Scaring or Scolding? Early Conservationists Tried Both
Posted by Richard Conniff on January 18, 2011
In the early 19th century, long before the rise of the conservation movement, one or two naturalists were already seeing that humans could drive down populations of certain species. And they mounted conservation efforts to protect them.
In the autumn of 1807, for instance, the residents of Philadelphia were slaughtering and eating robins in such vast numbers that ornithologist Alexander Wilson resorted to conservation by false rumor. He planted a story in local newspapers advising cautious readers that the pokeberries the birds were then gorging on made their flesh unwholesome, and he was “righteously elated,” according to one historian, when his story knocked the bottom out of the robin market.
Another Philadelphia man, the entomologist Thomas Say, traveled to the Rocky Mountains in 1819 and 1820. On route, he was plainly disgusted by whitenewcomers to the West: “It is common for hunters to attack large herds of [bison], and having slaughtered as many as they are able, from mere wantonness and love of this barbarous sport, to leave the carcasses to be devoured by the wolves and birds of prey; thousands are slaughtered yearly, of which no part is saved except the tongues. This inconsiderate and cruel practice, is undoubtedly the principal reason why the bison flies so far and so soon from the neighbourhood of our frontier settlements.”
This was 30 years before the first vague stirrings of the American conservation movement. Naturalists elsewhere were still earnestly praying for the wilderness to be tamed and Christianized. But Say was already advocating “some law for the preservation of game … rigidly enforced” to prevent “the wanton destruction of these valuable animals, by the white hunters.”