One of the primary motivations for many individuals to hunt and fish is to provide food for themselves and their families and friends. Many hunters take advantage of opportunities to donate to one of the many game meat donation programs operated by various charitable organizations. Though there exists a well-established tradition of nourishing others through hunting and fishing, conversations regarding the sale of legally harvested game meat and parts have increased in the past decade. When engaging in these discussions it is important to recall the negative impacts associated with the history of market hunting in the United States, as well as the tenets of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation. Through the efforts of sportsmen and women partnering with state fish and wildlife agencies our wildlife resources have experienced tremendous recoveries since the cessation of market hunting, and we should be cautious to not create false impressions or allowance of returning to a market hunting culture.
Game meat represents a healthy, and often cost-effective, means of providing food for many households throughout the United States. Recently, interest in the preparation of game meat has seen tremendous growth thanks to high profile chefs and hunters who have championed the locavore movement. While this increased interest brings a lot of promise as it relates to the recruitment, retention, and reactivation of hunters. It has also led some to advocate on behalf of what they see as potentially lucrative markets for game meat among those who are not interested in hunting for or preparing the meat themselves. Coupled with increased calls from some to create a market to incentivize increased harvest as a way to mitigate crop depredation, these efforts seek to essentially reinstitute a culture of market hunting nearly a century after such markets were originally defeated, essentially reinstituting a culture of market hunting. For sportsmen and women, particularly those who grew up during the days of “buck only” hunting seasons for white-tailed deer seasons that were once common throughout the eastern United States, this newfound call for the commercialization of game meat is the antithesis of conservation as we know it today.
The history of professional wildlife management in the United States provides a plethora of examples that highlight the disastrous impacts of market hunting. Species such as white-tailed deer, wild turkey, and wood ducks, among others, took decades to recover; in some parts of the country, once iconic species never have. While it would be irresponsible to fail to attribute some of these challenges to changing land use practices resulting in habitat loss, accounts by hunters throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries depict populations of some game species that today are unimaginable. The accounts also depict hunters who, to earn a living in some harsher areas of the country, harvested game at such a high rate that is hard to conceive today.
Recognizing the detrimental effects of market hunting, sportsmen and women were among the first to raise their voices and call for regulations necessary to ensure the sustainability of our nation’s wildlife resources. Thanks to the willingness of America’s original conservationists to play a role in ensuring the conservation of our nation’s public trust wildlife resources, we have experienced nearly a century of conservation success stories that would have been impossible if market hunting were still legal.
The selling of legally harvested game meat is not allowed in most states today for conservation reasons that date back to the 19th century after sportsmen and women recognized the disastrous effects of market hunting on the once abundant game found throughout much of the United States. As a result of market hunting, which saw its peak in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many of today’s most popular species, including waterfowl, bison, and white-tailed deer, were nearly driven to extinction by the beginning of the 1900s. These animals were harvested, at that time legally, for the sole purpose of providing meat and animal parts for sale at markets. As a result of the financial rewards, more market hunters took to the field to harvest these animals.
In the 1800s bison numbers were depleted from roughly 60 million down to a few hundred as a result of market hunting encouraged by the highest level of government. These activities were a component of policies designed to eliminate perceived threats posed by Native American populations during the period of rapid westward expansion. While not solely tied to meat and hide markets, these practices highlight the role that markets can play in threatening not only game populations, but also the cultures that are so closely linked to game species throughout our nation. Consequently, one of the last populations of bison in the United States could be found in the Yellowstone National Park where hunting and poaching was still happening. As a result of efforts led by George Bird Grinnell to raise awareness of the dire straits bison populations were in North America, market hunting of bison underwent the imposition of strict regulations so that the species numbers could increase again. Today there are roughly 500,000 bison left in North America. A small fraction of those, less than 350 in the United States, are descendants from the bison that roamed the American Plains while the remainder are on the landscape today due to strong human intervention through farming and relocation efforts.
In 1901, the number of wood ducks and other waterfowl were significantly reduced. An exact estimation of the number of waterfowl left in 1901 is hard to determine. Waterfowl during the 18th century and early 19th century were hunted to sell their meat and feathers on the market, in part, to support a burgeoning European hat industry. The market hunting of these birds resulted in such catastrophically low numbers, that the United States stepped in and implemented the Migratory Birds Act. By 1901 the wood duck was likely affected the most and as a result of the Migratory Bird Act, hunting for them was outlawed until 1941. The Migratory Bird Act and the ending of market hunting of waterfowl helped reestablish the populations of waterfowl in North America. According to the most recent breeding population survey, which last took place in 2019 due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, there are an estimated 38.9 million breeding ducks in North America.
Points of Interest
- One of the most influential pillars of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation states that wildlife cannot be killed for commercial use. Though the Model does permit the harvest of wildlife for legitimate and non-frivolous purposes, the sale of harvested game meat is inconsistent with the Model.
- Drawing on the conservation success stories for many of the nation’s most popular game species that have recovered since initial prohibitions on game meat markets, any effort to recreate markets for game species represents a significant threat to the future of our nation’s sportsmen-led conservation efforts.
- In some cases, legal markets may be used as an added incentive when hunting is used as a population management tool for non-native, invasive species.
- Under strict regulation by Florida agencies, this includes meat from legally harvested wild pig.
In response to the devastating effects of market hunting near the turn of the 20th century, the prohibition of market hunting, coupled with the other tenants of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, has led to some of the greatest conservation success stories in the world. While hunting continues to be an important conservation tool that subsequently provides a quality source of meat for many families, markets for game species represent a unique threat to our wildlife resources who have demonstrated their susceptibility to financially motivated overharvest. Recognizing this, it is important for sportsmen and women to oppose efforts to recreate these markets for game meat. While markets for game meat may appear to represent a unique opportunity to support rural economies, historical perspectives regarding their consequences make clear that such markets should be strongly opposed.