A century ago members of the Canadian and U.S. elite created a gold standard in wildlife conservation, one that is quickly fading from memory.
A great cultural achievement of North American society is the creation of a uniquely successful system of wildlife conservation. Now a century old, the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation brought back species from near extinction, thus restoring in good part the continent’s biodiversity. That feat might be the greatest environmental success story of the 20th century. It not only met today’s ecological Holy Grail – the “sustainable development” of a natural resource – it exceeded it, by steadily increasing wildlife stocks throughout the century.
The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation is continental in scope. The same basic policies govern the fate of wildlife in Canada as in the United States. This is remarkable: Canada, a loyal colony of Great Britain, followed the U.S., not the Queen. We decided not to tie wildlife to landownership, and explicitly forbade the sale of wildlife as a commodity. In fact, one of the principal architects of the new system was an Englishman – Dr. Charles Gordon Hewitt, a lecturer from the University of Manchester, who arrived in Canada in 1909.
How is it possible that both nations embraced a novel system of conservation despite the conspicuous presence of older European systems that then boasted much larger wildlife populations?
At the turn of the century, when both nations first became aware of their widely diminishing stocks and were grappling for solutions, a like-minded elite arose on both sides of the border. They learned from each other and acted with insight and resolve.
Up north, the Commission on Conservation was established under The Conservation Act of 1909. Its greatest achievement was the 1915 Migratory Bird Treaty, which was ratified with the U.S. (and expanded to include Mexico by 1924), as well as the North West Game Act, which applied to Crown lands. The father of both laws was Hewitt. A first-rate scientist and administrator, he was soon indispensable to the commission in “getting things done.”
The commission itself consisted of 18 members, whose prestigious professions attested to the organization’s importance at the time. It included a knight, Sir Edmund, B. Osler, four deans, chancellors or presidents of universities, an additional five PhDs or professors, two members of parliament, one Senator and the business manager for one of Canada’s most influential dailies, *The Globe* (the predecessor to *The Globe and Mail*). The twelve *ex officio* members included federal or provincial ministers of agriculture, lands and forests, the interior and mines, as well as attorney-generals and even three provincial premiers.
Clearly, this was an assembly of able men from Canada’s elite. It is unfortunate the Great War that erupted in 1914 overshadowed their work.
The chairman of one of the commission’s offshoots, the Committee on Fisheries, Game and Fur-bearing Animals, opened their meeting on November 1, 1915 by saying:
“We have all felt, I am sure, that it is rather pathetic that in a country as new as Canada there should be so little wildlife, that wildlife in Canada, especially bird life, should compare so unfavourably with that of countries in Europe in the same geographical situation but which have been settled for thousands of years.
“Wildlife is there far more abundant than it is in Canada even at the present time. With the example of the United States before us – a bad example, especially during their early history, and in the western states – the preservation of game and the proper administration of game laws in this Dominion would seem to be one of the very important things to which this Committee might devote its attention.
“We have all looked with a good deal of interest at the work that is being done at present in the United States towards retrieving the bad management of their early history and the effort now being made towards restoring their game and administrating their game laws properly. We are now looking to the men there to advise us as to methods of best carrying forward the work of preserving game in Canada and of administering our laws properly here.”
Members of the Boone and Crockett Club and other U.S. organizations of distinction rose to the occasion. Here, individuals of status, power and means joined hands on behalf of wildlife. They cooperated with the Canadian Commission, made formal presentations, maintained a lively correspondence and met to negotiate with commission delegates. Requests for changes by U.S. conservationists demonstrate remarkable precision and knowledge of Canadian conditions.
How close these pioneers of wildlife conservation were to one another is documented in Hewitt’s 1921 book *The Conservation of Wild Life in Canada*. In it, Hewitt acknowledges his debt to four Canadians, four Americans and one Englishman. Among the Americans — Henry Fairfield Osborn, president of the American Museum of Natural History; E. W. Nelson, chief of the United States Biological Survey, and W. T. Hornaday, director of the New York Zoological Gardens. The Englishman was none other than Rudyard Kipling.
The Royal Society of Canada paid Hewitt great tribute for his seminal work. Ironically, in his brief biography in *The Canadian Encyclopedia*, there is little mention of his far-reaching engagements on behalf of wildlife.
But then, much of what the founding fathers of wildlife conservation did early in the 20th century is forgotten, barely mentioned, if at all, in our texts of wildlife management. And yet we shall have to revisit, just as they did, that arena of policy debate, for we will be forced to fight for wildlife once again. Our system of wildlife conservation is under attack on both sides of the border. Agricultural bureaucracies are determined to enshrine game farming and re-establish markets in dead wildlife, contemptuous of the fact that doing so violates every policy that made wildlife conservation in North America a success.
Affluent Americans are working to restrict public access to wildlife by buying or leasing hunting lands. Various urban interest groups are at work on diverse issues, from enshrining animal rights to disarming the public or banning hunting to eliminating wildlife from urban spaces. Our forbearers’ legacy was to bring to life a highly successful system of wildlife conservation spanning North America. Can we do it again?