The Facts About Conservation
— by James Earl Kennamer, Ph.D., NWTF chief conservation officer
There were only 30,000 wild turkeys strutting, roosting and rearing broods in our country at the turn of the century. We can't point to one specific thing responsible for the decline of the species. Instead it can be summed up in a phrase: "Go West, young man."
The settlers' westward movement and all it entailed contributed to the wild turkey's near demise. The establishment of railroads and settlements altered habitats. And you can't blame the settlers for wanting to eat, especially the hearty meat of a wild turkey. But there was no thought to the consequences of these pioneers' actions regarding wildlife. Who thinks about the sustainability of wild turkey populations when you're striving to find sustenance for yourself?
The downward spiral of wildlife was reversed by a group of men who had the gift of foresight. Teddy Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot, George Bird Grinnell and others formed the Boone and Crockett Club and used their status to create some of North America's most important and enduring conservation legacies. They weren't magicians, but what they did was nothing short of a miracle. Their proactive stance for natural resources gave rise to the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation and began the return of wildlife to this continent.
The Road to Wildlife Recovery
It was the beginning of a long line of significant events that paved the road to wildlife recovery so we can enjoy hunting and fishing today.
- 1900 – Iowa Congressman John Lacey drafted the Lacey Act, making it a federal offense to transport illegally killed wildlife across state borders.
- 1901 to 1909 – President Theodore Roosevelt protected more than 230 million acres of American lands and waters. He undoubtedly did more to conserve wildlife than any other individual in U.S. history.
- 1911 – Massachusetts Congressman John Weeks instituted an act bearing his name that allowed the federal government to buy land east of the Mississippi for national forests.
- 1914 – The failure to bring the passenger pigeon back from extinction, despite 50 years of futile attempts, taught us to not take wildlife populations for granted. It's a reason we have 7 million wild turkeys today.
- 1916 – Canadian Charles Gordon Hewitt signed the Migratory Bird Treaty to protect a variety of feathered species from egg and nest collectors, as well as unregulated hunting.
- 1933 – Aldo Leopold published "Game Management," a book that serves as the bible for the principles of managing game species. Its message is still relevant today.
- 1937 – The Pittman-Robertson Act put a 10-percent excise tax on arms and ammunition, which could be matched $3 to $1 from state license fees.
Each of these people, species and acts of government have helped return wildlife populations to high levels in North America, a feat no other continent has been able to accomplish in history.
The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation
The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation has kept us on course during the last century. The model's seven pillars have set us apart from all other approaches to wildlife management:
- In North America, natural resources on public lands are managed by government agencies to ensure we always have wildlife and wild places to enjoy.
- Because we all own wildlife, it is illegal in North America to sell the meat of any wild animal. In some cases the hides, teeth, antlers and horns of game animals and the hides and meat of a select few furbearers may be sold.
- Every citizen of the United States and Canada has the right to help create laws to conserve and manage wild animals and their habitats.
- Every citizen has an opportunity, under the law, to hunt and fish in the United States and Canada.
- In North America, we can legally kill certain wild animals under strict guidelines for food and fur, self-defense and property protection.
- Wildlife and fish migrate freely across boundaries between states, provinces and countries.
- Science helps us make good decisions and become better stewards of wildlife.
The Future of Wildlife Management
Even with all the mandates, laws and good practices in place, I still feel we are in need of a second revolution in our approach to wildlife for the future.
I see negative news clips about rogue wildlife — Canada geese overtaking golf courses, deer-car collisions, wild turkeys roosting on TV antennas — and hunting incidents. I rarely find mainstream media coverage that tells what we know to be true, reporting information like how wild turkeys contribute $2 billion to our economy each spring. Add together the economic boost hunters bring to communities by purchasing gas, groceries and renting rooms to pursue their favorite game bird with the million jobs that relate to fish and wildlife and it's fact that's hard to ignore — if you hear about it in the first place.
Society will dictate what we can do down the road for wildlife management. We can't let negative public views of wildlife populations, hunters and hunting counter the good it provides to our economy, our quality of life and future generations of outdoors enthusiasts.
Data shows that 80 percent of Americans are nonhunters but accept the pastime, as long as hunters use the meat, don't glorify hunting for trophies and practice fair chase.
That's a big segment that could work for us or against us. And it's up to us to show them who has shouldered the task of conserving wildlife — hunters.
We have wildlife beyond our wildest dreams today. We can thank our conservation forefathers for that. But what we do today, tomorrow and the day after will determine the legacy we leave for our children and beyond.
We are writing the next chapter in conservation history. It's a story that doesn't need a happy ending. I hope there's never a final chapter for wildlife and hunting in North America.