The Hunter-Conservationist: Theodore Roosevelt
“In hunting, the finding and killing of the game is after all but a part of the whole. The free, self-reliant, adventurous life, with its rugged and stalwart democracy; the wild surroundings, the grand beauty of the scenery, the chance to study the ways and habits of the woodland creatures – all these unite to give to the career of the wilderness hunter its peculiar charm. The chase is among the best of all national pastimes; it cultivates that vigorous manliness for the lack of which in a nation, as in an individual, the possession of no other qualities can possibly atone.” – Theodore Roosevelt, excerpted from The Wilderness Hunter
Theodore Roosevelt grew up in the Dakotas where buffalo roamed in the millions. He went to the Dark Continent and brought back thousands of species of plants, animals and birds that were largely unknown to the American public. He and his son Kermit charted nearly one thousand miles of the River of Doubt that winds through the jungles of South America. And then he saw the demise of those same buffalo that could make the landscape go black with their sheer numbers. Though the word was not used in the same context as it is today, Teddy Roosevelt was a “conservationist.” In fact, he’s one of the forefathers of conservation. Without those early efforts by TR and others, we might not be so fortunate to know hunting as we have in our life times.
TR’s earliest hunting adventures took place in the Maine woods in the 1880s though the vastness of the west took the strongest grip on him as a hunter. He ventured through the mountains tracking elk, grizzlies and other animals through the rugged landscape, adventures he would chronicle in his book Hunting Trips of a Ranchman, one of several he wrote detailing his love for the outdoors.
In British East Africa (modern-day Kenya) he and Kermit trekked some 2,500 miles over the course of 11 months and brought back over 11,000 specimens from the mosquito to the rhino, which formed the basis for the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum collection. Believe it or not, those numbers were low compared to other hunters of the time. For example, TR and Kermit killed less than 20 elephants on their entire African journey while other white hunters like Karamojo Bell were said to have killed over a thousand. (Bell was employed by wealthy British landowners who acquired his services to distinguish herds of elephants to clear them out for the sake of creating working plantations.) This trip took place as soon as his presidency ended. Talk about a way to blow off some steam from a stressful job.
Ultimately, what TR did for you and me was create conservation as we now know it, now practice it. He witnessed the biggest conservation catastrophe in the history of the United States – the mass slaughter of buffalo – and dedicated a lot of his life to protecting what natural resources were left. As president, he provided federal protection for nearly 230 million acres of land, created the National Parks system and appointed the first Chief of the U.S. Forestry Service, Gifford Pinchot; and founded the Boone & Crockett Club.
Hats off to TR. With the hunting season now open in several parts of the country, we ought to take a moment to appreciate the beauty of the landscape and be thankful for the bounty of our harvest. While the world may never know your name or my name in the same light as Theodore Roosevelt, let’s all try to do our part as a conservationist to preserve the wildlife of this great nation.