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Chapter 2: A history of wildlife in North America

Marine Conservation Home / Essays on Wildlife Conservation / NEXT: Marine Conservation Organizations »
Edited by Peter Moyle & Douglas Kelt
By Peter Moyle and Mary A. Orland, last revised July 2004

Era of Abundance (1500-1849)
The richness and abundance of wildlife, especially edible wildlife, during the first 3.5 centuries of colonization and settlement in North America was, from all accounts, awe-inspiring (Warren 2003). Passenger pigeons flew overhead in endless thundering flocks; salmon choked the rivers, to be pitch-forked out as fertilizer; huge herds of bison, antelope, and elk roamed the prairies; whales and seals yielded endless shiploads of oil to burn in lamps. As a result, Americans assumed the supply of such creatures was virtually infinite, a bounty to be harvested at any time for human use. Local depletions of wildlife were noted, but there was always more wildlife over the next range of hills. Some towns and states in this era did try to impose hunting seasons on selected animals to give the game an opportunity to reproduce, but such laws were rarely enforced. More common was the payment of bounties on predators, such as the bounties of one penny each given for wolves by the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630. This was an era of local extinctions where forests were cleared and streams were dammed. While direct negative impacts of westerners on wildlife were relatively small during this era, attitudes that led to the uninhibited destruction of wildlife and wildlife habitat became established. Specifically, the agrarian view that nature needed to be tamed and put to use allowed the widespread destruction of wildlife seen in the next era, and fit in well with the demands of the emerging industrial economy.

While North America was being prepared for explosive environmental change, the roots of Western environmentalism were being quietly established on island colonies around the world (Grove 1992). Islands are miniature, isolated worlds so the effects of environmental degradation, such as the cutting of forests and the extinction of species, were very obvious to the physician-naturalists who joined the colonies. They convinced the governments of the islands to set aside forest reserves as ways of reducing erosion (with such side effects as the filling in of harbors) and of intercepting rain, which provided the water needed for crops. In 1764, the British set up the first forest reserves on Tobago, while in 1769, the French established forest protection laws for Mauritius. The British later applied the lessons learned on the islands to establishing forest protection laws on a much larger scale in India and South Africa (Grove 1992). The end of this era was marked by the publication of Kosmos by the highly regarded German geographer Alexander von Humboldt. This treatise was important because it was ecological in concept, showing how humans were closely connected to the natural world, not apart from it as the dominant western religions generally advocated. In developing his ideas, von Humboldt was one of the first western scientists to draw heavily on the holistic thinking found in Eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism.

Era of Overexploitation (1850-1899)
This era was one in which the North American continent was transformed from a land mass with vast areas unsettled or even unexplored by Europeans to one with cities and farms scattered everywhere and held together by a spidery network of railroads, roads, and telegraph wires. It saw the sudden settlement of the West Coast (catalyzed by the discovery of gold in California), the Civil War, the disappearance of eastern forests, an enormous influx of immigrants from Europe, Asia, and Africa, and the vast expansion of industry and technology. This increase in human population, combined with the technology of the early industrial era and the demands of a market economy, caused wildlife populations to plummet from a combination of unchecked exploitation and environmental alteration. Some examples:

The drastic decline of wildlife is not really surprising, considering the attitudes of most people living in this era, which were largely characteristic of the combined agrarian and early industrial society of the times. Nature was regarded as something that got in the way of civilization and "progress", and a source of goods to sell on the market. The agrarian mindset of the time was often frightened by the abundant wild animals and uncontrolled wild ecosystems, and thus thought nature had to be tamed and controlled. Thus popular nature books of the era were filled with drawings of animals doing nasty things to people or to each other: bears clawing hunters, eagles carrying off children, deer goring one another, land crabs attacking goats (Figure 2.2).

Despite this dismal picture, the Era of Overexploitation also contained roots of the modern conservation movement. Over the clamor of self-congratulation for having subdued the "remote, barren, rocky, bushy, wild-woody wilderness" into a "second England," a few individuals asked if this transformed environment was what people really wanted. Henry David Thoreau in 1855 sat down with his journal beside the local swimming hole in his hometown of Concord, Massachusetts, to consider the ways in which Concord had been altered by two centuries of European settlement and expansion. Following a 1633 account and comparing it to what he saw around him, he concluded that the changes had been drastic. In Walden he listed animals and trees that were no longer present in Concord in 1855, and then wrote:

I take infinite pains to know all the phenomena of spring, for instance thinking that I have here the entire poem, and then, to my chagrin, I hear that it is but an imperfect copy that I possess and have read, that my ancestors have torn out many of the first leaves and grandest passages, and mutilated it in many places. I should not like to think that some demigod had come before me and picked out some of the best stars. I wish to know an entire heaven and an entire earth.

Thoreau was not the first to comment on the changes in the environment he saw around him. Unfortunately, until the twentieth century, writers like Thoreau had little popular audience. The ideology and practice of manifest destiny was quite strong in all parts of the country. People homesteading on the plains, if they read Thoreau at all, would have referred to him as an East Coast dilettante who knew nothing of their struggles to survive in the wilderness.

In 1859, Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species, which further fueled the arguments that humans were part of nature, not separate from it, and that humans had a great impact on the natural world, including the extinction of species. Such ideas did not percolate readily into the consciousness of Americans, but people in this era were becoming dimly aware that America was losing a major part of its heritage. Thus the first game wardens were hired, some states began requiring hunting licenses, fish and game commissions were established to find ways to improve hunting and fishing, and Yellowstone National Park was established. Even these efforts were based on a philosophy that humans could improve upon nature. Thus the new fish and game commissions often took as their major task the introduction of new species to replace native species. The largest railroad cars that existed in this era were those designed to carry fish back and forth across the continent. Striped bass and American shad were introduced to California from the East, with the cars bringing back rainbow trout and Pacific salmon. Carp from Europe were introduced everywhere and were considered to be so much better than native fishes that for a while pools beneath the Washington Monument in Washington D.C. were used to rear them.

Era of Protection (1900-1929)
Most Americans in this era were still rather oblivious to the environmental deterioration that was occurring everywhere, but some of them at least were outraged by the uncontrolled hunting that was eliminating populations of the more spectacular animals, from deer to herons. The era began with two significant events: the passage of the Lacey Act in 1900 (see Box 1, p.9) and the accession of Theodore Roosevelt to the presidency of the United States in 1901 (Figure 2.3). The Lacey Act helped to eliminate market hunting for plumes from birds (by prohibiting interstate commerce in feathers) and was passed in part due to lobbying from newly formed Audubon Societies. The period of the Theodore Roosevelt presidency is considered by many to be a golden age of conservation. Roosevelt, an ardent hunter and conservationist, tripled the size of forest reserves to 148 million acres, and created the U.S. Forest Service to manage and protect them. He also appointed conservationist Gifford Pinchot to head the Forest Service, and pushed Congress into passing legislation that withdrew 80 million acres of public land from exploitation for coal and 4 million acres from exploitation for oil. He created the first national wildlife refuge (which snowballed into the National Wildlife Refuge System), created many national parks and monuments, and beefed up federal enforcement of wildlife laws. Roosevelt also used the 1906 Lacey Act to set aside several million acres of public land as national monuments. In 1913 and 1916 laws were passed that essentially made hunting of most migratory birds, except waterfowl, illegal.

Figure 2.3. Two symbols of the Era of Protection: plumes in ladies hats and Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt is pictured in 1885, age 27. Roosevelt's experiences as a rancher in North Dakota profoundly shaped his views toward wildlife. Photograph by G.G. Bain, Library of Congress.

The conservation movement in the United States continued to grow in the early part of the twentieth century. Some individuals like John Muir realized that mere preservation of wilderness areas was not enough. He helped found the Sierra Club in 1892 in an attempt to get ordinary people involved in and educated about wilderness. Why, Muir asked in his writings, is there such a dichotomy between lifeless cities and untrammeled wilderness? Can city people care about wilderness they might never see? Muir thought they could. The Sierra Club advocated the establishment of Yosemite National Park in John Muir's beloved Sierra Nevada Mountains—what he called the "Range of Light." The Sierra Club attempted to preserve not only the Yosemite Valley itself but also the high country surrounding the valley and the neighboring (and equally beautiful) Hetch Hetchy Valley (Figure 2.3.1). Although Muir and the Sierra Club succeeded in protecting the former, they lost the latter. Hetch Hetchy is now a reservoir owned by the City of San Francisco that supplies power and water to the city.

Box 1. The first paragraph of the Lacey Act of 1900, which used the power of the U.S. Congress to regulate interstate commerce to protect animals by forbidding their movement across state lines. It also regulated the movement of harmful animals, such as mongoose.

§ 42. Importation or shipment of injurious mammals, birds, fish (including mollusks and crustacea), amphibia, and reptiles; permits, specimens for museums; regulations

(a) (1) The importation into the United States, any territory of the United States, the District of Columbia, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, or any possession of the United States, or any shipment between the continental United States, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, or any possession of the United States, of the mongoose of the species Herpestes auropunctatus; of the species of so-called "flying foxes" or fruit bats of the genus Pteropus; and such other species of wild mammals, wild birds, fish (including mollusks and crustacea), amphibians, reptiles, or the offspring or eggs of any of the foregoing which the Secretary of the Interior may prescribe by regulation to be injurious to human beings, to the interests of agriculture, horticulture, forestry, or to wildlife or the wildlife resources of the United States, is hereby prohibited. All such prohibited mammals, birds, fish (including mollusks and crustacea), amphibians, and reptiles, and the eggs or offspring therefrom, shall be promptly exported or destroyed at....

Table of Contents

1. Roots of the modern environmental dilemma: A brief history of the relationship between humans and wildlife
2. A history of wildlife in North America
3. Climatic determinants of global patterns of biodiversity
4. Biodiversity
5. Natural selection
6. Principles of ecology
7. Niche and habitat
8. Conservation biology
9. Conservation in the USA: legislative milestones
10. Alien invaders
11. Wildlife and Pollution
12. What you can do to save wildlife

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