valuable resources … our wildlife.

Democratic rule of law

Each citizen of this great nation has the ability and responsibility to engage in healthy politics that serve to support and protect sound wildlife conservation measures. Our first conservation measures in this country, habitat restoration, simple harvest restrictions and bag limits, came from hunters, people who respected the game they pursued and loved the wild places they chased them in. The North American Model of Conservation is built upon active public involvement, instilling a value for wildlife in all citizens.

Hunting opportunity for all

The North American Model was developed on the premise that all people, regardless of political or economic standing, could participate in and feel the thrill of the chase. It is this unique model that provides us with wildlife opportunities for all Americans. Imagine how important this was to our forefathers who left a brutal King in England where only the aristocracy had any dream of pursuing wild creatures in wild places. Our wildlife laws ensure that each generation that comes after us will have the same opportunity to enjoy and appreciate wildlife.

Nonfrivolous use

Our management of wildlife depends on a citizenry that loves and appreciates the wild creatures and the habitats necessary to their survival and our quality of life. Wildlife may be utilized under strict rule of law, including utilizing harvested wildlife to its fullest potential. Killing wildlife for the sake of killing can only lead to the numbing of hearts to wildlife and a profound lack of respect for our most precious resources.

International resources

It was not until the 20th century that hunters and wildlife lovers understood the importance of managing wildlife at a much larger scale. This became readily apparent with the passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 where nations came together to manage wildlife resources as a collective. Wildlife species do not recognize national or state boundaries. Governments must work together to be effective in managing wildlife for the benefit of all. The United States has made great strides in this area with Mexico and Canada. Our wildlife is not only a resource to us but to all continents they may call home throughout the year. Our biologists must think globally to be effective locally.

Scientific management

Although Theodore Roosevelt brought conservation to the political forefront, it was a young forester from Iowa that made the study of wildlife management a science. Aldo Leopold is considered by many as the “father of wildlife management” due to his tireless efforts to develop curriculum for future wildlife biologists. Today, our biologists earn their opportunity to manage wildlife through prominent bachelor, master’s and doctorate degree programs from universities around the world. Wildlife must be managed using fact, science and the latest research. We are constantly learning and adapting to new technology and changing environments. For such an important resource, we cannot afford to have it any other way.


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