Hunters: Founders and Leaders of Wildlife Conservation

Commentary by H. Sterling Burnett

It's fall. That time of year when millions of Americans' tromp across frozen fields, following staunch pointing dogs in the pursuit of quail and pheasant. Others trek to deer stands in the deep woods or climb high into the mountains for elk and sheep. Ironically, those who undertake these seemingly atavistic pursuits are wild animals best friends.

Those not familiar with the history of wildlife conservation may not realize that outdoor sportsmen saved virtually every game species in the U.S. from extinction. Indeed, most funding for wildlife research and habitat preservation is still provided by hunters. And, if Africa's wildlife is to survive into the next century, it will likely owe its survival to hunters.

Decades before President Theodore Roosevelt, a noted big-game hunter, made wildlife conservation a federal priority, hunters had begun conserving wildlife. For instance in 1846, at the urging of prominent sportsmen, Rhode Island passed the first seasonal hunting regulation for waterfowl. And in 1871 the nation's first incorporated game preserve, 12,000-acre Blooming Grove Park, was established in Pike County, Pennsylvania, by sportsmen for the purpose of "preserving . . . and propagating game animals, birds and fish, and of furnishing facilities to the members for hunting, shooting and fishing."

The early 1900s saw lobbying and grassroots organizing by hunting organizations such as the Boone and Crockett Club (formed in 1887) - which included as members Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, founder of the U.S. Forest Service; the National Rifle Association (1871); and later the Izaak Walton League (1922). In combination with numerous editorials and articles in outdoor sporting journals, these efforts encouraged Congress to pass the first substantial national wildlife management bills: the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (1918), the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act (1934), or the "Duck Stamp Act," and the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act (1937) or Pittman-Robertson Act - which created a tax on sporting arms and ammunition, distributed by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to state wildlife agencies for conservation projects.

In addition, by 1928 every state had instituted a hunting license requirement with the funds dedicated to wildlife management. The various licenses, fees and taxes on hunting and hunting equipment still fund more than 90 percent of the budgets of state fish and wildlife agencies. Since 1923, sales of state hunting licenses, tags, and permits have provided more than $10.2 billion toward wildlife management and habitat acquisition. The Federal Duck Stamp Program has generated more than $500 million for the protection of wetlands. The Pittman-Robertson Act has distributed more than $3.8 billion to state fish and wildlife agencies since 1937.

In addition, the more than 15 million licensed hunters in the United States direct money, time and hard work toward wildlife conservation as individuals and through local, state and national hunting associations. The 1996 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife Associated Recreation reports that hunting expenditures totaled $20.6 billion, with $11.3 billion going for hunting equipment, $5.2 billion for trip-related expenses and $4.1 billion for other expenses such as land leases, membership dues and licenses.

Importantly, hunter efforts have paid off for wildlife. At the turn of the century many wildlife populations were in decline, but now they are booming. For instance in the early 20th century, white-tailed deer populations had declined to approximately 300,000, wild turkey to fewer than 30,000, pronghorn antelope to only 25,000, North American elk to 50,000 and wood duck and bison were nearly extinct. Today, by contrast, there are more than 20 million white-tailed deer, more than 4 million turkeys, more than 1 million each of antelope and elk, wood ducks are the most common breeding waterfowl in the U.S. and bison number 350,000.

Of course, by conserving habitat for game animals, hunters also benefit non-game wildlife as well. For example, Africa currently faces declining wildlife populations due to habitat conversion to farming, wildlife competing with or preying on domestic livestock and the uncontrolled commercialization of wildlife. Hunting organizations from around the world are working with African governments to save Africa's threatened wildlife. Hunters, private landowners and tribal councils have established wildlife conservancies in several African countries. Hunting is the main source of income for the conservancies and many ranchers. It provides native peoples and private landowners alike with incentives to preserve wildlife in many poverty-stricken African countries. In Africa the motto is: If it pays, it stays. Among the animals that have come to be seen by Africans as desirable as opposed to pests are elephants, lions, leopards and numerous antelope species.

Among some environmentalists, hunting has a bad name. Regulated sport hunting, however, has not caused the extinction of a single species. In America and Africa, hunters pay the freight for wildlife protection. Their passionate pursuit of game redounds to the benefit of wildlife and deserves praise.