Visionaries of the Ages

By Brad Herndon

Since I was a small boy, I’ve loved being outside in nature. As I edge into the age of a senior citizen, that feeling has not changed. In fact, I believe I enjoy Creation more than I ever have. Like anyone who has been around a while, I often think of what nature and wildlife were like hundreds of years ago. I have these thoughts most often when I'm roaming around in the Muscatatuck bottoms, a river valley not far from my home.
“What did the trees look like before the New World was discovered by Columbus? I bet they were huge,” I think. “I’ll bet there were elk, wolves and buffalo in Indiana then. I wonder what I would see if the walk I’m taking right now could go back in time to 1491?” Well, for an adventure and learning experience, let’s do that — go back in time and review what nature and wildlife was like in 1491, and what man’s relation to nature was at that time. Further, let’s cover what happened to nature and wildlife from 1491 until the present, and see how mankind has influenced and changed the landscape and wildlife in both negative and positive ways. Along our journey, I’ll also note some of the timeliest visionaries in wildlife and nature, and how they were responsible for saving what outdoorsmen enjoy today.


 If we were to go back in time to 1491, we would see huge quantities of wildlife and large forested tracts. We probably would be most surprised with the number and size of swamps and wetlands throughout our land. Beavers, muskrats and ducks would be present in shocking numbers. Also, we would stand in awe as we looked at a sky blackened by hundreds of thousands of passenger pigeons. Or consider the thrill you would feel if you saw, as Col. Richard Dodge did out West, a herd of migrating bison 25 miles wide. Still, in 1491, this land might not have been as pristine as we might imagine. For example, there would be large black — ugly to us — areas where fire had been used by Native Americans to enhance productive growth of tender shoots, resulting in more wildlife. Further, that served to clear land for agricultural production. Traveling around, we would also encounter numerous fields with corn, beans, pepper, squash and many other vegetables Native Americans planted and tilled. Visiting their villages, we would also be impressed with the number of inhabitants and their intelligence. And imagine what we might learn from them about hunting, fishing, trapping and what we call “survival skills” — something they dealt with every day. If we could live for a few years at this time, the most shocking revelation would occur during the 1500s — the disappearance of Native Americans from the land. Sadly, the coming of the white man introduced smallpox, measles, mumps and many other diseases into the Native American population. Indians had no immunity to these diseases, and within a few years, 95 percent of Native Americans had been killed by these illnesses. Although American Indians used only what they needed to survive from wildlife — namely food and skins for clothing or tents — they kept the numbers of some species somewhat under control. This was probably true of the bison. Because the Native American population diminished by as many as 15 or 20 million people, and the white man had not yet saturated the West, it’s very likely the bison herd increased for several decades after Europeans landed on our shores. But eventually, the new inhabitants of North America multiplied, expanded and went west. And with that came market hunting.


The peak of market hunting in North America was from 1600 until the mid- to late 1800s. From the beginning, Europeans recognized that the wealth of America was in its flora and fauna, not gold or spices. Fishermen began working offshore waters, and trappers captured beavers, muskrats, mink and other water-related animals by the millions. Market hunters prowled the forests and plains, supplying food and hides to people in the East and Europe. Boatloads of deer hides, for example, were shipped overseas. And there was more. Feathers were used for adornment, and shooting 100 ibises a day for their plumes was part of a day’s work. The first species to fall to extinction by market hunting was the great auks, which were large flightless fowl. As time passed, the vast numbers of elk, pronghorns, mule deer and whitetail deer dwindled. The most impressive animal, the bison, was the most decimated, mostly because of the repeating rifle in the hands of skilled market hunters. With the demand for its hide, and its delicious tongue, tenderloins and hump ribs, the great animal’s numbers eventually sank to barely 150 in the wild. By the late 1800s, railroads crisscrossed the country, barbed-wire fences divided the land, and an era was coming to an end. However, wildlife was not the only thing that had been affected by the newcomers. Every region had been settled, and farming was the primary way of making a living. Forests had been removed, prairies plowed up and wetlands drained. Even poor land was tilled in an attempt to survive. Although it would be years before it happened, farming in the 1880s was setting the scene for the dust bowl of 1930s, an occurrence such as the world had never seen. Many farmers leaned on their hoes and wondered what would happen to the land. Hunters, too, leaned on their rifles, with no big-game animals in sight. Desolation ruled the land. There were a few, however, who vowed to take action.


 “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” Most of us are probably familiar with that phrase. It’s a quote from the 26th president of the United States, Teddy Roosevelt. There is another quote I can relate to even more: “I’m not a good shot, but I shoot often.” Roosevelt was born in 1858 in New York to a wealthy family. He was sickly as a youngster, and even when he entered the New York state assembly at 21 he had a squeaky voice and dandified clothing. The newspapers called him Jane-Dandy, Punkin-Lily and chief of the dudes. Determined to change his health and image, in 1883 Roosevelt purchased property in the badlands near Medora, N.D. He named it the Elk Horn ranch, bought a herd of cattle, hired ranch hands and started to develop his Western image. It was that year that he killed his first buffalo, a feat that required eight shots. After the great animal was down, Roosevelt spontaneously did a “war dance,” a feat he repeated thereafter in a career of famous hunting. As he was admiring the magnificent animal, however, sadness fell over him. He knew it was one of a few remaining buffalo in the wild and that other hunters might never experience the thrill he just had. This hunt changed his life forever, and being a man of courage and conviction, he vowed to do something about it. A quote he uttered in 1905 summed up the feeling he had at that time. “The wildlife and its habitat cannot speak, so we must, and we will.” After the failure of his ranch in 1887, Roosevelt returned to the East. He had a hearty voice, rock-hard body and the cowboy persona that was admired by the nation.


Interestingly, 1887 was also the year Roosevelt founded the Boone and Crockett Club, still one of the nation’s top conservation organizations. The B&C Club authored a famous fair-chase statement of hunter ethics, and worked for the elimination of market hunting, creation of wildlife reserves and conservation minded game laws. In addition, B&C is also a big-game record-keeping club known to virtually all whitetail deer hunters. However, Roosevelt accomplished much more than this to preserve the nation’s disappearing wildlife. After 1887, Roosevelt quickly rose through the political ranks, became a war hero and was elected president in 1901. He was in a position of highest authority, and that turned out to be a blessing to wildlife and nature. He was the last trained observer to see a passenger pigeon. On March 14, 1903, Roosevelt created the first National Bird Preserve on Pelican Island, Fla. In 1907, he established the U.S. Forest Service. During his presidential term, Roosevelt set aside more land for nature preserves and national parks than all of his predecessors combined: 194 million acres. By 1909, the Roosevelt administration had created an unprecedented 42 million acres of national forests, 53 national wildlife refuges and 18 areas of special interest, including the Grand Canyon. The Theodore Roosevelt National Park in the Badlands of North Dakota commemorates his conservation philosophy. Wildlife and nature owe a lot to Roosevelt, as do hunters and people who enjoy wildlife and nature.


Another wildlife visionary was Aldo Leopold, a man considered the father of wildlife management. Born in Burlington, Iowa, in 1887, Leopold was always fascinated with the natural world. He graduated from college with a master’s degree in forestry. While working in the Southwest, Leopold urged the Forest Service to set aside roadless areas as wilderness. In 1924, the Forest Service accepted his recommendation and designated the Gila region in New Mexico a wilderness area — 40 years before the Wilderness Act was passed. Leaving the forestry service, Leopold began conducting wildlife surveys in the north-central states with money from the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturer’s Institute. This led to his book Game Management and established him as one of the country’s authorities on native game animals. In 1933, the University of Wisconsin established a position in game management especially for him. Leopold believed the future of American wildlife was largely on private land, in the attitudes and decisions of farmers and landowners. Eventually Leopold purchased a sandy, abandoned farm on a bend in the Wisconsin River — its only building a chicken shed — and began practicing what he preached regarding the conservation of wildlife and nature. On April 24, 1948, Aldo Leopold died of a heart attack fighting a grass fire on property adjoining his farm. It was just one week after he had learned Oxford Press would publish his book of essays on game management. The book, A Sand County Almanac, was published in 1949. Today, it stands as one of the most influential nature books ever written. And even after being in print for almost 60 years, it still remains one of the best-selling books in the nature and nature writing categories on


 In 1900, the Lacey Act was passed, giving the United States its first far-reaching federal wildlife-protection law. In 1934, The Duck Stamp Act, lobbied for by waterfowlers, provided money from federal stamps to aid waterfowl management and permit purchase of lands for federal waterfowl refuges. Additionally, in 1937, concerned hunters asked the federal government to tax their equipment and use the money to manage the nation’s wildlife. To date, the Pittman-Robertson Act has raised billions of dollars for America’s wildlife. By the 1950s, wildlife had been preserved enough that modern hunting seasons were started in most states. The number of hunters increased, as did the number of items they used afield. Camouflage, scent containing clothing, modern slug guns, inline muzzleloaders, tree stands, compound bows, and deer and turkey calls are just a few of the hunting items we now use. Interestingly, one of the fastest-growing segments of the hunting industry involves the founder of the company who delivers you this magazine.


Ray Scott’s story began while he was sitting on a bed in a Ramada Inn in Jackson, Miss., in 1967. Scott considered how there was a championship for every sport except fishing. Being an avid bass fisherman, Scott envisioned a national bass fishing tournament to determine who was truly the best largemouth fisherman in the nation. Heading to Beaver Lake, Ark., Scott presented his idea of a bass fishing tournament to a local Chamber of Commerce. They liked Scott’s idea but turned down his request for $5,000. Hearing of their rejection, board member Dr. Stanley Applegate wrote Scott a check for $2,500. “Pay me back if you want,” he said, “But if the event isn’t a success, don’t tell my wife I gave you the money.” Scott immediately began contacting the best fishermen he knew and ended up with 106 men from 15 states who paid $100 each to enter the tournament. It was a rousing success, and the man who finished second in the tournament is still well known to anglers today: Bill Dance. As the old saying goes, the rest is history. The Bass Anglers Sportsman Society, or B.A.S.S., was formed. The organization promotes the sport of fishing and also the conservation of natural resources. Bassmaster Magazine was added along the way and became the “bible of bass fishing.” More than 3,000 conservation minded bass clubs were formed, and they later banded into state B.A.S.S. federations. With conservation-minded bass fisherman on every body of water in the United States, it was easy for them to spot unregulated dumping that led to water pollution. During 1970 and 1971, Scott and company filed more than 200 lawsuits against polluters. Scott was also responsible for the popularization of catch-and release as we know it today. It was a monumental step in the conservation of the bass resource. There are numerous other breakthrough contributions Scott made to fishing, such as the use of personal flotation devices and engine kill switches. All the time, Scott was involved in building the fishing industry, he was also — amazingly — doing something on the side: deer hunting.


In 1985, when Scott dropped by the Montgomery Seed & Feed store to pick up some oat and wheat seed. He and his buddies were going to plant the seed at their Lucky 7 Club. For whatever reason, the guy loading the seed wanted to know if Scott wanted to try some new clover. “Sure,” Scott said, “Pitch it on the trailer.” Later, when they planted their 12 fields in seed, Scott and his partners decided to take a one-acre plot and plant a third of it in wheat, a third in oats and the other third in the new clover. Later that fall, Scott watched seven deer walk across the oats and wheat to get to the clover, and he promptly dropped a 7-pointer in its tracks — a deer he wouldn’t shoot today. In bed that night, Scott wondered why the deer walked right past the wheat and oats to get to the clover. Another breakthrough innovation in the hunting industry was about to begin. In 1988, The Whitetail Institute of North America was born. Soon Scott discovered Dr. Wiley Johnson, an agronomist and plant geneticist in his own back yard, Auburn University. Johnson had developed the variety of clover he was using. Scott immediately hired Johnson as a consultant and assigned him a project: Create a superior deer forage, building on the best qualities of the clover he had originally tested.


Again, Scott’s innovative thinking and hard work had produced a revolutionary product—something deer hunters were in dire need of. But there would be more benefits for the hunters of North America. “My sons, Steve and Wilson, primarily run the business now, and we all like to give our customers more than their money’s worth,” Scott said. “We call it our baker’s dozen. That’s why we decided in 1991 to come out with our publication, The Whitetail News — free of charge. By doing this, we could inform our customers how to plant and take care of their food plots, and also explain to them how to manage their wildlife and natural habitat.” To me, the 160,000 free editions of The Whitetail News mailed out three times a year have been invaluable in informing deer hunters about the management and conservation needs of wildlife and natural habitat. What the Whitetail Institute started was a genuine revolution. Food plots are one of the most important tools a hunter can use to improve his hunting experience. But beyond that, the wildlife benefit from the plots and not just deer. Turkey, bears, waterfowl, rabbits, ground hogs, and all wildlife benefit, even songbirds benefit too. Without doubt, Scott has been just as instrumental in preserving our hunting heritage and our land as he was in preserving the sport of fishing. Field & Stream magazine thinks so too. It recently named Scott among the “Twenty Who Have Made A Difference” in the American outdoors during the past century.

FROM 1491 TO 2008

We’ve come a long way in a few paragraphs, from 1491 to 2008.We’ve discussed themillions of waterfowl and animals that were here when Columbus reached the new world, and then learned how these numbers plummeted to incredibly low numbers, with some species becoming extinct. On the plus side, we have seen how visionary men recognized the errors of the past and took action to correct them. Some were presidents, like Roosevelt. Some, like Leopold, were just children who loved the outdoors and followed through on taking care of what they loved so much. Others were bird lovers, and some were simply dreamers. And one, Scott, was just a guy who loved to fish for bass, hunt for deer and got his best inspirations when relaxing on a bed. We should remember that we each have a part in taking care of the wildlife and natural resources the creator has given us. Oh, we might not make the top 20 list of conservationists during the century, but if we help preserve the environment we have, we will have the thrill of looking down into the eyes of a small child and hearing them say, “Hey Dad, thanks for taking me hunting and fishing.”


Some Interesting Facts

• There were billions of passenger pigeons in North America when Columbus discovered the new world. In Wisconsin, one roost site covered 750 square miles and contained an estimated 136 million birds. Martha, the last passenger pigeon, died in the Cincinnati zoo in 1914. The conservation movement in the United States was perhaps fueled more by the demise of the passenger pigeon than any other factor.

 • At their peak population, an estimated 60 million bison lived in North America. Their numbers eventually dwindled to a few hundred, and if not for a few captive herds of these huge animals, the bison, or buffalo, might have became extinct.

• By the late 1800s, it is estimated there were only 25,000 pronghorn antelope, 20,000 wild turkeys, 300,000 whitetails, 50,000 elk and 100,000 beavers left in the United States. Because of the efforts of many people, most of them hunters, there are now 7 million turkeys, 20 million whitetails, 1 million elk, 500,000 pronghorns and so many beavers they are considered a nuisance by many people. If you think Roosevelt wasn’t tough, consider this: Before a speech in Milwaukee, Wis., in 1912, Roosevelt was shot by John Schrank, a saloonkeeper. The bullet lodged in Roosevelt’s chest after penetrating his steel eyeglass case and the thick 50-page copy of his speech. Being an experienced hunter, Roosevelt coughed a few times, saw no blood and determined the bullet had not penetrated the chest wall to his lung. Standing up at the podium, Roosevelt declared, “I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot, but it takes more than that to kill a bull moose.” He spoke for 90 minutes. In the Midwest, 10 percent of all trees in the forest at Columbus’ time were American chestnuts. Today, a handful survive. In the fall at that time, there were huge migrations of gray squirrels in lean mast years, all searching for a food source. Besides the Boone & Crockett Club, many other organizations have been instrumental in the conservation and management of our natural resources throughout the years. They include Ducks Unlimited. The National Wild Turkey Federation, the Pope & Young Club, Quail Unlimited, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and the National Rifle Association.