The Invisible Conservationist

It's one of the cruel ironies of history. A hundred years ago, a loose group of hunters set out to save America's waterfowl. For more than a generation, they fought a desperate battle to set aside habitat, end market gunning, and protect migrating flocks in the spring. They faced intense opposition from organized business interests, state governments, and many members of Congress, but in the end, they prevailed. Only one of them, Teddy Roosevelt, is remembered in the history books. A few others like John Lacey, John Weeks, and George McLean are at least memorialized in laws that bear their names. Most have been forgotten. Men like George Shiras, Dan Anthony, and Gil Pearson go largely unrecognized by modern conservationists, and the unsung giant in this crew of anonymous benefactors of waterfowl is George Bird Grinnell.


Grinnell was born in Brooklyn in 1849, the eldest son of a successful New York businessman. The New York City of that era bore little resemblance to the urban jungle we now know. Young George hunted woodcock on a piece of real estate that is now on the corner of 157th Street and Broadway and shot ducks and geese on the bank of the Hudson River where Riverside Drive meets 165th Street today. When he was eleven, his family moved into Audubon Park, a piece of wild land owned by John James Audubon's widow. His contact with "Grandma" Audubon deepened his sporting appreciation of the outdoors and laid the foundation for a lifelong focus on conservation.


His father sent Grinnell to Yale over his strenuous objections, and as he was finishing his senior year, he heard of a fossil-collecting expedition headed for the West. The leader, Professor O.C, Marsh, accepted him as a volunteer, and in the summer of 1870, George headed for Wyoming Territory. He came back to the West again and again over the years, hunting elk and buffalo on the plains in 1872, accompanying George Custer on his 1874 expedition to the Black Hills, traveling with William Ludlow on his Yellowstone reconnaissance in 1875, and returning several more times to collect fossils and artifacts.

By 1880, he had witnessed many of the great wildlife slaughters of the nineteenth century. Apparently numberless flocks of passenger pigeons, one of the East's greatest landmarks in Grinnell's youth, tipped toward extinction in the 1870s. The Carolina parakeet was in free fall. In the West, the great southern herd of buffalo had been wiped out, and the northern herd was under siege. Pressure on all the West's big game was so intense that, in 1879, Grinnell speculated that their demise was inevitable.


After a decade of summer expeditions to the West and winters spent nurturing his father's business, Grinnell decided to make a change. For several years, he had been writing for FOREST AND STREAM, a hunting and fishing tabloid conceived and edited by Charles Hallock. In 1880, Grinnell bought Hallock's publication from Hallock and took over as editor. FOREST AND STREAM had championed the cause of conservation and sportsmanship under Hallock's leadership; Grinnell elevated these matters to the level of a holy war. He championed the newly established Yellowstone Park, assigning a correspondent to cover the rampant poaching of big game inside park boundaries. He was ultimately responsible for the protection of big game in Yellowstone. He advocated protection of the Adirondacks and pressed for sustainable management of the nation's forests.

The last known Labrador duck was killed on Long Island in 1875, an event that could barely have escaped Grinnell's attention. The decline and eventual extinction of that species may have given him an unusual insight into the pressures that had been brought to bear on waterfowl in the late nineteenth century. Whatever the reason, Grinnell took up the cause of waterfowl conservation almost as soon as he acquired FOREST AND STREAM.

At the time, few people would have believed that North American ducks were in any trouble. In 1881, two gunners on the Mississippi sent 3,900 mallards to the Chicago market; five days later, they shipped another 1,289. That same year, sale of wild game on the St. Louis market grossed $1 million. Against this background of abundance, Grinnell began a campaign against spring shooting of waterfowl. He returned to the subject in his editorials scores of times over the next decade, slowly gaining support as shooters on Chesapeake Bay, the Illinois River, and Nebraska's Platte valley noticed a significant decline in wildfowl.

In 1894, he took on another issue, the sale of game. As a founding member of the American Ornithological Union, Grinnell was in an excellent position to convince the rest of the influential AOU membership to support the proposal. Grinnell's ownership of FOREST AND STREAM led to an unexpected line of conservation influence. In the early 1880s, an avid young sportsman came to Grinnell's office with a book manuscript on hunting in the Dakotas. Grinnell reviewed the text and, when the author came back a week later, Grinnell told him that it wasn't a bad first effort from a person with so little experience in the West. The young hunter was incensed and demanded to know what Grinnell knew about western hunting. Grinnell proceeded to tell him. The hunter-author was Theodore Roosevelt.

This awkward initial encounter soon warmed into a fast friendship based on a mutual interest in hunting, natural history, and conservation. Roosevelt was an enthusiastic advocate of all these pastimes, but a careful study of the two men suggests that Grinnell was always at the cutting edge, well ahead of the younger Roosevelt. It isn't far-fetched to believe that Grinnell was Roosevelt's mentor in conservation matters, providing a foundation for the future President's views long before Gifford Pinchot came on the scene.

One early outcome of the acquaintance between Roosevelt and Pinchot was the formation of the Boone and Crockett Club in 1887. This elite hunting group included many of the patrician sportsmen in New York and Washington. The group championed the code of ethics for hunters and may have been the most active conservation organization of its day. It gave Grinnell yet another platform for the dissemination of his views.

Twenty years of Grinnell's unceasing work began to bear fruit just after the turn of the century. In 1900, John Lacey pushed a bill through Congress that made it illegal to transport illegally taken game across state borders. The Lacey Act bolstered state game laws at a time when wildlife law enforcement was poorly funded and lacked support from most average Americans. In 1903, then-President Roosevelt set aside Pelican Island, Florida as the nation's first true wildlife refuge. The refuge was intended to protect native breeding birds, but before T.R. left office, he established fifty-three more refuges to protect a host of native birds around the country. It was the first significant step toward protecting waterfowl habitat in the United States.

In 1904, Congressman George Shiras III of Pennsylvania introduced a bill that gave the federal government authority over waterfowl, including the right to close seasons and set bag limits. Shiras and other conservationists had recognized that the states were competing for ducks and geese. Efforts to protect waterfowl in one state were pointless if states to the north and

south continued to allow unlimited shooting. Shiras saw the issue as a matter or interstate commerce, an area the U.S. Constitution left to the federal government.

The debate over this revolutionary approach to conservation lasted fourteen years. Seven years after Shiras' initial proposal failed, Congressmen John Weeks of Massachusetts and Dan Anthony of Kansas along with Senator George McLean reintroduced the concept. In subsequent debate, the bill was expanded to protect all migratory birds, a move which broadened support. Camouflaged in the annual appropriations act, the Weeks-McLean Act became law in 1913. Opponents of the act attacked it as being unconstitutional, a gross distortion of the interstate commerce clause. A legal challenge seemed certain.

Enter one of the subtle legislative strategists of the time, Senator Elihu Root. While debate on the Weeks-McLean bill raged, Root decided to take another approach to the problem. He introduced a bill that allowed the President to negotiate international treaties for the protection of migratory birds. With Senator McLean's help, this bill also passed in 1913, laying the groundwork for the Migratory Bird Treaty. Grinnell's involvement in all these efforts will never be fully known. He went out of his way to avoid the marquis positions in the Boone and Crockett Club, even though he was the obvious choice as the group's leader. He preferred to work in the background, and there is little doubt that his efforts in influential circles galvanized action in all these areas. Those of us who treasure waterfowl today owe him a special debt. We can at least remember him.

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