With Your Help A New Approach To Sustaining Animals Will Really Pay Off.

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I was born and raised in Washington, D.C. and lived right down the street from the National Zoo. So the zoo was kind of my backyard, so to speak, and I spent afternoons there looking at the various inhabitants, including the original Smokey the Bear, the bald eagles and many other animal species as well.  One of my favorites was a small group of North American bison who stood together seemingly without ever moving and attracted lots of flies.  I knew that if I wanted to see a buffalo in the wild, I would have to journey out west to the Great Plains.

cheetah           Which, in fact, I did in 1968 when I watched the buffalo roundup in Wind Cave National Park. The park, along with Custer State Park, lies just to the east of South Dakota’s Black Hills and the herd, which numbered about one thousand head, was a tiny remnant of the enormous buffalo herd which had survived the depredations of commercial hunting before and after the Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869.  Buffalo meat can now be found on restaurant menus here, there and all over and today’s herd probably numbers around 200,000, enough to insure the survival of this breed. But when Europeans first came to America, buffalo could be found all over the continent and probably wandered freely through the area that is now the National Zoo.  By 1800, however, they had disappeared east of the Mississippi, having fallen prey not only to hunters, but to fences and land cleared and planted for farms.

The balance between human and natural habitats is precarious to say the least and always results in loss of the latter due to expansion of the former.  Our original conservation movement was founded by Theodore Roosevelt and George Bird Grinnell, who witnessed first-hand the disappearance of species as American settlers penetrated the frontier and moved across the West.  But regulating hunting seasons can only protect animals that are the targets of a hunt.  What about all the other wild creatures whose habitats are threatened by the ever-increasing encroachments of Man?

A genuinely different and effective response to this problem has now exists with the work of an organization, Conservation Centers for Species Survival (C2S2), which unites the formidable talents and resources of such outstanding programs as the Smithsonian National Zoo, my old playground, the Fossil Rim Wildlife Center in Texas, Omaha’s Doorly Zoo  and several other major wildlife centers, to take advantage of decades of wildlife management experience and develop programs in biodiversity, population optimization and habitat management that can both expand existing species populations, as well as threatened species both within their natural environment as well as in man-made habitats such as nature reserves and zoos.

What I find most intriguing about the C2S2 effort is its emphasis on collaborations, consortium-types of planning and, most of all, public-private partnerships. I like this last approach because when it comes to conservation over the years the public and private sectors have often been at odds. Conservationists are often seen as anti-progress, private development is viewed as having little concern for the natural environment if it gets in the way of economic growth.  Does anyone need to be reminded of Sarah Palin leading the chant: Drill baby, drill?

The one question which remains to be answered is: why should we be concerned about the survival and sustenance of wild animals at all? I’ll tell you why. Because wild creatures teach us things about ourselves.  We have figured out how to go to the Moon, but we still haven’t figured out how to stop killing each other over the most unintended, little slight.  That makes us somehow a higher life form than a wild creature which never attacks its own species even in the search for food?

Take a look at the C2S2 website and remember that after tomorrow you’ll be done with Hillary’s campaign and you can donate some money to this wonderful group. It’s a good thing to do.

Why Do We Buy Guns? It Sure Isn’t Because We Need Them.

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In 1883 a young New Yorker named Theodore Roosevelt went out on a hunting trip to the Dakota and Montana territories.  His goal was to get a trophy-sized American bison and mount the trophy in the family home at Oyster Bay.  The reason he went on this hunt, and he did bring back a bison trophy, was he had been told that the bison herd was about to become extinct.

TR           This was not the only game animal that was fast disappearing from its natural habitat; the white-tailed deer was also an endangered species by the end of the nineteenth century, the carrier pigeon was almost gone (and did disappear), and had it not been for the foresight and advocacy of conservationists and naturalists like Roosevelt and George Bird Grinnell, many other animal and game species would have also faded away.

How did this happen?  It happened because almost from the moment that Europeans arrived on America’s eastern shore, hunting became a commercial endeavor in response to a growing population that wanted and needed animal products both to consume for food and to use for clothing and other consumer wares.  Bear in mind that hunting in Europe, particularly England, was an activity reserved only for the nobility and the Crown.  Commoners, on the other hand, didn’t hunt, they poached, and as late as 1820 in Britain poaching was still a crime for which one could be hung.  But the United States had vast amounts of open space and if much of that space belonged to Native Americans nobody really cared.  These open spaces and the animals that roamed or flew there meant meat on the table for the average diet, leather coats for men, fur coats for women, feathers for decorative purposes and style – all of these products created opportunities for commercial endeavors resulting in the massive destruction of herds, fish and fowl.

And when it came to killing off all those animals, what could be more efficient than using a gun?  But with all due respect to how Davy Crockett ‘kilt him a bar when he was only three,’ very little of this hunting activity was done either then or now for sport.  Know how many hunting licenses were sold in 1955?  Roughly 14 million.  Know how many were sold in 2014?  Roughly 14 million. That’s an astonishingly flat trend line for nearly sixty years.  But there’s only one little problem.  During that same period, the country’s population grew from 166 million to 319 million, an increase of nearly 100% while the number of hunters hasn’t changed at all.  In other words, hunters constituted 8% of the national population in 1955, now they constitute a whole, big 4%.

Let’s remember something else.  Guns aren’t like television sets, laptop computers or cars.  They don’t wear out. And hunters are a funny breed because once they find a gun that really shoots perfectly for them, the last thing they’re going to do is trade it in.  There have been some product changes that have kept the hunting gun market from total collapse, most of all more powerful calibers like 44 magnums replacing the venerable 30-30 for deer, or 3 ½ inch magnum shotgun shells for those hy-flyers zipping by or those turkeys cluckety-clucking through the woods.

Take a look at Pamela Haag’s study of the marketing strategy adopted by Winchester Firearms which recognized that the idea of the gun as a necessary ‘tool’ was failing to attract consumers before World War I.  So Winchester began marketing its products to what they referred to in company discussions as ‘gun cranks’ –  people who wanted guns even if they didn’t particularly need them for any practical use.

Sound familiar?  The gun industry now sells guns as protection against crime, even though the number of times that people use guns as protective devices is actually little to none.  In 1910 Winchester discovered that people would buy guns even though there was no practical reason to own a gun.  Boy, things have really changed.


Protecting The Wilderness: Hunters Or Environmentalists?

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wildernessIn my last blog about the frontier, I talked about the fact that what we believe was a process of wilderness settlement was probably re-settlement by whites who infected indigenous populations with disease and killed most of them off.  How did this disparity between so-called civilized peoples who conquered the wilderness and so-called uncivilized people who inhabited the wilderness come about?  After all, it was this disparity, – steam and steel versus wood and clay – that allowed us to believe that the frontier marked the border between civilization and wilderness.  In fact, it was our encounter with ‘savages’ (i.e., uncivilized people) that was the proof that wilderness could still be found.

This disparity goes back to the domestication of animals and plants.  Prior to domestication, humans were no different from any other animal species, forced to forage for foodstuffs and move from place to place whenever they consumed more plants or animals than could be reproduced by nature in the area where they happened to be.  Once food could be increased without depending on the natural cycle, humans could cease migrating, develop permanent communities and most important, experience increases in population beyond minimal levels.

This did not mean that civilized communities were yet totally liberated from the natural replacement of foodstuffs; in fact, famines still break out to this day.  But the problem had been definitively resolved in the eastern half of the United States by the middle of the nineteenth century, and as white settlement pushed further into the western frontier, the natural cycle of plant and animal replenishment that governed the existence of indigenous peoples was replaced by commercial farming and herding whose benefits had nothing to do with the relationship of humans to the wilderness at all.

Enter the sportsman-hunter, in the form of elite easterners like Teddy Roosevelt and George Bird Grinnell.  They didn’t view wildlife as a means of subsistence, killing wild animals was challenging and fun.  Roosevelt owned two cattle ranches in North Dakota and Grinnell bought a cattle operation in Montana.  Both operations supplied food to urban, i.e., civilized communities back east.  Meanwhile, wilderness game quickly began to disappear.  Roosevelt remarked on the scarcity of big game when he spent nearly three weeks trying to shoot a trophy brown bear so that he could display its stuffed head back in New York.

The conservation movement that hunters like Roosevelt and Grinnell founded in the 1890s wasn’t an effort to save the wilderness or roll back the frontier.  It was seen as a necessary effort to regulate hunting so that game birds and animals would survive in areas where the natural balance between man and nature had disappeared.  The early conservationists weren’t conserving wilderness, they were protecting enough habitat to support the natural cycle of animal replenishment that was required for the enjoyment of their sport.

Now enter the environmentalists who started to subsume the conservationists after World War II.   Whereas the traditional conservation movement was rooted in the idea of preserving habitat, the environmentalists, beginning with Rachel Carson, moved towards protecting the larger environment from man-made pollutants and industrial-residential projects.  Thus, the definition of what required protection shifted from animal habitat to human habitat, from preserving where animals roamed to safeguarding where people lived.

But threats to human habitat were not so much ecological as political.  Decisions about where to build highways were political decisions, as were decisions to purify water, create landfills and clean the air. The  environmental movement fed off of civil rights protests, nuclear testing protests and the grand-daddy of them all, the anti-war movement.  In the process, particularly when environmentalism morphed into global warming, the concerns and needs of hunters were swept aside.

And who embraces hunters and never misses an opportunity to remind them of the important role they played in building our great country and conquering the frontier?  You guessed it: the National Rifle Association whose defense of the 2nd Amendment is a brilliant ploy to capture the hearts and minds of hunters like the ones whom President Obama accused of “clinging” to their religion and their guns.

Hunters and environmentalists may think they have little in common with each other, but in fact both groups may be living a myth that still endures.  It was eastern elitists like Roosevelt whose passion for hunting bequeathed the notion of habitat protection to modern-day hunters decidedly not from the upper class.  Meanwhile, it’s today’s elitists, the environmentalists, who seek to protect a wilderness that may have disappeared long before Roosevelt and his friends hunted it away.

This is the second part of a three-part series on hunting and conservation which will form a book to be published by the end of this year.


Hunters and Conservationists: Why Don’t They Like Each Other? (2)


huntingThe argument between hunters and environmentalists isn’t about confliciting goals; it’s about conflicting communications, both within and without the advocacy groups that claim to speak for hunters and environmentalists.  But let’s go back to the beginning.

Hunting and conservation started at the same time and at the same place: hunters from the East who went West to hunt for recreation and then discovered that their activities were depleting or actually eliminating wild game.

It didn’t take long.  As early as the 1840’s, species like white-tail deer and wild turkey were disappearing, and by the time of the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876, the bison herd was being reduced to a fraction of its former size.  When Teddy Roosevelt went into Wyoming to bag a grizzly, the only North American big game animal for which he didn’t yet have a trophy, he spent more than a week wandering around the Wind River Range before he even saw one.

According to the U.S. Census, America still had an open frontier and wilderness areas until 1890.  But for many game animals and birds, their frontier had long since been taken away.  It’s not surprising, therefore, that it was hunters like Roosevelt and George Grinnell who first called for conservation as a way of protecting wild species from unlimited exploitation at the hands of man. Both men were founders of the Audubon Society and the Boone & Crockett Club – advocacy for hunting and conservation was in tandem.

The strategic alliance between hunters and conservationists broke down in 1962 with the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.  The damage wasn’t done by the message (industrialization threatened environment) but the manner in which it was delivered.  The book was first serialized in The New Yorker magazine, then was a feature for the Book-of-the-Month-Club and shot to the top of the New York Times best-seller list.  If you were an educated, urban resident with no interest or involvement with hunting, you read and talked about Silent Spring.  If you were a hunter living on a farm or a small town, you never heard of Rachel Carson.

Carson’s book described what would happen to the natural environment without government regulation of industry.  Hunters, on the other hand, had been regulated for decades.  In fact, they had been instrumental in calling for regulations, writing regulations and putting up their hard-earned money to enforce them.  Hunters have been buying duck stamps since 1934 and this program along with excise tax revenues has pumped billions into habitat conservation.

You would have thought that hunters and environmentalists would have made common ground given the fact that both groups understood the need to protect the environment through government regulation.  But mis-communication quickly obliterated the commonalities between the two groups.  On the one hand, hunters wanted to preserve wildlife habitat so as to replenish animal and bird species.  On the other hand, environmentalists presumed that there was no distinction between a tree and a deer; they were both ‘wild,’ so they both needed to be protected.

It didn’t help matters that within a decade after the publication of Silent Spring, the hunters came to be represented by well-financed advocacy organizations, in particular the NRA, while the environmentalists fared just as well in developing and promoting well-financed advocacy groups, (ex. the Sierra Club.)

At the risk of provoking lots of snarky comments on both sides, let me quickly say that while advocacy organizations can play a very important role in getting a message out to a wide audience, they also have their own agendas which may or may not fit the needs and goals of the programs for which they advocate.  In the case of the NRA, their chief goal is to protect gun-owners from government efforts to regulate sale or ownership of guns.  Since hunters were the NRA’s chief constituency in the 1960’s, any regulation of hunting meant, by extension, a regulation of guns.  As for the Sierra Club and other environmental advocates, their success relied primarily on getting people who didn’t live in the ‘natural’ areas to visit or at least take an interest in such locations.  Neither of these agendas really responded to the issues raised by Roosevelt, Grinnell and the other hunters-turned-conservationists of the earlier period.

It is now clear that the greatest threat to wildlife comes not from the behavior of hunters, but from threats to habitat due to urbanization and economic development.  You would think that hunters and conservationists could respond to these threats as one voice, but, if anything, they seem more polarized than ever.  I would suggest that this polarization has nothing to do with habitat or wildlife; it has to do with a lack of reasonable discussion about the role of government and the options available to both sides in searching for a solution.

But when two ‘opposing’ groups seek a solution, by definition there has to be compromise.  We don’t seem to live in a period where compromise is valued or even sought.  To be continued in the next diary, and don’t forget to join our group: Hunters and Environmentalists.

Conservation Begins With Wildlife

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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.