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.

There’s Still Plenty Of Wilderness In The Lower 48: Just Use Your Imagination.

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Badlands from the Elkhorn (sm)

Elkhorn Ranch courtesy Sean Palfrey

In 1883, then 25-year old Theodore Roosevelt went out to the western edge of North Dakota to fulfill his dream of shooting a trophy buffalo and bringing the mounted head back to his home in New York.  Roosevelt had been interested in nature and natural environments since he was a little boy and his affinity for the outdoors was eagerly encouraged by his father, Theodore Sr., who was one of the founders of the New York’s American Museum of Natural History in 1869. By the time he was a teenager, Roosevelt had trecked through much of the Adirondacks and journeyed through Europe and Egypt collecting specimens of all kinds, but the trip to the West in 1883 marked the first time that Roosevelt actually immersed himself in what was still wilderness lands.

Actually, the wilderness that Roosevelt hunted through in 1883 was, in reality, almost gone.  The transcontinental railroad linked both coasts since 1869, the Plains Indians were more or less pacified by 1877 (and slaughtered at Wounded Knee in 1890), and the U.S. Census announced that there were between 6 and 20 people living on every square mile of land in at least half the land mass of the lower 48.  Which meant that the wilderness, as far as the U.S. government was concerned, was gone.

TR was keenly aware of these changes, partly because he knew that it wouldn’t be much longer until animals like the American bison would be gone for evermore; but he was also a man of his times who believed that the frontier represented a remarkable resource for nation-building, both in economic and cultural terms.  In many respects, his comments sprinkled through his writings about the virtues of living on the frontier, presaged the single, most important essay ever written about the development of America, namely, Frederick Jackson Turner’s ‘Frontier Thesis,” published in 1894.  In this essay, the author described America as being uniquely different from Europe insofar as the social, economic and legal institutions brought over from the Old World were not the same institutions that were developing as the country moved West.  In this latter space, basically the land between the Missouri River and the western coast, America was developing a new brand of institutions, a new culture, a new organizational ethos that reflected the egalitarianism and independence of the frontier.

Not only did Turner and Roosevelt know each other’s works, but Roosevelt used Turner’s ideas to sell his notions about conservation and nature to skeptical politicians whose support he needed to promote and develop what later became our present-day system of natural monuments, including national historic sites, national preserves and reservations and, the greatest treasure of all, the national parks. The law that TR signed in 1906 gave the President the right to designate “historical landmarks, historic preservation structures and other objects of scientific interest,” which today represents 12% of the protected landscape in the entire world.  That’s not bad considering that the U.S. occupies 6% of the globe’s land mass.

The reason I find TR so fascinating is that all of this interest and concern about preserving nature grew out of his desire to go into natural places in order to hunt big game.  Which is something which a visitor can still feel by visiting what remains of TR’s Elkhorn ranch.  The property lies midway between the two branches of the national park named after our 26th President, and while the ranch house itself has not been preserved, you can stand where TR stood in front of the house and look over the Badlands the same way that Sean Palfrey looked over the Badlands when he took the photo which adorns this page. And then bed down for the evening, watch the stars come out, and wait for the first slivers of daylight to brighten the sky behind the buttes overlooking the ranch.  And maybe if you are quiet enough, a few of the bison who once again claim this area as their home will amble by.  It may not be wilderness in the technical sense, but it’s as good as you’ll ever get.


Maybe We Need To Understand Gun Ownership From A Scientific Point Of View.


Why do Americans own 300 million guns?  Building a civilian arsenal of that size really is an extraordinary achievement, particularly when you consider that the U.S. counts for roughly 5% of the world’s population but together we own maybe one-third of all civilian small arms in the world, maybe almost half the number of handguns and long guns that exist on the entire planet.

Now if you go to the so-called experts on gun ownership, the NRA and the other gun-marketing organizations, they’ll tell you that guns have ‘always’ been part of American history and that God plus the Founding Fathers gave us the uncontested ‘right’ to protect ourselves with guns.

lunde          Actually, like all good marketing slogans, this one has a bit of truth to it but it’s mostly hyperbole.  In fact, early colonial governments enacted gun-control laws to make sure that the guns which the colonists needed for hunting didn’t wind up in the ‘wrong hands,’ i.e., the Injuns.  And later on, when Roy Rogers and Gene Autry opened up the West, most frontier towns also enacted strong gun-control laws to keep things under control.

But until 1890, when the government announced that the ‘frontier’ was dead and gone, it was presumed that if you lived outside of a city, you needed a gun in order to secure necessary food for the table.  But the problem was that hunters had been so adept at bagging game that many of the animals whose meat had filled American stomachs were no longer to be found.  The white-tail deer were disappearing throughout the East, the bison was just about extinct, the huge flocks of carrier pigeons that had darkened the skies had disappeared, altogether the balance between Man and Beast was definitely tilting towards Man.

Enter Theodore Roosevelt who, by the age of eight and living in a Manhattan townhouse, was already captivated by the idea of studying every animal specie that he could find, and the way you studied an animal was to kill it, then stuff it and preserve it, then put it on view for others to do the same.  This is the opening theme of an important new book by  Darrin Lunde, who happens to be the manager of the Smithsonian’s Division of Mammals, which happens to be one of the largest collections of animal species, a collection that was started largely through the efforts of TR.

Roosevelt happened to grow up at a time when Americans became interested in natural history, largely because the Industrial Revolution was quickly transforming much of the natural landscape along with threatening the animals, fish and plants which comprised the natural environment.  His father, Theodore Sr., founded the American Museum of Natural History in New York; Roosevelt himself became a close friend of America’s first naturalist, John Bird Grinnell; going out into the wild and hunting game in order to learn more about wild animals remained TR’s passion for his entire life.

The attempt to use the hunting experience to understand nature came to full flower for TR between 1883 and 1887 when he lived and hunted extensively on his cattle ranch, the Elkhorn, located in the North Dakota Badlands, now part of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Lunde chronicles the growing awareness on the part of Roosevelt that many of the big game animals he hunted were quickly disappearing; this awareness led to the founding of Boone & Crockett, the push for hunting regulations and the development of our national parks.

Roosevelt’s passions were hunting and guns.  But behind these two passions, and this is where Lunde’s book really stands out, was an awareness on the part of our 26th President that hunting needed to serve the interests of science, that guns were a means to advance our knowledge and appreciation of natural things.

The GVP community is uncomfortable with the notion of guns as self-defense ‘tools’ and rightly so.  But maybe a more balanced message about gun ownership could be developed by reminding Gun Nation why Teddy Roosevelt loved his guns.

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.

Why Don’t Hunters and Tree-Huggers Like Each Other?

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Why do hunters and conservationists dislike each other? It wasn’t always that way. In fact, the modern American conservation movement that appeared in the 1880’s was started by hunters, chief among them our 26th President, Theodore Roosevelt. In the many books and articles that he authored about hunting and wilderness, Roosevelt tried to find a balance between conserving wilderness to protect animal habitat, while also allowing economic development of the frontier to move ahead.

But the world has changed and so have the battle lines between hunters on the one hand and conservationists on the other. Or have they?

For a moment, let’s put aside the vitriol and passion surrounding the proposed legislation  in California to ban all lead ammunition, a bill that that is on its way to Jerry Brown’s desk and will shortly become law. There are arguments to be made on both sides. The environmentalists have data to prove their point of view; likewise the hunting lobby can roll out their set of facts.

The problem is that nothing in nature is that easy to understand; nothing can be reduced to a simple take-it or leave-it explanation, no matter what proponents on either side would like you to believe. And Roosevelt keenly felt the need to unite both sides, as he said in a letter written in 1902: “the lover of big game and wilderness [is] an instrument against, instead of in favor of both.”

The degree to which hunters and conservationists should be fighting the same battles is remarkably underscored by the data found in the National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation newly published by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a division of the Department of the Interior.

In 2011, more than 90 million Americans either fished, hunted, watched wildlife or did all three. Of the total, 26 million went hunting and fishing, 64 million looked at birds or animals either near their own residence or by taking a trip. Together, all three groups spent $144 billion.
Three-quarters of the people who went fishing engaged in fresh-water angling, bass being the catch of choice. For the hunters, 60% went after big game: deer, elk, bear and wild turkey. As for the wildlife watchers, three-quarters did it primarily around their home, but more than 25 million took trips away from home. Both groups primarily watched (and fed) birds.
watching When we break down fishing, hunting and wildlife watching by size and location of community, all of a sudden the three types of activities blend into one. The highest proportion of residents engaged in fishing, hunting and watching are found in rural locations. Break it down on a state-by-state basis, the north-central and deep-southern states have the highest proportion of people who do all three.

You can discard the stereotype that hunters are blue collar and birders are the educated, upper-class elite. The same communities where hunting is most popular are also the communities with the greatest number of people who enjoy wildlife. When you stop to think about it, why shouldn’t this be the case? After all, people closest to nature tend to get out into nature.

Hunters and conservationists would do everyone a big favor if they would sit down together and figure out what they have in common, rather than always arguing about what keeps them apart. There may be competing claims about what to do with natural spaces but these spaces belong to all of us.

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. 

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