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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

On the other hand, the basic attitude of resource managers, and the general populace, in this era was still that Nature could be improved upon in order to yield its products to humans in greater abundance. Thus introductions of species continued unabated, and state and federal government initiated major programs in predator control. Predators such as lions, wolves, coyotes, and foxes were considered to be varmints to be shot, poisoned, and trapped in order to increase populations of game animals such as deer and elk and to reduce predation on livestock. In fact, taxpayer-funded predator control programs were still in effect at some state and federal management agencies until the Clinton administration.

The Era of Protection occurred as the US was transitioning from an early to a late industrial society. The increasing consciousness of the value of natural ecosystems and wildlife is a reflection of this, as it the commonly held idea at the time that humans could improve upon nature. However, the science of ecology was still very young then, and as a result the attempts to improve upon nature by resource managers often backfired. The next era is marked by improvement in scientific understanding of wildlife populations and ecosystems and a continuing increase in the valuing of wildlife.

Era of Game Management (1930-1965)
This era began in 1930 when the Report of the Committee on North American Game Policy was issued. The committee, chaired by Aldo Leopold, made strong recommendations for better research and management of game animals. Leopold was the founder of the University of Wisconsin's Department of Wildlife Management, and in 1933, Leopold published his book Game Management, which is often used as the milestone heralding the birth of wildlife biology as a profession. Throughout this era there was a gradually growing awareness that creatures other than game animals also needed protection. National Parks became more restrictive in how they could be used, and the Wilderness Act of 1964 allowed the creation of wilderness areas on U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lands. The growing awareness found its philosophical justification in Leopold's Sand County Almanac (1949), which in elegant prose outlined the need for environmental ethics and the maintenance of intact ecosystems.

The focus in this era was on improving wildlife and fish populations to satisfy the increasing demand for recreational hunting and fishing. State and federal agencies dealing with wildlife and fisheries were strengthened and new sources of funding such as duck stamps were found. Excise taxes on guns and ammunition (Pittman-Robertson Act of 1937) and on fishing tackle and boats (Dingell-Johnson Act of 1950) provided reliable sources of funds for research and management of wildlife and fisheries, respectively. Although there was a great deal of money spent on habitat management and restoration, such as the acquisition of wetlands for waterfowl refuges, a prevailing point of view was that much of the recreational demand could be satisfied by raising fish and game under artificial conditions. The animals so produced were then released into areas where hunting and fishing pressure was intense. Thus many states financed large game farms to produce pheasants, ducks, and quail for hunters. Even more extensive were the fish hatcheries, especially for producing trout and salmon. These were often created in exchange for fisheries lost when dams cut off access to upstream spawning areas or flooded streams. It was optimistically assumed that humans could produce more and better fish in hatcheries than natural environments could produce.

In 1935, Aldo Leopold and Bob Marshall worked together to found the Wilderness Society. The Society was founded as an activist group that was committed to education and to action and advocating in favor of wilderness. Bob Marshall committed his own money and hours of his time to assess the environmental problems caused by the road-building projects of the New Deal. As a result of the Society's work, legislation was passed in the 1960s and 1970s designating roadless areas and wilderness areas separate from national parks. The Society, along with many other conservation groups, was also involved in lobbying for passage of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and the Endangered Species Act.

Aldo Leopold was the philosophical leader of the Wilderness Society. He declared that the Society would promote a new attitude, "an intelligent humility toward man's place in nature." His Essay from Round River articulated for the first time the idea that all parts of an ecosystem play important roles, and that no organism should be removed from an ecosystem. "The first rule of tinkering," he wrote, "is to keep all the parts." In his classic Sand County Almanac, Leopold wrote "there are those who can live without wild things and those who cannot... These essays are the delights and the dilemmas of one who cannot." He describes a land ethic, drawing upon the ideas of Thoreau and others: "Perhaps a shift in values can be achieved by reappraising things unnatural, tame, and confined in terms of things natural, wild, and free." Leopold, who grew up as a hunter, saw that shift happen in his own thinking. He described a dying wolf losing the "green fire" from its eyes and later comments, "To be trained as an ecologist is to live alone in a world of wounds."

Between 1940 and 1960, there were very few new developments in conservation. In 1946, the Bureau of Land Management was formed to administer federal grazing lands and federal lands that had potential for mineral and oil exploration. However, there was much controversy around public lands. The opposition to conservation was led by the timber industry in the Northwest and cattle ranchers in the West. This is typical of an early industrial view of ecosystems as a collection of commodities. Aldo Leopold's "land ethic" was not only in direct conflict with this earlier mode of thinking, it was also in conflict with the descendants of those early settlers—those who wished to exploit public lands for the commodities (oil, minerals, pasture, timber) they represented. As we shall see, precisely the same conflict is going on today.

In 1962, Rachel Carson, a biologist, published Silent Spring (Figure 2.4). This book jolted the public into seeing that the benefits being brought by pesticides and other chemicals were having terrible side effects, most prominently the loss of many species of birds and mammals. The title echoed Aldo Leopold's worried question from Sand County Almanac as he watched the decreasing numbers of wild birds, "What if there was no more goose music?" Carson documented the use of pesticides and other chemicals and the pollution of air and water. She showed that the pesticide DDT could not only kill birds but also concentrate in the food chain. "If we keep using pesticides, and if we keep polluting our world," Carson asked, "will we finish the job the first European settlers began? Some day will there be no more birds singing in the spring?" Her words and Leopold's were prophetic. Research on this question has shown that not only are we exterminating wildlife, but we are also turning the oceans into toxic dumps and may be endangering our own lives by dumping toxic chemicals into the air and into the upper atmosphere. Today, over 35 years after Rachel Carson wrote her book, her "silent spring" may still come to pass. Migratory bird populations, though largely protected from the most egregious pesticides in the United States, are killed by those same pesticides in Central and South America. Their winter habitats are also being destroyed. Meanwhile, back in the developed world, subtle new pesticides, with subtle new effects are being used.

Era of Environmental Management (1966-1979)
This brief era was a transitional one in which the public, biologists, and other scientists started clamoring for more environmental protection and the politicians reluctantly began to acquiesce to the demands. It began in 1966 because the first (but toothless) federal Endangered Species Act was passed then; this act was strengthened in 1969 and again in 1973, but weakened in 1978. This was the period in which the National Environmental Quality Act (NEQA) was passed (in 1969), requiring environmental impact statements for new projects. In 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was established. Public sentiment was expressed in the extraordinary outpouring of concern seen on Earth Day 1972. Environmental groups grew rapidly. Enrollments in environmental programs at universities skyrocketed and states began to pass laws similar to the federal NEQA legislation. Even California, with conservative Ronald Reagan as governor, passed a strong California Environmental Policy Act and an endangered species act similar to the federal act.

The prevailing feeling in this era seemed to be that there was nothing fundamentally wrong with the environment. Environmental problems could be solved with proper management that balanced ecological and economic interests. A few natural areas could be set aside, for example, to protect species such as kit foxes or kangaroo rats, that were being eliminated by development. The effects of water pollution could be taken care of by reducing discharges or using pesticides that degraded more quickly. The increasingly polluted air of the cities could be cleaned up by people driving slightly smaller cars and by building power plants out in the desert.

Between 1965 and 1980, over two dozen pieces of legislation were passed on the federal level and many times that number on state and local levels to protect wildlife and wildlife habitat. This legislation included the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act, and others that seek to decrease pollution. Other legislation such as the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act attempted to regulate land use and to set aside pieces of land that are free from development. Wildlife conservation was addressed in the federal Endangered Species Act as well as in similar legislation on the state level. All of this legislation was a direct result of the education and activism in local communities that began to take place in the early 1960s, in large part from the stimulus of Rachel Carson's book. This was also the era, however, when the United States defoliated huge areas of forest in Vietnam with Agent Orange as part of its military strategy.

Era of Conservation Biology (1980-??)
The present era is considered to have begun in 1980 because that was when the book Conservation Biology: an Evolutionary-Ecological Perspective, edited by Michael Soulé and Bruce Wilcox, came out. This book gave a major push to the development of Conservation Biology as a distinct field, a science devoted to finding ways to preserve the diversity of life on Earth. The year 1980 also marked the Alaska National Interest Lands Act, which set aside (more or less) 101 million acres of Alaska as National Park, National Monument, or National Wildlife Refuge. This was done in recognition that the wilds of Alaska, one of the most pristine areas of the world, were on the verge of being spoiled by mining, settlement, and overexploitation of wildlife. In contrast, 1980 was also the year Ronald Reagan was elected President of the United States with a profoundly anti-environmental philosophy. The initial years of this era, therefore, were ones of weakened environmental agencies, confrontational politics on environmental issues, and avoidance of developing serious solutions to major problems such as acid rain.

Despite the attempts to undermine progress made in solving environmental problems, major progress has been made. Scientists and, increasingly, the public are realizing that we are in an environmental crisis of global proportions. Human populations are still climbing at an exponential rate, the atmosphere is warming, both tropical and temperate rainforests are being cut at alarming rates, and serious pollution is much more prevalent than admitted previously. From the perspective of wildlife this means species are being lost almost on a daily basis. Recognition of these problems, however, means that we can find solutions to them. The essays that follow discuss many of these problems and their origins as well as solutions. We have labeled the present era the "Era of Conservation Biology" on the optimistic assumption that our increased awareness of the environmental problems of the world coupled with our increased knowledge of ecology will allow us to solve those problems. The question for you is: can the major changes in public attitudes needed to change our present direction in global use and abuse happen? Is this even desirable? Do the words of Henry Beston, written in 1928, still resonate or do they represent an old-fashioned attitude, irrelevant in the modern world:

We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.

It may be that future generations will label our era the Era of Extinction (Figure 2.5). The next sections on beaver and bison may give some hope, however.


Figure 2.5. This faded fish is a thicktail chub, Gila crassicauda. It was once one of the most abundant fish in the rivers and sloughs of central California and important source of food for Native American peoples. The last chub was seen in 1957 and it exists only as about 100 specimens in museum jars. The ruler is in centimeters. Photo by P. Moyle.

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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