When Hunters Saved The Whitetail And…

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Saving America’s Wildlife

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973 brought protected status to dozens of then-dwindling North American animals. Among the first listings were the red wolf, black-footed ferret and ivory-billed woodpecker. It would be hard for hunters nowadays to see the whitetail as a potential candidate or dwindling species but history shows things were very different 120 years ago.

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The red wolf was one of the first animals Endangered Species Act listings. These animals were part of the captive breeding program at the Texas Zoo in Victoria. (Photo by Chester Moore, Jr.)

Had the ESA been established in 1900, the American bison would have been listed along with the wild turkey and pronghorn. All of those are game animals now hunted across multiple states with thriving populations.

“It is unprecedented to have so many species come back in such a big way and it has everything to do with the value put on those species and their habitat by hunter-conservationists like our founder Teddy Roosevelt,” said Keith Balfourd with the Boone & Crockett Club.

Since 1900 bison bounced back  from 1,000 to 300,000 and wild turkeys went from 30,000 to nearly seven million.

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Bison from Yellowstone were moved onto what is now the National Bison Range. Creating sanctuaries for wildlife was a cornerstone of early hunter-conservationist actions by groups like the Boone & Crockett Club. (USFWS Photo)

Pronghorns which fell below 20,000 animals now number more than a million.

And it doesn’t stop there.

Whitetail Conservation

Whitetail would not have been listed as “endangered” but their population stood at only 500,000 throughout the continent. Now it’s 15,000,000.

Elk were down to 40,000 and now there are more than a million.

Contrast that with the ivory-billed woodpecker which is functionally extinct and the red wolf that exists only through a very small captive-bred introduced population in North Carolina and in various zoos and wildlife centers.

Some ESA-listed animals like the bald eagle have had huge success stories but the rise of game populations managed for hunting rarely gets mentioned in the corporate wildlife media.

One of the first actions of dedicated hunter Roosevelt and the Boone & Crockett Club was to push for the creation of Yellowstone National Park as it was one of the last intact ecosystems with abundant game.

“Roosevelt and the early proponents of Yellowstone faced many obstacles including mining, timber and railroad interests. But they prevailed and Yellowstone’s preservation made it possible to restore dwindling species to other areas,” Balfour said.

Elk from Yellowstone were transplanted to areas where they had been eliminated and so were bison.

As newly created game laws created protection for these animals their numbers began to multiply where they had been stocked. This quickly became the template for wildlife restoration in America.

The key reason for the wild turkey’s monumental increase was bringing excess birds from areas of abundance and releasing into zones with no birds. This practice continues today and has also been a cornerstone for the restoration of everything from bighorn sheep to gray wolves.

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Texas Parks & Wildlife Department (TPWD) officials release eastern wild turkeys into the Pineywoods region where poaching and habitat loss have impacted their numbers. (Photo Steve Lightfoot/TPWD)

What Roosevelt, the early members of the Boone & Crockett Club and other early conservationists tapped into was that wildlife needed areas of sanctuary. And once you establish this, excess animals can be taken from there to areas of need.

To some it might seem ironic.

Hunters pushed for huge areas to be shut down to hunting and then helped create licensing systems that ensured hunting as restricted and managed by the government. On top of that they added licenses and excise taxes on sporting goods to fund conservation projects.

But these hunters knew without making sacrifices the animals they pursued would have been gone forever.

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Teddy Roosevelt was the founder of the Boone & Crockett Club and one of the early hunter-conservationists that changed wildlife conservation forever. Species like the whitetail deer have benefitted.

They were visionaries and the pioneering work they did gave hope that wildlife could continue to thrive in the face of growing human population and industrialization. It is not a perfect system but it works better than anything else on the planet thus far.

Many have had a hand in wildlife conservation in North America but few have had the impact of early hunter-conservationists like Roosevelt and the Boone & Crockett Club.

Their legacy lives on-in the woods, on the mountains and across the fruited plain.

Chester Moore, Jr.

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