In 1900, the last known passenger pigeon to be hunted was supposedly shot by a boy in Ohio. Seven decades later, he said he had no idea what type of bird it was at the time. The species, which once traveled in flocks so vast that they darkened the sky for hours at a time, had served as a plentiful and cheap source of protein for 19th century settlers making their way westward. While early Americans hunted the birds for food, professional hunters later massacred them for sport. All the while, the pigeon’s nesting territory and forest habitat were gradually eliminated as white men plowed their way to manifest destiny. In 1914, when the last captive pigeon died in the Cincinnati Zoo, a species that had once numbered in the billions was extinct.
Out of this era came a new approach to managing wildlife—or rather, the first attempts to bother with a concerted approach to managing wildlife at all. European settlers who had discovered a continent teeming with game saw little need to regulate who could take how much and from where. Wildlife was an open-access resource, a “commons” to be exploited with no regard to notions of scarcity. But zero limits on hunting, combined with widespread habitat loss from clearing lands for agriculture and other uses, took their toll. We sent the passenger pigeon to extinction; slaughtered American bison indiscriminately on the plains; extirpated white-tailed deer from many eastern areas; and decimated populations of beavers, minks, and other valuable and trappable furbearers.
With many fauna depleted from sea to sea, hunters and early conservationists began to develop the “North American model” of wildlife management. One of its key tenets: eliminating markets for game and wildlife products. As a definitive report published by The Wildlife Society recounts, old boys’ networks like the one found at the New York Sportsmen’s Club played a significant role: “The club’s membership included many influential lawyers, judges, and politicians, who often acted in their official positions on behalf of the club. At a time when there was limited or no government oversight on wildlife, they drafted, led efforts to enact, and enforced the first game laws directed against market hunting.”
Eventually, states began to regulate the taking of wildlife. They instituted license systems, bag limits, and hunting seasons. The federal government played its part as well, via the Lacey Act of 1900, which effectively outlawed commercial hunting nationwide “and remains the most powerful legal tool to combat this activity,” as the report put it.
The upshot is that selling products from wild game animals has effectively been illegal for more than a century, a source of great pride among many sportsmen and -women. That status quo suits most environmentalists, too. Regulation managed to close off the commons, and many species rebounded. It’s an oft-touted conservation success story. Yet it has brought about new problems that stem from a new reality: wildlife overabundance.
Read this entire piece in Reason magazine.