In Which Big Game and Eugenics Go To Washington: or, Environmentalism Is Born (Part One)

In the aftermath of a rollicking dinner party in 1887, Teddy Roosevelt and his friends decided to start a club. It would be devoted to their shared passions: the thrill of the chase, pitting nature against human daring and ingenuity – a club for big...

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Oct 15 2012, 1:00pm

In the aftermath of a rollicking dinner party in 1887, Teddy Roosevelt and his friends decided to start a club. It would be devoted to their shared passions: the thrill of the chase, pitting nature against human daring and ingenuity – a club for big game hunters. Members would gather to share their tales of stalking majestic beasts across the unmapped wilderness. They named it the Boone and Crockett Club, after America’s most legendary gun-toting pioneers. Their aim was "to promote manly sport with the rifle." Instead, this group of wealthy, patrician hunters wound up spearheading the environmental conservation movement in America.

It’s easy to see how their legacy got buried: by 1970, the student activists and Rachel Carson acolytes who organized the first Earth Day didn’t want dead white men in safari gear as their mascots. But it was those dead rich white guys who extended the duties of the United States government to include meaningful environmental regulation. Through sheer political clout, they engineered the preservation of natural resources that were considered inexhaustible by the overwhelming majority of Americans. This is a complicated legacy: the members of the Boone and Crockett club also liked to tromp around in pith helmets and kill endangered grizzly bears.

With so much attention focused on the disproportionate power of today’s 1 percent, it’s not hard to envision the kind of people who joined the Boone and Crockett Club in 1887. Membership was limited to one hundred men of "good breeding" and independent wealth who had killed at least three different species of North American big game. They upheld a strict code of gentlemanly honor: hunters could only shoot full-grown male animals after giving "fair chase." A gentleman doesn’t hunt for crass economic reasons – certainly not to feed a family or make fur coats. A gentleman hunts for sport.

The Boone and Crockett Club included a cross-section of American 19th power-brokers: senators, cabinet officials, explorers, industrial tycoons, the Vice President of the United States. These were the people who got things done; representative democracy was a mild annoyance. When a young New York lawyer named Madison Grant sought admission in 1893, it was an easy call: he was from an important family, the descendant of early Dutch settlers, educated in Europe (where he visited every natural history museum and zoo on the continent) and at Yale (where he hobnobbed in smoke-filled rooms). He also really liked to hunt.
Moose trophy, Alaska, 1897

Grant had graduated from Columbia Law School and in 1890 opened his own law firm on Wall Street. But he didn’t need the money, and quickly got tired of working. Instead, he became a fixture at New York’s upper-crust clubs and society gatherings. When he ran out of elite clubs to join, he started a new one. Tthe late-19th century was a time of prodigious joining — Grant’s biographer, Jonathan Spiro, calls this network of powerful men who joined each others’ clubs the "interlocking directorate.") It was devoted to a particular issue that preoccupied many of his high-society friends: New York in the 1880s and '90s was swarming with immigrants. The Society of Colonial Wars, as Grant’s club was called, would fight back against this tide by celebrating the genealogy of the "old American stock" and demanding proper veneration for the nation’s "founders" and their heirs (as quoted in Spiro’s 2009 biography of Grant).

The Society of Colonial Wars was just a junior version of the program of eugenics and scientific racism that Grant would later advocate. What does it have to do with our national parks? When Grant wasn’t busy tracing the bloodlines of America’s power elite, he was off in the wilderness stalking elk and grizzly bears. New York was grimy, corrupt, degenerating. The forest was pure and pristine. It was also exclusive: only real men could handle the rigor of a weeks-long pursuit across rugged terrain, and only wealthy men could travel from New York to Alaska and back with trunks full of hunting gear and trophies.

For Grant, conservation and eugenics were one and the same.
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But something about hunting, and animals, and the "old American stock" had been bothering Madison Grant since his tour of Europe. A self-taught natural history enthusiast, he closely studied Darwin’s theory of evolution. Although Darwin explained long-term evolutionary change using natural selection, he also studied rapid changes produced by artificial (human) selection: people systematically breed animals with desirable traits, producing new and better varieties. Grant, being a gentleman hunter, didn’t deal with domesticated animals like chickens or cows. What he saw around him in the wilderness was a different kind of artificial selection: the largest and strongest animals were the ones that big game hunters killed. Dead animals would never pass on their desirable traits. This realization was formative for Grant – a fear was planted in his mind that would grow into an all-consuming mission. He feared that the noblest, most virtuous traits could be eliminated from a species due to human folly. Over-hunting would lead to the degeneration of America’s wildlife.

When he returned from the field to the city, Grant looked around him and saw crowds of new immigrants. In the Darwinian world, people were no different from animals: they bred selectively and passed on their traits; immigrants, as the wisdom of the day had it, reproduced very fast. Thus, the great American patrician was a threatened population, Grant wrote in his 1928 eugenics opus The Passing of the Great Race. Throughout his life, Grant would take up the cause of majestic, noble, endangered animals because he felt himself to be one of them. For Grant, conservation and eugenics were one and the same.

Despite, or perhaps because of, his odd identification with endangered wildlife, Grant kept hunting. He killed animals because he respected them, because he believed they were his only worthy match. He desperately needed animals to prove himself a well-bred specimen of American masculinity. Unmarried, childless, leeching off the family fortune, Grant was a perfect model of the degenerating "old stock" that he self-righteously denounced.

Of course, there are less symbolically-fraught kinds of hunting: people hunt for food. In 1900, many Americans eked out a livelihood as hunters in remote and genuinely wild parts of the country, selling meat and furs to wholesalers who brought goods to market in the cities. For these hunters, nature was treacherous, antagonistic, but also inexhaustible. Grant called these people "market hunters." They hunted indiscriminately, on a mass scale, killing female and young animals, clearing brush, using dynamite and hounds. And altering the environment itself to get at their quarry.

Although the bounty of the West seemed limitless, these market hunting practices were in fact wiping out wild animal populations. As Madison Grant observed, everything from grizzly bears to ruffled grouse was becoming scarce. Passenger pigeons, once numbering in the billions, had been hunted to extinction by 1914.

“The law must be in advance of public opinion, but in the public’s true and permanent interest."
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Grant saw what was happening because he had the luxury of seeing it: the market hunters had to be stopped to save the animals; many men had to lose their livelihoods so that Grant would still be able to track majestic trophy bucks through the pristine wilderness. He couched it in these terms: men of power, prominence, and superior intelligence were obligated to regulate the nation’s resources, protect them from the shortsighted plebeian masses, as a natural inheritance for future generations.

If there was one thing that Grant was equipped to do, it was imposing enlightened top-down policies on the lower classes. Through the Boon and Crockett Club, he befriended George Grinell, known in his time as the father of American conservation. He also befriended Teddy Roosevelt. The three men transformed the Boon and Crockett Club from a venue for swapping hunting yarns to an engine for progressive conservation legislation.

Grant started small: in 1897, he went to Albany and single-handedly pushed the Adirondack Deer Law through the recalcitrant New York legislature. This was the first wildlife protection act in the United States, and rural New Yorkers were outraged that some rich guy from the city could deny them the right to hunt on their own land. Grant convinced legislators to go against the wishes of their own constituents, a skill that he would refine as time went on.
Teddy Roosevelt and pal

Grant’s next target was Alaska. In 1901, his friend, the explorer Andrew J. Stone, discovered a new species of Alaskan caribou which he named in Grant’s honor, Rangifer granti. In a symbolic realization of Grant’s worst nightmares, his eponymous caribou was nearly extinct due to market hunting. The Alaskan wilderness was being plundered wholesale in the wake of the Gold Rush, and saving it would require – in the progressive tradition – federal legislation. So Grant went to Washington, and spoke with Congress (which happened to include many Boon and Crockett Club members). Alaskans, he argued, needed to be protected from themselves: "the law must be in advance of public opinion, but in the public’s true and permanent interest." In 1902, President Roosevelt signed the Alaska Game Law, which prohibited the commercial killing of all game animals, banned the export of wild meat, and established hunting seasons and kill limits.

For the next five years, Grant replicated his triumph across North America. He pushed through No-Sale-of-Game Laws, the Migratory Bird Law of 1913, various state-level hunting regulations, and exported his policies to Canada and South Africa. Within a decade, Grant had enshrined the progressive idea that the government must regulate wildlife – and the American public, in a remarkable shift, jumped on board with this entirely novel conception of wild animals as part of recreation, leisure, and nature appreciation rather than as commodities.

Look for Part II tomorrow on Motherboard.

This article draws heavily upon Jonathan Spiro’s biography of Madison Grant: Defending the Master Race: Conservation, Eugenics, and the Legacy of Madison Grant (University Press of New England, 2009), as well as Garland E. Allen’s “Culling the Herd’: Eugenics and the Conservation Movement in the United States, 1900-1940” (Journal of the History of Biology, March 2012), and Madison Grant’s tracts, The Passing of the Great Race (Scribner, 1918) and “The Racial Transformation of America” (The North American Review, Vol. 219, March 1924) and “Vanishing Moose” (Century Magazine, January 1894). The Library of Congress digital collection, “The Evolution of the Conservation Movement”, contains a detailed timeline and a number of primary sources on American conservation throughout the nineteenth century; more on the history of the U.S. Forest Service can be found at the “Forest History Society”.