Our Vanishing Wildlife

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Our Vanishing Wildlife

Book Excerpt

By: William Temple Hornaday

Date: 1913

Source: Hornaday, William Temple. Our Vanishing Wildlife. New York: New York Zoological Society, 1913.

About the Author: Born to William Temple Hornaday Sr. and Martha Hornaday on December 1, 1854 in Hedricks County, near Plainfield, Indiana, William Temple Hornaday (1854–1937) was a prominent naturalist and conservationist of his time in the United States. Hornaday was a keen nature enthusiast and wildlife lover since his youth. After graduating from Iowa State University, he became actively involved with the conservation movement (1850–1924) in the United States. As a professional, he was known to be a multifaceted personality and was associated with several societies, zoos, and conservation associations in the United States. He was instrumental in many conservation efforts to save endangered species in the United States, such as the American bison, the fur seal, the prong-horned antelope, and the now-extinct passenger pigeon. He also served in a range of reputable organizations such as the National Science Establishment in New York, the United States National Museum, The Washington National Zoo, The Bronx Zoo in New York, and the American Bison Society. Hornaday wrote nearly thirty books on nature and wildlife such as The Birds of America, The Quadrupeds of America, and Explorations and Adventures in Equatorial Africa. He also received many honors during his lifetime and even after his death. President Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919) named the Hornaday range in 1908 in his honor. In 1930, he was elected to the National Wildlife Federation Conservation Hall of Fame.


The United States has been gifted with immense natural beauty, varied species of wildlife, flora and fauna, pristine rivers, streams, lakes, and scenic landscape. Before the colonization of the United States in the sixteenth century, its natural beauty and wildlife was virtually unharmed and untouched. The vast frontiers were tribal lands, and the various tribes in essence sustained themselves from whatever the land provided. They were known to have lived in harmony with nature and the environment.

The first settlers began arriving by the early 1600s. This was followed by waves of migrant population from Britain and Europe. The plentiful lands, abundant wildlife, and the wild frontiers beckoned too many settlers at that time. Subsequently, outings for game became popular means of leisure and an easy source of food. Settlers would often kill birds and wild animals for commercial trade of fur and leather, and at times even for pleasure. Over the next two centuries or so, millions of varied species of birds such as robins, quails, grouse, pigeons and wildlife like bison, deer, goat, seals, and many others are thought to have been killed.

Our Vanishing Wildlife was written at the height of the conservation movement in 1913. In this book, Hornaday describes the abundance of American wildlife in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, and depicts the extermination of wildlife that had become a matter of routine in the United States.




                  CHAPTER 1

THE FORMER ABUNDANCE OF WILDLIFE … "Abundance" is the word with which to describe the original animal life that stocked our country, and all North America, only a short half-century ago. Throughout every state, on every shoreline, in all the millions of fresh water lakes, ponds and rivers, on every mountain range, in every forest, and even on every desert, the wild flocks and herds held sway. It was impossible to go beyond the settled haunts of civilized man and escape them.

It was a full century after the complete settlement of New England and the Virginia colonies that the wonderful big-game fauna of the great plains and Rocky Mountains was really discovered; but the bison millions, the antelope millions, the mule deer, the mountain sheep and mountain goat were there, all the time. In the early days, the millions of pinnated grouse and quail of the central states attracted no serious attention from the American people-at-large; but they lived and flourished just the same, far down in the seventies, when the greedy market gunners system-atically slaughtered them, and barreled them up for "the market," while the foolish farmers calmly permitted them to do it.

We obtain the best of our history of the former abundance of North American wild life first from the pages of Audubon and Wilson; next, from the records left by such pioneers as Lewis and Clark, and last from the testimony of living men. To all this we can, many of us, add observations of our own.

To me the most striking fact that stands forth in the story of American wild life one hundred years ago is the wide extent and thoroughness of its distribution. Wide as our country is, and marvelous as it is in the diversity of its climates, its soils, its topography, its flora, its riches and its poverty. Nature gave to each square mile and to each acre a generous quota of wild creatures, according to its ability to maintain living things. No pioneer ever pushed so far, or into regions so difficult or so remote, that he did not find awaiting him a host of birds and beasts. Sometimes the pioneer was not a good hunter; usually he was a stupid fisherman; but the "game" was there, nevertheless. The time was when every farm had its quota.

The part that the wild life of America played in the settlement and development of this continent was so far-reaching in extent, and so enormous in potential value, that it fairly staggers the imagination. From the landing of the Pilgrims down to the present hour the wild game has been the mainstay and the resource against starvation of the pathfinder, the settler, the prospector, and at times even the railroad-builder. In view of what the bison millions did for the Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming, Kansas and Texas, it is only right and square that those states should now do something for the perpetual preservation of the bison species and all other big game that needs help.

For years and years, the antelope millions of the Montana and Wyoming grass-lands fed the scout and Indian-fighter, freighter, cowboy and surveyor, ranchman and sheep-herder; but thus far I have yet to hear of one Western state that has ever spent one penny directly for the preservation of the antelope! And to-day we are in a hand-to-hand fight in Congress, and in Montana, with the Wool-Growers Association, which maintains in Washington a keen lobbyist to keep aloft the tariff on wool, and prevent Congress from taking 15 square miles of grass lands on Snow Creek, Montana, for a National Antelope Preserve. All that the wool-growers want is the entire earth, all to themselves. Mr. McClure, the Secretary of the Association says:

"The proper place in which to preserve the big game of the West is in city parks, where it can be protected."

To the colonist of the East and pioneer of the West, the white-tailed deer was an ever present help in time of trouble. Without this omnipresent animal, and the supply of good meat that each white flag represented, the commissariat difficulties of the settlers who won the country as far westward as Indiana would have been many times greater than they were. The backwoods Pilgrim's progress was like this:

Trail, deer; cabin, deer; clearing; bear, corn, deer; hogs, deer; cattle, wheat, independence.

And yet, how many men are there to-day, out of our ninety millions of Americans and pseudo-Americans, who remember with any feeling of gratitude the part played in American history by the white-tailed deer? Very few! How many Americans are there in our land who now preserve that deer for sentimental reasons, and because his forbears were nation-builders? As a matter of fact, are there any?

On every eastern pioneer's monument, the white-tailed deer should figure; and on those of the Great West, the bison and the antelope should be cast in enduring bronze, "lest we forget!"

The game birds of America played a different part from that of the deer, antelope and bison. In the early days, shotguns were few, and shot was scarce and dear. The wild turkey and goose were the smallest birds on which a rifleman could afford to expend a bullet and a whole charge of powder. It was for this reason that the deer, bear, bison, and elk disappeared from the eastern United States while the game birds yet remained abundant. With the disappearance of the big game came the fat steer, hog and hominy, the wheat-field, fruit orchard and poultry galore.

The game birds of America, as a class and a mass, have not been swept away to ward off starvation or to rescue the perishing. Even back in the sixties and seventies, very, very few men of the North thought of killing prairie chickens, ducks and quail, snipe and woodcock, in order to keep the hunger wolf from the door. The process was too slow and uncertain; and besides, the really-poor man rarely had the gun and ammunition. Instead of attempting to live on birds, he hustled for the staple food products that the soil of his own farm could produce.

First, last and nearly all the time, the game birds of the United States as a whole, have been sacrificed on the altar of Rank Luxury, to tempt appetites that were tired of fried chicken and other farm delicacies. To-day, even the average poor man hunts birds for the joy of the outing, and the pampered epicures of the hotels and restaurants buy game birds, and eat small portions of them, solely to tempt jaded appetites. If there is such a thing as "class" legislation, it is that which permits a few sordid market-shooters to slaughter the birds of the whole people in order to sell them to a few epicures.

The game of a state belongs to the whole people of the state. The Supreme Court of the United States has so decided. (Geer vs. Connecticut). If it is abundant, it is a valuable asset. The great value of the game birds of America lies not in their meat pounds as they lie upon the table, but in the temptation they annually put before millions of field-weary farmers and desk-weary clerks and merchants to get into their beloved hunting togs, stalk out into the lap of Nature, and say "Begone, dull Care!"…

THE DUTY OF THE HOUR I have now said my say in behalf of wild life. Surely the path of duty toward the remnant of wild life is plain enough. Will those who read this book pass along my message that the hour for a revolution has struck? Will the millions of men commanded by General Apathy now arouse, before it is too late to act?

Will the true sportsmen rise up, and do their duty, bravely and unselfishly?

Will the people with wealth to give away do their duty toward wild life and humanity, fairly and generously?

Will the zoologists awake, leave their tables in their stone palaces of peace, and come out to the firing-line?

Will the lawmakers heed the handwriting on the wall, and make laws that represent the full discharge of their duty toward wild life and humanity?

Will the editors beat the alarm-gong, early and late, in season and out of season, until the people awake?

On the answers to these questions hang the fate of the wild creatures of the world—their preservation or their extermination.


Many wildlife species are becoming endangered or have become extinct because of the growing threat of civilization all around the world. Especially in the United States, since the days of settlement, many wildlife species have disappeared and are constantly endangered. Various species like the great auk, Pallas's cormorant, Eskimo curlew, Labrador duck, passenger pigeon, and the Carolina parakeet have become extinct in North America. Some other extinct species include the Santa Barbara song sparrow, dusky seaside sparrow, Bachman's warbler, Oahu thrush, Penasco chipmunk, giant deer mouse, Florida red wolf, Caribbean monk seal, Steller's Sea Cow, and the Eastern elk. Most of these species became endangered when the settlers started coming in to the country. This continued for over centuries for various reasons. For instance, though the American Bison was saved, the passenger pigeons (which have been extinct since the early twentieth century) were killed for the use of their feathers in the millinery industry.

Hornaday mentions in his book about the near extinction of the fur seal in the United States, which was targeted for its fur. By the nineteenth century, people had started questioning such endangerment. There were many who promoted the concept of conservation. William Hornaday's book assumes significance as it was written during this period and it addresses this very issue. During his time, Hornaday was instrumental in pushing forward regulation to prevent bird plumage (feathers of birds used for ornamental purposes) from use in the millinery industry (milliners are people who design and sell hats). Through the book and other means, he also worked hard to save the bison and the fur seal from extinction.

The subject matter of this book is relevant even today. There continues an alarming decline in wildlife numbers and extinction of several species at the hands of mankind. On the other hand, there has been growing awareness about the dangers posed to wildlife due to increased human activity and rapid urbanization of the countryside. Soon after the conservation movements of the early twentieth century, the U.S. Government formed various agencies to protect wildlife.

Agencies like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are charged with the task of wildlife conservation and protection in the United States. The U.S. EPA also runs the endangered species protection program for this purpose. Various federal as well as state legislations also exist in the United States to preserve and protect wildlife. Some of the notable regulations and treaties are the Endangered Species Act of 1972, the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), and the Wild Bird Conservation Act 1992. Earlier conservation measures include the Lacey Act (1900), the establishment of the National Park Service (1916), and the Norbeck-Andresen Migratory-Bird Conservation Act (1929).

In addition, numerous conservation efforts are underway to protect various endangered species such as the bald eagle, the grey wolf, the Nashville crayfish, and the red-cockaded woodpecker. Many species have even made a comeback from the brink of extinction. However, conservationists feel that much still needs to be done in this area before future generations can benefit from the fruits of these efforts.


Web sites

"Some of the Major Laws Protecting Endangered Wildlife." EarthTrust. 〈http://www.earthtrust.org/wlcurric/appen2.html〉 (accessed March 13, 2006).

Kurpis, Lauren. "Facts About Endangered Species." EndangeredSpecie.com. 〈http://www.endangeredspecie.com/Interesting_Facts.htm〉 (accessed March 13, 2006).

"Documentary Chronology of Selected Events in the Development of the American Conservation Movement, 1847–1920." Library of Congress. 〈http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/amrvhtml/cnchron6.html〉 (accessed March 13, 2006).

"History: William Temple Hornaday: Visionary of the National Zoo." Smithsonian National Zoological Park. 〈http://nationalzoo.si.edu/AboutUs/History/hornaday.cfm〉 (accessed March 13, 2006).

"Endangered and Threatened Species." U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 〈http://www.epa.gov/espp/coloring/especies.htm〉 (accessed March 13, 2006).

"EPA's Endangered Species Protection Program." U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 〈http://www.epa.gov/espp/coloring/cover2.htm〉 (accessed March 13, 2006).