One of the issues that keeps coming up in the argument about banning lead ammunition is that substituting non-toxic materials for lead will drive up the price of ammunition, making it more difficult for the “average” gun owner to indulge in his hobby, be it hunting or target shooting.  There are even the usual conspiracy notions floating around the Internet that the effort to prohibit all lead ammunition is just another example of how the “elite” is looking to get rid of guns by pricing ammunition out of everyone’s budget.

Americans have been arguing about hunting and environment since the founding of the country.  Once British rule disappeared, many of the Colonial regulations and laws that governed hunting no longer applied, and many of these laws were repugnant to Americans because they represented a holdover from the English tradition that allowed only the upper classes to engage in outdoor sport.

But opening hunting to everyone, particularly commercial hunters, resulted in the depletion or extinction of many species.  As early as the 1840s, white-tail deer and wild turkeys were disappearing, then the passenger pigeon and the heath hen became extinct, and of course the great buffalo herd was reduced to a tiny fraction of its former size. By 1900, hunters and other outdoor enthusiasts realized that management of wild game was the only alternative to the complete loss of many species and the ending of hunting altogether.

Enter two visionaries: Theodore Roosevelt and George Bird Grinnell.  Both were Easterners, Ivy Leaguers, elitists in every sense of the word.  Both were also captivated by wilderness and both purchased Western cattle ranches in 1884.  Grinnell had his first taste of the outdoors when he accompanied General George Custer to the Black Hills in 1874 (he wisely declined Custer’s invitation to take part in the 1876 expedition.)  Roosevelt’s father founded the Museum of Natural History in New York City and Theodore explored the Adirondacks as a teenager and also purchased a Western cattle ranch in 1884.

Grinnell, editor of Forest and Steam magazine, founded the Audubon Society in 1886.  The following year, Grinnell and Roosevelt founded the Boone and Crockett Club.  At this point, America’s foremost naturalist, Grinnell, and America’s foremost outdoorsman, Roosevelt, created the modern conservation movement. And what did these two men share besides a love of wilderness?  They shared a love of hunting.

Most of the original conservationists were hunters – Roosevelt, Grinnell, Audubon, Olmsted, Parkman, Pinchot.  Even Thoreau considered himself to be an “outdoorsman” (I am indebted to John Reiger for this information.)  Whether it was the establishment of nature sanctuaries, or the saving of Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon, or the creation of forest preserves, hunters instinctively understood the connection between preserving habitat and protecting animals.

These hunters turned conservation-activists also understood something else; namely, that to strike a balance between survival of animals on the one hand, and requirements of hunters on the other, both wildlife and hunting needed to be managed.  And management meant enlisting government at every level – local, state, federal – because wild animals, birds and fish all migrate. So an alliance developed between hunters, conservationists and government agencies that resulted in the creation of the National Parks System, the Migratory Bird Act, the Duck Stamp Act and the Robertson-Pittman Act which so far has pushed more than $2 billion into conservation and hunting programs.

This alliance no longer exists due to the polarization of the gun control debate.  If the NRA and the NSSF believe that the Federal Government is a threat to law-abiding shooters, they aren’t about to align themselves behind programs that might enlarge the ability of government agencies to control access to guns.  At the same time, environmental groups like the Sierra Club and Audubon believe that only the federal government has the resources to control environmental threats arising from new technologies for energy extraction.

Right now there is a hot contest in California (A.B. 711) over whether to ban all lead ammunition.  The NRA and its hunting allies like Boone & Crockett and Ducks Unlimited oppose the measure; the Audubon Society and its allies are promoting the ban on lead ammo in California and elsewhere.  These groups should not be fighting one another.  They should be sitting down together, acknowledging their common heritage and history, and finding ways to make sure that what Roosevelt and Grinnell said 125 years ago still holds true today: Conservation Begins With Wildlife.