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Our Roots in Conservation

A Little History

Hunting, for most of the 2.5 million years of human history, was done for survival. About 13,000 years ago, with the advent of agriculture in many locales, hunting became a way to augment the food we grew. Within the last 500 years or so, as different groups of people had more free time, hunting transitioned into a recreational pursuit for the landed gentry, especially in Europe. As Americans took part in the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries, conditions changed again, and with a frontier mentality, hunting became a pursuit for the market; hunters made a living off the abundance of wild game across our landscape to feed those living and working in the cities. As game populations waned and the frontier closed in 1890, some prominent figures, who were also hunters, saw the need to manage things more closely so that these pursuits could exist into the future. Land was conserved, seasons and bag limits established, and the era of professional management and the citizen-hunter dawned. When World War II ended, there was a spike in disposable income, improved work conditions, and free time, so that a person who desired to hunt could access a multitude of species in a variety of locations across North America. Populations and conditions have ebbed and flowed, but, by and large, we are in the good days of hunting now.

That closing of the frontier around 1890 signified a shift. What seemed limitless was not. While the frontier mentality of the American mind persists to this day, in reality, things have been managed since that time. Americans have slowly become aware that our natural resources are limited, and thoughtful leaders have worked to avoid destruction of resources for short-term gains. In 1887, Theodore Roosevelt and George Bird Grinnell founded the Boone and Crockett Club, joined later by forester Gifford Pinchot. The Club and its members worked on the elimination of commercial market hunting, creation of the National Park and National Forest Services, National Wildlife Refuge system, forest management, wildlife reserves, and funding for conservation, all under the umbrella of what is known today as the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation. Roosevelt went on to become the 26th President of the United States in 1901. He used his authority to establish 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reserves, four national game preserves, five national parks and 18 national monuments on over 230 million acres of public land. These forests have slowly grown to 640 million acres of public land for us to hunt and fish on, among other pursuits.

Conservation has continued along in leaps, with prominent people like Aldo Leopold, who was a hunter, leading game management through that decade and beyond. He became a prominent voice for conservation with A Sand County Almanac that included essays that remain relevant today, such as ‘Thinking Like a Mountain’. Leopold helped found the Wilderness Society in 1935, a group from which Howard Zahniser would later emerge to help pass The Wilderness Act of 1964. Funding for conservation was paid for by excise taxes paid on equipment, via the 1934 Pittman-Robertson Act and the 1950 Dingell-Johnson Act.

Eventually the environmental cost of economic progress became more apparent, highlighted by moments like the Cuyahoga River catching fire in 1969. Concerns about the environment rose to a level of national consciousness. Game populations initially exploded through the 1960’s and then rapidly crashed after hitting unsustainable levels. In response to these factors, a number of small hunting-conservation groups were formed across the country in the next couple of decades. Some of these groups rose to national prominence, like Trout Unlimited (formed in 1959), the National Wild Turkey Federation (1973) and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (1984). Trout, turkeys and elk, as well as non-game species that share their habitat, have benefited from the work of these species-specific groups. Other groups, like the Wild Sheep Foundation, continue to work on issues related to their species of concern.

Countless local groups, like the Sportsman Alliance of Maine (1975) and VT Fish and Wildlife Conservation Group (1988), were alternately formed around a region or state rather than a species. While groups like these didn’t necessarily rise to national prominence, they continue to this day with an emphasis on working with state game agencies and local government officials on conservation issues. In 2004, Backcountry Hunters & Anglers was formed as a grassroots organization focused not on protecting one specific species, river or hunting area but on ecosystem-wide conservation across the continent. The founders wanted to create a voice for the silent wilderness where hunters and anglers roam; places that are rapidly disappearing. As the needs of conservation have evolved, so have the groups that engage on these issues. All of them have had one key ingredient- people who care.



Making It Personal

In 1989, at the age of 12, I attended Green Mountain Conservation Camp at Buck Lake in Woodbury, VT. I officially held a deer tag after that experience, though the .22 I hunted with for the next few years was ill-suited for the job. Squirrels and rabbits were the quarry I honed my skills on. With a larger rifle borrowed from my uncle in my teenage years, time spent following Dad around the November deer woods took on new meaning and importance. The table at camp was a place to learn a lot, but I never really heard about conservation there, unless it was to complain about a new regulation or to disagree with a buck to doe ratio estimate. My grandfather farmed and logged and was a caretaker of the land, but never talked about his care of the forest specifically. I just knew he loved to be out there. I took game and enjoyed the woods, never realizing that the privilege I was afforded came from the work of so many before me.

Fast forward 30 years. I’m still a hunter, but now one who deeply appreciates what we have in terms of landscapes and animals upon them, from Maine to Colorado. I’ve seen a loss of areas to hunt, places shrunk by subdivisions, posted land, and broken up by roads. I feel like what we have isn’t forever unless we take steps to protect it. After my first trip west in 2013, I realized that those landscapes were under attack; people wanted to sell or exploit our public land for personal gain. Our land! I looked around and saw that there were organizations fighting against that. I sent them some money. It was time to give back.

I looked closer to home and realized what we have in northern New England isn’t guaranteed either. We are lucky to have public land here, but also vast timber company lands, along with other private land, that is under conservation easement and open to hunting. But that wouldn't take much to change. So I found some new groups to belong to, tried to support with a little more cash. After a couple of years, that didn’t seem like enough. I started volunteering. It felt, and feels, like I’m making a difference on something I care about. When I look around, at meetings or volunteer events, I see a lot of gray hair. I even see some when I look in the mirror. And that makes me wonder, where are the young people? Heck, where are the people my age?

I think our hunting and angling community, as a whole, has gotten complacent. For a while, State Fish and Wildlife agencies seemed to minimize citizen involvement and discounted the cultural importance of the license holders they served. There was, and is, a divide between their population science and our anecdotal experiences. We need to talk to iron out those differences. Unfortunately, there are fewer hunters willing to talk, and listen, with an open mind. Society has also gotten busier- there isn’t as much time in each day to do things like volunteer on a project. Money is tighter, kids are busier, and gosh, we’ve had it pretty good, there can’t be much to worry about.    

But the work is still there, and the hunting and angling community needs to get back to its conservation roots, back to some of what was established more than a century ago. If we are traditionalists, and most of us think we are, it is incumbent on us to carry on traditions that include joining our local fish and game clubs, showing up at meetings, getting our hands dirty doing work for the good of future generations. This work entails some sacrifice of time and money. It takes some listening and compromise. Our modern era doesn’t value these things; we have all become more selfish and confrontational. Yet what if Teddy Roosevelt and Aldo Leopold had been that selfish? Where would we be? It is time for hunters and anglers to step back up and put some time in; to stop resting on our laurels. Paying license fees is no longer enough.

It thrills me to think that, as I write this, there is probably a young person attending GMCC, or some other camp, who will grow up to love catching trout, tracking bucks and chasing bulls in wild places as much as I do. I want that youngster to have the same opportunities I have had to roam around somewhere, be it northern New England or the Rocky Mountain west.  

Teddy Roosevelt said it best:

Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”


(Matt belongs to Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, RMEF, WSF and the VTF&WCG)