The History of Hunting

Sport hunting helped form a foundation for the preservation and conservation of wildlife in America.

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Photo Credit: Henri Julien

Most of the early legislation that formed the foundation for conservation and preservation in the United States was thanks to hunters themselves. Sport hunting was a major movement in nature preservation that widely benefitted conservation efforts from the 1880s-1920s.  The reason hunters were so incentivized to preserve nature was to preserve their sport and the moral behind it.  When hunting first came to America from Europe, it was viewed as a sport only for a small population of very wealthy people.  When hunting shifted from an elitist sport for the rich to a larger majority, this larger group needed to learn to support game preservation.  This was realized in the 1880s, when herds of buffalo quickly began to disappear.1

Some examples of the things that hunters accomplished in supporting game preservation, thus protecting the environment, between 1880 and 1920 include abolishing market hunting, fees from hunting licenses providing a continuing source of money for wildlife protection, hunters contributing to other wildlife protection movements, supporting refuges and closed seasons on songbirds, lobbying for the Lacey Act making it a federal offense to ship game killed in violation of state laws in interstate commerce, and backing federal regulation of migratory waterfowl shooting and a treaty that protected species of shorebirds and the what was very scarce whooping crane.2  This creates an ethical dilemma for those who agree with conservancy efforts, but do not agree with hunting.  Hunters feel that they are not valued or accredited by those against hunting for everything they have done for nature and wildlife that anti-hunters have not been a part of, but still benefit from.3  Although hunting in a traditional manner with genuine moral and appreciation of the sport has dissipated, hunters were still the largest group working to save wildlife well into the twentieth century, making hunting a strong historical context of conservation and juxtaposing it to anti-hunting.4


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Hunting Practices of the Past


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Native Americans were the first hunters in America, who hunted only what they needed to survive and used all parts of the animal.  This was both out of necessity and respect for nature.  When Europeans took over America and brought sport hunting with them,  they hunted purely for sport, not out of necessity like the Native Americans.  However, Europeans still hunted with respect for the land and the difficult skill set needed, and viewed hunting as man’s deepest way of connecting with nature.5  As hunting technology made the game less skillful and hunting became more available to the general public, people began to drift further and further away from the original moral of hunting.

Show 5 footnotes

  1. Thomas Dunlap, “Sport Hunting and Conservation, 1880-1920,” in Environmental History Review (, 2014), 53.
  2. Ibid., 54.
  3. “He writes as a member of an embattled and despised minority … hunting is now socially unacceptable to many (and is only popular in poorer, rural areas)” … “What we lost is the attraction to the hunt, to the ritual of pursuit, … and the mastery of nature that hunting implied. We no longer see the virtues of the pioneers, at least in this form, as an essential part of the nation’s culture”. — Ibid., 58.
  4. “well into the twentieth century, hunters were the largest organization group working to save wildlife” … this shows that this hunting with respect has dissipated, but is still a strong part of historical context of hunting and it’s juxtaposition to anti-hunting. — Ibid., 51.
  5. Ibid.

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