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The History of Hunting Conservation in the United States

The meaning of conservation has changed dramatically over time, especially in America's 245-year history.

The History of Hunting Conservation in the United States

Teddy Roosevelt founded the Boone & Crockett club in 1887, one organization that proves hunters contribute largely to the conservation of wildlife. (Photo by Everett Collection/

Is Hunting Conservation? That is an interesting question, one that will take more than a simple “yes” or “no” answer. The meaning of conservation has changed dramatically over time, especially in America’s 245-year history!

Conservation Pioneers

During the first 100 or so years, Americans were pretty much consumed with expanding the country’s borders and developing the economic engine that now is the United States. Attention was focused on development, not on the sustainability of natural resources.

It has been my observation that humans rarely notice the loss of natural resources until it’s nearly too late. But eventually someone stands up, looks around and says, “Hey, where did the buffalo go?”

Increasing leisure time in the Victorian Age allowed philosophical discussion about wild America. In 1854, Henry David Thoreau had written “On Waldon Pond” — a book devoted to his times on a 62-acre pond near Concord,

Massachusetts, which focused the thinking of a growing urban society on the beauties of nature. “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived,” wrote Thoreau. These were intoxicating words to a society shifting from mostly rural to mostly urban.

Earlier, James Fenimore Cooper had penned “The Last of the Mohicans,” a novel that for the first time glorified the lives of Native Americans. Overnight, the American perception of the original inhabitants of our continent shifted. For the first time, many thought of native people not as savages, but as noble human beings!

It is safe to say these two books created what became the “Conservation Movement,” later embellished by John Muir, John James Audubon, Robert Marshall and others.

After the Civil War, a new group of philosophers emerged in response to the realization that America’s natural resources were steadily dwindling away. They became collectively known as, “Aesthetic Conservationists.” Their solution to the problem was preservation, saving what few natural places and animals remained.

The Boone & Crockett Club was founded by Theodore Roosevelt and George Bird Grinnell in 1887, in reality to document the most representative individuals of species thought soon to become extinct!

history of hunting conservation in united states
Teddy Roosevelt has long been recognized as one of the founding fathers of wildlife conservation in the United States, including the National Park System and the park that now bears his namesake. (Photo By: Andrew Bertino/

Roosevelt’s thinking began to change as he assumed the presidency in 1901, after William McKinley’s untimely assassination. Roosevelt had accumulated a group of like-minded folks, like Gifford Pinchot, who had a striking impact on Roosevelt’s thinking about conservation.

Many had lost faith in the scandal-ridden Department of Interior as a savior of wild places and creatures! By 1900, much of the original forests had been cleared to feed the growing demand for building products and farmable land. Huge fires had burned across the Great Lakes Region, destroying what little forests were left. Roosevelt concluded that just setting aside national parks was not the answer.

Pinchot penned a new definition for conservation: “the wise use of the earth and its resources for the lasting good of men.” Pinchot believed, in order to save natural resources, they had to be managed on a sustainable basis. This way of thinking gave rise to the “Utilitarian Conservationists,” which came into direct philosophical conflict with the Aesthetic Conservationists. The conflict lasts to this day!

No one can challenge the fact the American hunter had a great deal to do with saving countless species of animals! The 20th Century saw development of what became the science of wildlife management, often credited to Aldo Leopold.


Hunting for Conservation

Hunters generally are practical folks, who see solutions to problems. Also, as Leopold predicted, the private landowners stepped up to partner with hunters to create sustainable populations of game animals. Today, 80 percent of wildlife lives on 60 percent of the land — the private land.

The newly passed Pittman-Robertson Act (Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, 1937) and later the Dingle-Johnson Act (Sport Fish Restoration Act, 1950) marked the first time the American people asked to be taxed!

Monies from the 11 percent excise tax on firearms and ammunition (later archery equipment) and a 10 percent tax on fishing equipment were devoted to management of our fish and wildlife resources. To date, about $14 billion has been allocated to wildlife restoration and $9 billion to fisheries management.

history of hunting conservation in united states
Every sale of ammunition puts money right back into wildlife conservation. (Photo By: SvetlanaSF/

These funds came directly from hunters and fishers, while much of the funding for non-consumptive resource management often arises from general tax funds. Hunters and fishers also contribute indirectly through the industry created through the pursuit of game and fish.

According to The International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, “Hunting in America is big business, generating more than $67 billion in economic output and more than one million jobs in the United States.”

Recreational fishing has an additional $115 billion impact on the nation’s economy, creating another 800,000-plus jobs. And this industry generates little in the way of pollution or environmental damage!

Aldo Leopold fully appreciated the power private landowners have in conservation. I have read every word Leopold published in his life, and I am fully confident in saying that he had profound faith in the private landowner as a conservation force.

On many occasions, I have said the white-tailed deer is saving rural land and the rural lifestyle. This is what I mean by this statement: There is a shift in land-use from high-yield farming/ranching to private wildlife management that can contribute significantly to conservation.

history of hunting conservation in united states
The wildlife and habitat management programs acorss the United States not only benefit white-tailed deer, but all wildlife species. (Photo By: Jim Cumming/

The Modern Industry of Conservation

For years, North American Whitetail, and now NAW TV presented by Wild Tree Nursery, have focused heavily on satisfying the demand for sound information about deer management.

An entire industry has developed in the marketing of real estate suitable for deer management. According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-associated Recreation (2016), some 1,716,000 Americans own land primarily for fishing, hunting and outdoor recreation, totaling 162,019,000 acres.

These owners spend over $2.8 billion annually. In addition, there are an estimated 979,000 individuals who lease 136,833,000 acres for fishing and hunting; and they spend over $2.4 billion each year on these activities. These annual numbers compare favorably to the total $23 billion collected in taxes through P-R and D-J since 1937.

You see, wildlife is indeed not only contributing significantly to the U.S. economy, but it is also saving millions of acres of undeveloped land in America. Of interest should be this fact: Not a single species that has been designated a regulated game animal or sportfish in the United States has ever gone extinct!

That’s an often-overlooked testament to the role of hunting and fishing in conservation. And it tempts me to assert that the best thing that could ever happen to an endangered species, is to be designated a game animal. But I won’t.

So, is hunting conservation? I have presented a lot of information related to this question. Maybe I was wrong.  Indeed, there is a simple answer, and that is YES!  

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