Passenger pigeons were once so abundant in North America that their flocks blocked the sun for days as they passed. Individual flocks may have numbered up to 12 billion. The North American population may have numbered as many as 50 billion.
“We killed them all,” said Shane Mahoney, an authority on wildlife who has written extensively for both popular and academic publications.
Mahoney spoke to an audience that included wildlife officials from 17 African nations and state and federal conservation wardens from about 30 states on the “North American Wildlife Model” – how wildlife in North America have been managed.
He acknowledged that these methods may not be the best for every country. “No single model or approach to natural resources is going to meet every circumstance,” he said.
There is global concern for population declines among several species of African wildlife, including elephants, lions and rhinoceroses, but by the late 1800s many North American species had been reduced to much smaller populations, mostly because of commercial exploitation. As rail lines were built it became easier to ship wildlife to eastern markets.
Bison were reduced from 20 or 30 million animals to less than 100. Elk were reduced to a small population in Yellowstone National Park where they had to be guarded by the U.S. Cavalry to keep poachers from killing what remained. Wild turkeys were down to a few thousand.
The key to ending the downward spiral was to stop the commercial sales of wildlife for meat and feathers.
“A minority of people rose to care about wildlife, and rose against impossible odds,” he said.
Teddy Roosevelt and a small number of influential men were able to get laws passed protecting wildlife. They were supported by sport hunters and by women who spoke against a fashion trend of the day where women’s hats were decorated with egret feathers. Egrets and other large wading birds were nearly hunted to extinction for their feathers.
We were unable to save the passenger species, but the good news is that many species made remarkable recoveries.
Wild turkeys, Canada geese, white-tailed deer and elk are now abundant, as are egrets and herons.
In 1916 the U.S. and Canada signed the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, protecting birds that migrate through both countries and allowing for the joint management of hunted species such as ducks and geese.
The rising acceptance of science led to more scientific methods of wildlife management, although Mahoney acknowledged that the current emphasis on science in management may be coming at the expense of traditional, local “deep knowledge.” “It’s not enough to have fancy radio collars,” he said.
Some African wildlife officials had similar concerns that traditional knowledge is being ignored and lost in today’s wildlife management.
Mahoney acknowledged that there was a cultural extinction in North America with languages and cultural traditions, including wildlife knowledge was lost as white settlement advanced quickly westward.
Canada is currently involved in a process where about half of the land in the country will be jointly managed by the Canadian government and First Nations, Mahoney said.
Another criticism of the North American model is that it focuses too much on large animals popular with hunters. Mahoney conceded that the current model of wildlife protection was primarily founded by hunters, but it was not the intention to protect only hunted species. Teddy Roosevelt, who did more to protect wildlife and wild places in North America than anyone, was an avid bird watcher as well as a hunter, he said. While all Americans contribute to national parks and wildlife to some degree through taxes, sport hunters have been a major source of funding for wildlife and for the law enforcement that protects wildlife through license fees and through excise taxes placed on sporting equipment and ammunition in the 1930s, he said. Wild areas purchased with funds from hunters have benefitted a variety of wildlife, not just hunted species, he noted.
Mahoney notes that the percentage of the North American population who hunt and buy licenses or duck stamps is declining, and North America will need to find new ways of paying for wildlife in the future.
Today North Americans are increasingly living in urban areas and getting away from the lifestyle that led to the North American model, yet a fascination with wildlife persists. We now have talking lizards selling insurance on the television.
“All of us, great ready for a brave new world,” he advised.