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Wilderness Legacy: How America’s Hunters and Anglers Helped Save the (Natural) World


Early Americans, awed by the natural abundance of North America, could imagine no end to its natural wealth. When it comes to Nature, early American history is essentially a story of overkill. American bison killed by the millions are just one well-known example. Fish and wildlife from passenger pigeon to beaver to whitetail deer to Atlantic cod were slaughtered to extinction or near-extinction between 1776 and 1876. Yet out of this carnage came a remarkable revolution: An ethic to conserve wilderness championed by hunters themselves.


The first American hunters to fight for the wilderness were Native Americans. Facing the destruction of their ancient way of life, people like Lakota chief Sitting Bull fought bravely, then negotiated for what they could save of their sacred land. As Sitting Bull said: 'When the buffalo are gone, we will eat mice, for we are hunters and must have our freedom.'


John J. Audubon, 1785-1851, was America’s first internationally famous artist. His two passions were hunting and painting. His favorite subject was birds — like the pair of gyrfalcons featured here. Audubon’s legacy goes beyond the fine arts. He helped build America’s pride in its unique natural history. As an eye-witness to the destruction of entire species such as the passenger pigeon and the habitat that supported them, Audubon was an early voice for stopping the wholesale destruction of Nature.


By the 1850s, a seed of a conservation ethic germinated in the minds of a few, far-sighted Americans like Henry David Thoreau. For Thoreau, wild nature wasn’t just resources to be subdued, but had value in its own right. That implied a responsibility toward conservation. On a moose hunt in Maine, Thoreau implored his camp-mates not to waste any meat of a moose they had killed. He wrote: 'I trust that I shall have a better excuse for killing a moose than to hang my hat from its horns.'


Ironically, one of the early champions of preserving the wilderness and native hunting cultures rode with Custer into Sitting Bull’s sacred Black Hills. Decades later, George B. Grinnell fought for the rights and dignity of native tribes. He also promoted protecting wilderness as editor of the magazine Forest and Stream. Grinnell helped found the Boone and Crockett Club, which lobbied for the protection of Yellowstone National Park wildlife and the creation of Glacier National Park.


American conservation received a seismic jolt in 1901, when Theodore Roosevelt was propelled into the presidency of the United States by the assassination of William McKinley. Roosevelt was greatly influenced by his early years roaming the American wilderness, rifle in hand. During his two terms in office, Roosevelt protected more than 230 million acres of land for generations of Americans. He urged America to '… preserve large tracts of wilderness and game for all lovers of nature and for the exercise of skill of the hunter, whether he is or is not a man of means.'


Aldo Leopold is called the father of wildlife management. His 1949 classic A Sand County Almanac is perhaps the most eloquent statement of conservation. Like Roosevelt, Leopold saw wildlife as the birthright of all Americans. As his wildlife management principles became established, wildlife like deer, elk, beaver and turkey began to rebound. He convinced the Forest Service to create the first wilderness area, the Gila, in New Mexico in 1924. Throughout his life, Leopold saw the land through the eyes of a hunter: 'Trigger-itch, wanderlust and buck-fever are simply the genetic raw material out of which perception is built.'


Idaho native Ted Trueblood grew up hunting and fishing in his home state, then became editor of what is now called Field and Stream magazine (following a line of succession from Grinnell.) For 40 years, Trueblood edited the magazine, helping millions enjoy the outdoors, but also promoting conservation of wildlife, habitat and wilderness. He is most often credited with helping conserve the mighty River of No Return Wilderness in the Salmon River country in 1980. Over his career, Trueblood saw populations of elk, deer and other game species reach modern highs.


Biologist Jim Posewitz spent most of his career at the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Upon his 'retirement,' Pozewitz launched Orion, the Hunters’ Institute, dedicated to promoting ethical hunting. 'Poz' is also known for his passionate defense of wild country and free-flowing rivers, which support wildlife, fish and America’s outdoor heritage. Now that American wildlife is once again thriving, Posewitz makes certain that legacy is not forgotten.


Mountaineer, backcountry skier and avid bird hunter from Portland, Oregon, Michelle Halle is a member of a new generation of hunter/conservationist. As a board member of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, she continues the tradition of 'seeing the land through the eyes of a hunter.' Now, more than ever, Americans treasure their rushing waters and big, wild habitat. Now, more than ever, Americans want quiet places where they can experience solitude and the sounds of Nature. Now more than ever, hunters need to get involved.


Backcountry Hunters and Anglers is proud to carry on the American tradition of sportsmen and -women supporting wilderness. We work to protect the big, natural areas and natural processes that support our hunting and fishing heritage and to stop the abuse of public land. We depend on our members. If you share our values, we urge you to join us today. www.backcountryhunters.org

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