The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Wild Life, Conservation of, in America

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

WILD LIFE, Conservation of, in America. Nothing in the New World impressed the first American explorers more than the abundance of its animal life. Early accounts of the country and its resources are filled with rejoicing over the plenitude of its fishes in both the sea and the inland waters; and of the edible or otherwise useful creatures of forest and plain, especially fur-bearers. During the first century of colonization the fisheries and the fur-trade engaged a large part of the population, and all were utterly unrestrained in their drafts on what seemed to them an inexhaustible wealth. This reckless destruction of American animal life, for the sake mainly of pelts or hides, continued as civilization penetrated to the interior until finally not only beasts of prey but the valuable beaver and marten, the wapiti and other deer, and the bison, antelope and bighorn sheep were all but exterminated, various game-birds and waterfowl were depleted and many of the most important fishes, especially those of anadromous species, like the salmon and shad, were nearly destroyed. The wild pigeon is only a conspicuous example of a dozen or more species of useful or beautiful birds that have become totally extinct, and many more have been saved only at the last moment by the strenuous efforts of men who fought the ignorance and greed of lawless gunners and fishermen, often at the peril of their lives. The loss to this country and to Canada (included in this survey) has been incalculable. It is true that a large part of it was inevitable, for it is impossible to civilize a region and maintain the whole of its animal life, much of which could not survive the changed conditions apart from any enmity of man; but the needless waste has been prodigious and sinful. Nevertheless, it is only within a comparatively recent time that even the wisest men of America have awakened to the importance of preserving what remains of the continent's wild life.

Regulative efforts began to be made in the 18th century in the older Eastern States by local laws forbidding shooting in the breeding season, the taking of fish on their spawning-grounds, or on their way thereto, and conserving certain fur-bearers, but these regulations were local and related almost wholly to animals of market value. Gradually these enactments were copied in newer western and southern communities, and were broadened in scope, yet bad only a limited effect, partly because they were far from uniform even in adjoining States and were weakened by many exceptions, but mainly because they were not, and perhaps could not, be well enforced, for the people generally were not interested or even felt an inherited prejudice against “game laws” of any sort.

The first popular alarm was felt when, in the middle of the last century, the governments of both the United States and Canada discovered that the decline in the fisheries had reached a danger-point. This led to the making of more stringent laws and their better enforcement, particularly on the Great Lakes. Accompanying this revival of effort scientific studies of food fishes were promoted by the governments, which resulted in learning how to propagate fishes artificially on a commercial scale, and thus restock depleted waters. With this movement, by which alone the fisheries of the Great Lakes and other inland waters have been maintained, the name of Spencer F. Baird (q.v.) is permanently associated. These methods, protected by stringent laws and policing, have kept a supply of shad, salmon and other anadromous fishes in our rivers; and sensible regulations are preserving the great sea-fisheries for cod, herring, mackerel and many southern species. Similarly the small lake and river fishes of local food value, or interesting to anglers, are now fairly well protected and replenished under the watchful care of State commissions and various anglers' associations. Regulative care is preserving well also the oyster, clam, crab and other shellfish supply.

Public sentiment and legal control had been steadily improving and were stimulated by the sudden perception, about 1875, that the bison, the wild pigeon, the prairie chicken and other well-known animals would soon become extinct unless rescued. At this time, too, sprang up the world-wide fashion of using stuffed birds, and their wings and feathers, in millinery. Ruthless slaughter of egrets, hummingbirds and every sort of song-bird as well as larger kinds began; and in 1885 the Audubon Society was organized to try to stem the tide of destruction and bring to the minds of women a knowledge of the economic as well as moral wrong involved in the fashion that was sacrificing bird-life all over the world. Out of this movement grew the National Association of Audubon Societies (q.v.), which has been the most powerful factor in bringing ail the birds of the country under the protection of good laws. Finally, it was largely instrumental, in co-operation with the United States Biological Survey and several sportsmen's organizations, in arranging a treaty with Canada covering the safety of migratory birds equally in both countries. This treaty, the way for which was paved by the United States Federal law of 1913, protecting all migratory birds, regardless of State lines, was finally ratified in 1916 — abolishing in this respect international lines — by the Congress of the United States and by the Parliament of the Dominion of Canada, both of which bodies arranged for its enforcement. The conservation ot American bird-life may now be said, therefore, to be in a satisfactory condition.

Meanwhile, under the sympathetic encouragement of President Roosevelt, continued by his successors, certain areas have been set apart from the public domain — in most cases tracts virtually useless for agriculture or grazing — as “Reservations” wherein the destruction of all living and harmless creatures is prohibited. This policy began with the seclusion of the animals of the Yellowstone, Glacier, Mount Olympus and other national parks. But these mountainous and forested places were not suited to the larger plains-animals, for which special reservations were soon prepared. The policy began with the Wichita National Game Preserve in southeastern Oklahoma, covering 57,120 acres. It contains a fenced bison-range of 9,760 acres, which in 1908 was stocked with a band of bisons by the New York Zoological Society; this band has since increased to nearer 100, and many antelopes and deer have been set free in similar great enclosures. Another bison-range was established in northern Montana and stocked in 1910 by the Bison Society, and a large herd is now in existence there. Minnesota has a great deer-preserve in a region of forest, ponds and rocks adjacent to the Canadian line; and a similar refuge for deer exists under State guardianship in the Adirondacks. Greater in extent than all these combined is the grand Canyon National Game Preserve, which embraces the whole region through which the Grand Canyon of the Rio Colorado has been carved. Its area is 2,333 square miles of mountains, plateaus and canyons inhabited by animals that are adapted to the local conditions and could hardly be preserved elsewhere.

For birds about 70 areas have been reserved, including many breeding resorts of sea-birds, on the coasts of the Pacific States, British Columbia and Alaska, heretofore raided by egg-hunters; large areas of marshes and lakes in the Pacific States and in the interior necessary as breeding- and feeding-places for western wildfowl and secure refuges for them on their migrations; and many heronries and resorts of shore-birds and ducks in Florida and elsewhere along the Gulf Coast. Similar reservations have been created in Canada and in the insular possessions of the United States. Besides this several of the States, and Provinces have established reserves for animals — notably New York, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Louisiana and the northern Rocky Mountain States; and in Canada, Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba and Alberta. The Canal Zone is as a whole a bird-reservation; this is the only American one not controlled by the Department of Agriculture and administered by the Biological Survey. It must not be forgotten, also, that the conscientious enterprise of out-door societies of various kinds and of individual citizens have made many private game-preserves and bird-sanctuaries, and in so doing have not only provided local refuges, but have interested and educated the people of the neighborhood. The education of the young and the general interest now felt in animal life in a scientific as well as a humane way is really the greatest safeguard wild life has.

In addition to the federal supervision now exercised in both the United States and Canada to prevent the waste of wild life while enjoying its proper utilization, every State and province has a board of commissioners charged with the same duty, and with the execution of the game laws. These public officials are both aided and criticized by several vigorous organizations, the most powerful of which are The American Game Protective and Propagation Association, The Wild Life Protective Association, The New York Zoological Society, The National Association of Audubon Societies, The Camp Fire Club of America and The Boone and Crockett Club. To this list might well be added the names of a large number of lesser organizations exerting a most useful vigilance and influence locally. Consult the publications of the United States Department of Agriculture, especially those of the Biological Survey and of the Canadian Conservation Commission; also the annual reports of the State game and fish commissions and of the societies listed above. The best guide to further study, and summary of results up to the beginning of the Great War, is to be found in William T. Hornaday's ‘Our Vanishing Wild Life’ (New York 1913).

Ernest Ingersoll.