Story written by David Lien, chairman of Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers
At the recent Backcountry Hunters & Anglers North American Rendezvous in Denver, we were joined by many dedicated and accomplished hunters and anglers from across the U.S. and Canada. But few are as well known and respected as Jim Posewitz, founder and director of Orion-the Hunters’ Institute. In fact, Jim received BHA’s “Mike Beagle Chairman’s Award” for his decades of work promoting wildlands conservation, free-flowing rivers and fair chase ethics in his home state of Montana and nationwide.
However, even a boatful of awards wouldn’t do justice to Jim’s lifetime of work on behalf of wildlands and wildlife. Posewitz is an army veteran with a Master of Science in Fish and Wildlife Management. He founded Orion-The Hunters’ Institute in 1993, after 32 years with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, and gave it a vital mission: “To protect the future of hunting, Orion provides leadership on ethical and philosophical issues to promote fair chase and responsible hunting.” In his writings about hunting ethics Jim emphasizes the following points:
1) The ethical hunter knows and respects the animals hunted, follows the law and behaves in a socially acceptable manner; 2) Fair chase is fundamental to ethical hunting because it addresses a balance that allows hunters to occasionally succeed, while animals generally avoid being taken; 3) Fair chase is important to hunting because the general public will not tolerate hunting under any other circumstance; and 4) Failure of following high, ethical standards and fair chase risks doing what is right for wildlife, risks the opportunity to hunt and risks the self-respect of the hunter.
Through Orion and his lifetime of ethical hunting practices and promotion, Posewitz is following in the footsteps of perhaps two of the world’s greatest hunter-conservationists: Theodore Roosevelt and Aldo Leopold. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, Roosevelt and Leopold led the way in promoting wildlands and wildlife conservation and hunting ethics– a tradition that Posewitz and Orion are defending and perpetuating for future generations. But the generally excellent hunting we enjoy today was by no means certain a hundred years ago.
Starting in the late 17th century, commercial hunters and trappers began to fan out across the North American continent, systematically stripping the land of its wildlife. The passenger pigeon population famously declined from probably a few billion in the mid-19th century to zero in 1900, when the last wild pigeon was shot. Buffalo nearly suffered a similar fate. “The game population almost collapsed,” said Nicholas Throckmorton, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It’s estimated that there were only about 30,000 turkeys, 12,000 pronghorns and 40,000 elk left in the U.S.
Reform didn’t come until the early 1900s, when individual conservationists—led by President Theodore Roosevelt—pushed federal and state governments to begin enacting a set of laws that collectively became known as the North American Model of Wildlife Management. Congress joined the effort to protect game with the passage of the Lacey Act in 1900, which outlawed market hunting. The legislation restricted the sale of meat and fur from wild animals, effectively curbing the commercial hunting market.
The North American Model also uses excise taxes on hunting/fishing equipment and license fees to pay for habitat improvement, and to fund fish and game management. Although the money comes almost exclusively from hunters and anglers, it benefits all Americans. The nation’s 34 million hunters and anglers pay $1.75 billion annually for wildlife conservation.
In 1905 Theodore Roosevelt said, “The genuine sportsman is by all odds the most important factor in keeping wild creatures from total extinction.” According to Aldo Leopold, in “Game Management”(1933), because of the “Roosevelt Doctrine” of conservation, the “game hog” and the “market hunter” were “duly pilloried in the press and banquet hall, and to some extent in field and wood, but the game supply continued to wane.”
In 1928 Leopold accepted a position with the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute (SAAMI), which offered to fund a national survey of game conditions. Although the mission sounds tame today, it represented the nation’s first systematic effort to bring scientific principles to bear on the study of wild game. In 1933 the University of Wisconsin made Leopold the country’s first professor of game management.
In the late 1800s, many states formed wildlife agencies charged with enforcing game laws. But it wasn’t until the 1930s that Aldo Leopold basically invented the field of scientific wildlife management at the University of Wisconsin, which spread to universities across the country. Many students were trained in the principles of managing wildlife and state agencies hired them. During the late 1950s/early 1960s, one such student was Jim Posewitz, and in “Beyond Fair Chase” Posewitz lists five important things about our role as hunters:
• The opportunity and privilege to hunt is ours by virtue of our citizenship.
• The animals we hunt are the result of conservation efforts of recreational hunters who stopped market hunting and commerce in wildlife.
• These early hunters began the restoration and conservation of wildlife that continues to this day.
• We have a responsibility to future generations to see to the conservation of the animals we hunt.
• We have the responsibility to be safe and ethical hunters.
The single most critical element facing the future of hunting is the continued public acceptance of recreational hunting. When hunting is viewed as a fair and ethical endeavor in support of science-based game management programs, the voting majority (non-hunters) accept hunting. When hunting is viewed as unfair, unethical and disrespectful to wildlife, these favorable attitudes turn against hunting.
Great hunter/conservationists like Theodore Roosevelt, Aldo Leopold and Jim Posewitz have laid the foundation for our present-day ethical, fair-chase hunting practices and related laws/regulations. It’s up to us to follow in their footsteps and continue their work, so that we may always keep the “hunt” in hunting.
This story written by David Lien. Lien is a former air force officer, chairman of the Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers and author of Age-Old Quests II: Hunting, Climbing & Trekking.