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Guns and the Environment: Conservation Begins With Wildlife

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Americans have been arguing about hunting and the environment since our founding. 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 reflected the English tradition that allowed only the upper classes to engage in outdoor sport.

But hunting by everyone, particularly commercial hunters, resulted in the depletion or extinction of many species. As early as the 1840s, whitetail deer and wild turkeys were disappearing, then the passenger pigeon and the heath hen became extinct, and 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. They 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 before making extensive trips to the West.

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, the saving of Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon, the creation of forest preserves, hunters instinctively understood the connection between protecting animals and preserving habitat.

These hunters turned conservation-activists also understood that striking a balance between survival of animals on the one hand, and requirements of hunters on the other, required management of both. 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 give government more control over 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. It's not an argument over conservation per se, it's an argument over the role of government.

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 nationwide. 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.