SuperTalk Mississippi
Opinion

Column: Taking a look at the origins of wildlife law

Deer
Photo courtesy of Mississippi State University

It was the rigorous advocacy of individuals and organized public efforts that led to the conservation movement in Mississippi and North America and changed public attitudes and perceptions of fish and wildlife. However, legal frameworks were essential for conservation to exceed and survive political change. In this column, we will explore the legal frameworks and underpinnings that supported conservation efforts, such as the Public Trust Doctrine and early American wildlife laws.

The development of conservation policy can be traced back to early civilizations. For example, the first record of written policies regarding wildlife management was by Marco Polo. He noted in his diaries that Kublai Khan (circa 1259-1294 A.D.) stated that: (1) There would be no hunting from March through October, the breeding period, (2) Food plots would be established, (3) A winter feeding program would be maintained, and (4) Cover would be managed.

Equitable access to hunting land is a foundation for one of the longest-standing and most effective approaches to conservation. This approach is known today as the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation. Equitable access to hunting land means the ability of a person who doesn’t own land to access land to hunt without regard to economic status.

What happened in England with hunting, as well as the ownership of firearms, was the situation in the minds of the framers of the United States Constitution when the Bill of Rights was written. The English law pertaining to hunting incorporated royal prerogative. Lands were held by the king and he had the right to hunt anywhere.

The original English Game Acts restricted hunting to the king and higher nobility. Therefore, the average person would be less skilled with a weapon, and less apt to oppose the government. Later Game Acts restricted hunting to major landowners.

The most dramatic change in the English Game Acts came after the English Civil War of the 1650s. The king was beheaded and his sons were driven into exile. The king’s son eventually returned as the next king, and part of his revenge was the Game Act of 1671, which prohibited people from owning firearms.

In America, colonists and their governments faced different circumstances. English, French, Spanish, and Dutch colonies attacked each other. Native Americans raided all of them, and dangerous wildlife such as bears, mountain lions, and wolves were common. As such, the early colonies encouraged gun ownership by providing liberal hunting rights.

Measures to bolster the population of white-tailed deer, a staple in the diet of Colonial America, were undertaken as early as the 1630s in the form of bounties on predators. By 1646, with white-tailed deer herd numbers not responding, Rhode Island enacted America’s first closed season on deer with no hunting allowed between May 1 and November 1 and a fine for any violation. In 1699, Virginia also established a closed season with no hunting from February 1 through July 31. The fine for violation of this law was a hefty 500 pounds of tobacco.

Unfortunately, the development, maintenance, and enforcement of many early wildlife policies worked better on paper than in practice. By 1738, despite the obstacles, separate seasons had been established for bucks versus does and fawns, and the fines were converted to 20 shillings. There was the added stipulation that if a fine was not paid within six months the offender would receive 20 lashes.

In the colonies, hunting and gun ownership were seen as rights, not a component of royal prerogative or privilege. All these rights were amplified by the American Revolution (1775-1783) in which the citizen soldier using his own gun successfully fought the best army on earth. This was the same time my family had a flintlock and bayonet factory in North Carolina, making weapons for the Continental Army.

The American people eventually settled on a Constitution in 1787. However, it lacked a Bill of Rights. Many powerful people at the time criticized the Constitution because it gave powers to the government but had no rights to protect the people.

In 1789, the first Congress proposed what became our Bill of Rights. Several states were demanding a Bill of Rights as a condition of ratifying the original Constitution. The Bill of Rights contained the Second Amendment which guaranteed a right to keep and bear arms.

Hunting as a means of survival was eventually accompanied by increasingly heavy commercial demands on the white-tailed deer resource. A trade in deer hides developed. Between 1698 and 1715, records indicate that Virginia annually exported approximately 14,000 hides to Europe. In a single year (1748), 160,000 deer hides were sent to England from South Carolina. Additionally, market hunting for deer to feed a growing nation became widespread. These are but a few examples of the extensive exploitation of a dwindling resource.

While hunting was needed for survival in the colonies, several people were interested in the scientific aspect of wildlife. The study of natural resources began in North America about the time the United States was founded in 1776 when William Bartram, an American naturalist, traveled throughout the Eastern United States, including Mississippi, to describe its flora and fauna.

It continued in the early 1800s when naturalist John James Audubon spent considerable time studying and drawing birds. Audubon was born in what is now known as Haiti but was raised by his stepmother in France. At the age of 18, he was sent to America, in part to escape being drafted into Napoleon’s army, where he hunted, studied, and drew birds.

In 1847, Congressman George Perkins Marsh of Vermont delivered a speech calling attention to the destructive impact of human activity on the land. He is considered by some to be America’s first “conservationist.”

Concern for wildlife continued, and in 1869, the American Museum of Natural History was founded in New York to showcase America’s dwindling natural resources, especially its fauna.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of SuperTalk Mississippi Media.

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