May 25, 2022: 122nd Anniversary of the Lacey Act

by Bret Amundson

A rooster pheasant feeds in a food plot during a snowstorm. The corn provides a tasty meal and some cover from predators and inclement weather. Here the rooster is leaving to head back into thermal cover provided by a thicket of willows.

Have you ever wondered why you can’t give an extra mallard or walleye to a friend without writing down your license number? The reason lies in the early days of conservation. It goes all the way back to 1900.

Well, really, long before that. In Tom Landwehr’s book, Hunting Adventures on the Minnesota Frontier, there is a collection of stories, articles and tales from 1850-1900. It opens with a chapter called “A Retrospect” written by Thomas Sadler Roberts. It originally appeared in 1932’s The Birds of Minnesota, published by the University of Minnesota Press.

It describes the state long before European settlers arrived and how different it was from 1932.

“The earlier explorers found great herds of buffaloes and elk grazing along the bluffs of the Mississippi River. Deer filled the woodlands, beavers abounded in all the streams and lakes, and the primeval forests of the north sheltered great numbers of moose, caribou, black bears, and other mammals that are now little more than a tradition.”

Tom Landwehr spent many years compiling stories for the book, starting in 1990 and releasing it in 2019.

Immediately my mind wanders to a place where I would want to live. Far away from the hustle and bustle of the modern world. A landscape brimming with four-legged animals from border to border. My favorite passage comes next in the story:

“The diversified and fertile uplands and the equally varied and bountiful waters supported a bird population that astonished and tested the descriptive powers of the early narrators.”

Tested the descriptive powers. What a great line.

But, aside from that, think about all the birds there must have been from game birds like waterfowl and grouse to the non-game bird species like orioles and sparrows. It’s been said so many prairie chickens would flush ahead of hunters that the sky would turn black. What a sight that would have been.

Male Prairie Chickens do battle on a lek near Gylndon, MN

Today, there is a remnant population of approximately 5,000 prairie chickens in the northwestern part of the state. Those birds rode a roller coaster of habitat, as agriculture expanded across the state. They were doing fine on the native prairie, but as ag increased, their numbers did too, before dropping off sharply when too much prairie disappeared.

When it comes to wildlife populations, the biggest factors that dictate increases or decreases is weather and habitat. There’s no question humans have had a major impact, but not in the way you think.

Prior to state management agencies such as the Minnesota DNR (created in 1931), wild game flourished. As settlers moved across the plains, they relied on wild game to survive. These healthy and delicious food options became popular, and entrepreneurs took note. Soon, market hunting became prevalent. Hunters would bag hundreds of grouse, mallards, and other game birds and ship them by rail to Chicago, New York and other burgeoning metropolises. During that era, there were very little rules – if any – regarding limits. Populations of the tasty table fare diminished, and sportsmen and conservationists raised the alarm and began creating game management regulations that are commonplace today.

According to the DNR: 323,914 prairie chickens were harvested in 1923. By 1942, the harvest total was only 58,000 and the season was subsequently closed. The season has since reopened on a limited resident-only lottery basis. This short season brings attention to the situation and gives hunters an awareness of our prairie grouse history.

According to an article in the Fins, Feathers and Fur magazine, in 1927:

“Prairie Chickens may be taken during an open season of 16 days, beginning September 16, in Minnesota this fall….It is lawful to take nine chickens in one day, but not more than 18 may be taken during the open season.”

There was also a season on quail in 1927 after being closed in 1925 and 1926. The limit, after two closed seasons, was ten per day. 15 was the possession limit, and you couldn’t shoot more than 30 during the season.

What’s even more interesting is that the ruffed grouse season was closed after the population dropped at “such an alarming rate three years ago.” The article states that further protection by executive order would be needed in 1928.

To protect these birds and begin sowing the seeds of regulatory confusion, seasons would open on pheasants, ruffed grouse and prairie chickens, but only in alternate years. 1927 even had a closed season for whitetails! Thankfully, after a few years of drought, water had filled in the state’s numerous potholes, and the local duck population flourished, giving hunters hope heading into the fall waterfowl season.

When describing the state’s hunter numbers, it contrasts what you hear today:

…it would not be surprising if Minnesota’s growing army of small game hunters should muster many more recruits….the department sent out approximately 125,000 resident small game licenses, and it is likely there will be a demand for more as the season progresses.”

That year, a small game license cost $1.

Obviously hunting was an important tradition and way of life for most residents at this time, but because of the lack of regulations and the market hunting that preceded them, limits and season closures were a necessity.

Emmy Destinn, 1878-1930, three-quarters length portrait, standing, facing left, wearing a fur coat and a hat with feathers

This wasn’t the only alarm bell going off. Non-game birds were being wiped out by plume hunters. Plume hunting involved wild birds taken for their feathers. They were sold to make fancy hats. Snowy egrets in the US were nearly extinct due to plume hunters, and by 1900 more than 5 million birds were being killed, including 95% of Florida’s shorebirds, according to PBS.

Wildlife was in trouble.

In 1900, an Iowa Republican, John F. Lacey, introduced the Lacey Act into Congress. It “prohibits trade in wildlife, fish, and plants that have been illegally taken, possessed, transported, or sold.” It also authorized re-establishing wildlife into areas where they were extinct. It was signed into law by President William McKinley on this day in 1900.

It has since been amended and changed to prohibit importing, exporting, transporting, purchasing or selling species when that action violates state, federal, tribal or foreign law. In 2008, more plant-based regulations were imposed including timber products. In fact, Gibson Guitars were embroiled in controversy and had their facilities raided in 2009 and 2011. Authorities allege that Gibson purchased smuggled Madagascar ebony and Indian Rosewood for guitar manufacturing. In 2012, Gibson admitted to violating the Lacey Act and paid a fine of $300,000. Lumber Liquidators was also found guilty of violating the Act and paid a staggering $7.8 million in criminal fines for lumber trafficking.

The Weeks-McLean Act followed in 1913 to ban spring hunting and marketing of migratory birds, along with the importation of wild bird feathers for women’s fashion and then was replaced with a stronger Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, which essentially put an end to market hunting in North America.

Many species of waterfowl will nest in grassy habitat. Mallards might be up to a mile from the water. This blue-winged teal nest was closer to a wetland but hidden in tall grass. Without the sudden flush of the hen, most nests would remain unseen.

Whatever your opinion of agencies such as the DNR, without their implementation we would have a lot less wildlife on the landscape. You could argue for cases of mistakes, mismanagement or political interference at times by the government agency, but thanks to the steps taken by brave conservationists, the majority of steep declines in today’s world can be attributed to harsh winters, ice/rain/wind storms during the nesting season and increased predation. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be cognizant of overharvest particularly in the fishing realm. Practicing selective harvest can go a long ways for conservation and keeping hunters and anglers in a positive light to the rest of the world.

We must also be vigilant in our fight to retain our rights as sportsmen and women, and that involves holding politicians accountable, letting them hear our voices and setting a good example. There’s power in numbers when it comes to legislation, so the infighting that our community faces at times doesn’t help. That’s why maintaining a healthy resource comes down to each one of us doing our part to sustain it. No one wants more government regulation, and it’s up to us to keep that from happening. One way to do that is to preserve and create habitat.

Hunters, particularly bowhunters, began managing their own property for deer. They grew food plots, planted trees and created sanctuaries. Pheasants Forever offers plans and seed mixes designed with wildlife forage bases and habitat in mind. State management agencies often create habitat mosaics on public hunting grounds that offer thermal cover, nesting cover, food and water.

While wildlife can thrive on undisturbed ground, creating a few basic necessities on the landscape can go a long way in helping them get through their biggest threat since market hunting: bad weather. We have the Lacey Act to thank for beginning the end of market hunting, and we can thank our current and future conservationists for giving wildlife a chance to survive.

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