Case: Old principles of conservation in a brave new world

AP file photo by Kathy Willens / Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Rider hat hangs on the horns of an elk head, shot by the nation’s 26th president, in the trophy room at Sagamore Hill, Roosevelt’s summer White House and his home in Oyster Bay, N.Y. Roosevelt helped lay the groundwork for conservation principles that still guide sportsmen today.

Three of the turkeys standing in a cut cornfield raise their heads. A battered pickup truck eases to a stop, and the motor goes quiet. A large gobbler is strutting for the hens in this little flock and seems unaware of the intrusion. It is 47 steps from truck window to turkeys, and three days before the hunting season opens. Unaffected by such details, the driver slides the long barrel of a 12-gauge shotgun out the window.

One week later in the same county, a man and his 15-year-old son are turkey hunting and having a grand day. They have several gobblers answer their calls, come close to bagging a turkey twice, and finally the son lowers the boom on a nice gobbler.

Both of these incidents resulted in the death of wild turkeys. The first was maybe unethical and certainly illegal, but in the grand scheme of things, did it really matter exactly how the turkey was taken out of the gene pool?

You tell me, class. This is why we are here today.

Lately there is more discussion about the guiding principles we have followed for more than 100 years with respect to wildlife conservation. Americans should be rightfully proud as these concepts, known as the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, are exclusively American, having originated here on our soil.

No less than early conservation leaders such as Teddy Roosevelt, Aldo Leopold and George Bird Grinnell helped form the beginnings of these principles.

Is it time to change any of these edicts that have guided us for so long?

I don't know, you tell me.

Wildlife belongs to the people.

This is the chief building block of the NAMWC and could have been the real reason we had that little tussle with King George back in 1776. The basic concept here is wildlife belongs to the people, not the king or the landowner. Now this sounds good, and it is good, but we see some problems in our modern hunting situations.

Even though the law says the deer and the turkeys and the pheasants do not belong to the landowner, he can cut off the access to these animals by posting his property. Several states have initiated public access programs to private land, and that is a good thing, but I wonder if those work better in the states in the less populated West rather than the more crowded East.

Hunting is an opportunity for all the public.

In many European countries, hunting was reserved for royalty. This principle goes hand in hand with the first one in that hunting is meant to be enjoyed by all the citizenry, not just the rich and the landed gentry. The first problem that springs up is, of course, money. How do the states pay for all the wildlife management programs? The Pittman-Robertson Act is an old law that levies tax on firearms and ammunition to be used in conservation programs. Many hunting advocates, and I am one of them, are now saying this should be expanded to include more hunting-related items such as decoys, boots, backpacks, knives, ATVs, etc. Most state fish and game agencies are desperate for more funding.

The use of scientific management for wildlife.

The idea that our wildlife should be managed on a scientific basis, not by public emotion or political influence, is very important. But if you have spent any time at all involved with a fish and game issue, you know that task is sometimes impossible. We have talked about this before. We hunters and fishermen hold tightly to what Granddad may have told us, scientific findings be danged. Politics almost always enters into the formation of policy on wildlife, and that is another hairy mess. We may be getting better in this area, but I am not sure.

Take wildlife for legitimate reasons only.

You would think there is less room for controversy in this area. In days of yore, it was simple: You weren't supposed to randomly blast away at a herd of buffalo from your passenger train or come back from the duck marsh with a wagon load of waterfowl. Today the edges for what may be ethical and unethical use of wildlife tend to be more blurred. I see problems with recent complaints about "trophy" hunting. We hunters have to stick together and police our own ranks; it ain't 1950 anymore, folks.

Prohibit the sale of wildlife.

Again, this was a simple idea in the early 1900s. Market hunting had drastically reduced certain game animals' numbers. Today most hunters would agree with this, but there are several inconsistencies. Farm-raised venison is widely available in some states, and horns, hides, antlers and skulls are often sold. Does all this harm anything? Maybe not.

Managing wildlife under the democratic rule of law.

Hopefully we agree that America has the best form of government in the world, but it is sometimes messy. Public hearings and the democratic process are intended to have all wildlife managed wisely and for the public good. In these modern times, antihunting groups can use petitions and sensational advertising to influence a growing nonhunter population. I am not sure there is any answer to this one; democracy is what it is.

The use of international resources.

This is mainly for waterfowl, but it is important. Ducks and geese (and a lot of migratory waterfowl we don't hunt) commonly fly between Canada, the United States and Mexico. It is important to have good habitat on both ends of the birds' migration. Many duck hunters today complain the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service does not concentrate on waterfowl as it once did. They say (as do I) that the USFWS needs to get off a myriad of frivolous projects and get back to the meat and potatoes — in this case, ducks.

Well, that was a whirlwind tour of the NAMWC, but we needed that refresher course. You've got to stay current with what is going on out there, boys and girls. It's not all camo patterns and worrying if your deer stand is in the right place.

What are your thoughts on all this? I'm betting you will let me know.

"Guns & Cornbread" is written by Larry Case, who lives in Fayette County, W.Va. You can write to him at