Speak softly and carry a big stick: The hunting and conservation legacy of Teddy Roosevelt

Speak softly and carry a big stick: The hunting and conservation legacy of Teddy Roosevelt

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“In a civilized and cultivated country, wild animals only continue to exist at all when preserved by sportsmen.”—Theodore Roosevelt

Few of our nation’s great leaders stand out more than Theodore Roosevelt. First taking office in 1901 after the assassination of William McKinley, he guided a nation still divided and reeling from the Civil War decades before through industrialization, westward expansion, and urbanization, shaping it into the most powerful and influential country in the world. Roosevelt was a leader of the progressive movement with his “Square Deal” policies, building the Panama Canal and brokering the end of the Russo-Japanese War, which won him the 1906 Nobel Peace Prize. The office of the president aside, few men led a more inspiring or adventurous life. Teddy Roosevelt was a statesman, soldier, writer, boxer, explorer, conservationist, and among the most iconic big-game hunters in our nation’s history.

Roosevelt’s hunting career began early despite being born and raised in New York City. Teddy’s father, Theodore Roosevelt Sr. (founder of the American Museum of Natural History), was concerned for his asthmatic and fragile son, and so encouraged young Roosevelt to adopt an athletic lifestyle. For Teddy’s father, hunting seemed to be the best solution to combat his son’s frailty and so he pushed the boy to begin exploring the outdoors. Teddy was given dozens of books about hunting and fishing, and was pushed to study the arts of shooting, naturalism, and taxidermy. When Teddy was 12 years old, he began to put into practice what he had been studying by hunting game birds in the Adirondack Mountains.

Later, he hunted multiple species of birds and small game on family trips to Africa. By the time Roosevelt turned 20, he had already enjoyed a successful hunting career. Having moved on from exclusively bird hunting, he took several deer and black bear in his home state of New York. Likely satisfied with his outdoor adventures by that point, he concentrated more on his political career. But then tragedy struck: His wife, Alice Lee Roosevelt, died only two days after giving birth to their only child. Driven semi-insane with grief, Roosevelt decided to put his political career on hold indefinitely. He packed his things, said goodbye to his family, and headed west to grieve, explore, and hunt alone.

Roosevelt travels to the West

Roosevelt first came to the American West in 1884. He arrived to find a world of untouched and pristine big-game country that spanned farther than he could imagine. Inspired, Roosevelt began to explore and hunt with gusto. He hired local natives as guides and mingled with cowboys and frontiersmen while pursuing almost every Western big-game trophy imaginable. During the next several years he successfully hunted bison, elk, mule deer, bighorn sheep, and grizzly bears. It was during this time that Roosevelt became determined to overcome his “city boy” origins and began to immerse himself in a rugged and masculine lifestyle that would shape him as an icon.

While in the West he purchased a cattle ranch, buckskin clothing, and learned to ride. For a brief time, Roosevelt even became a hunter of men, pursuing bounties on thieves and outlaws that were currently at large and in his area. His game hunting became obsessive while in the Dakotas and he took massive numbers of game birds, pronghorn, and deer. Many, including his family, thought Roosevelt’s new passion was a way to drive away his grief and prove himself. But the reality was Roosevelt was discovering something about himself while forging a primal connection with the natural world that would lead him to his future.

Boone and Crockett Club

In 1885, Roosevelt published his first book, titled “Hunting Trips Of A Ranchman.” The book was well received by almost everyone, except for one reviewer by the name of Chris Bird Grinnell. Grinnell was the editor of Forest and Stream Magazine, and in his review of the book wrote, “We are sorry to see that a number of hunting myths are given as fact, but it was after all scarcely to be expected with the author’s limited experience….” Roosevelt was incensed about the review and immediately set out to the Forest and Stream offices to demand an audience with his critic.

However, after meeting each other, Roosevelt and Grinnell ended up striking up a friendship. Both men were not only avid hunters but were also devoted to preserving the wild places and wild animals of the world at a point in time when most of the hunting world was bent on wholesale slaughter. It was the style at the time for hunters to go into the field and mindlessly kill as many animals as possible, thinking nothing of the future. So in 1887, through a continued conversation and deepening friendship, Grinnell and Roosevelt founded the Boone and Crockett Club, named after Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, two of Roosevelt’s childhood heroes. The purpose of the B&C Club was to “promote manly sport with the rifle,” and to spread the ideals of ethical hunting and natural science.

At the time, Roosevelt and Grinnell believed that, although many different hunting clubs and conservation organizations existed, too many were concerned with simply talking about the importance of protecting wild game, but almost none of them were actually working toward that objective. The Boone and Crockett Club still exists today as one of the oldest, most active, and most respected hunting clubs on the planet. “All hunters should be nature-lovers,” said Roosevelt, after he was chosen as the club’s first president. “It is to be hoped that the days of mere wasteful, boastful slaughter are past and that from now on the hunter will stand foremost in working for the preservation and perpetuation of wildlife, whether big or little.” Shortly after founding the club, Roosevelt realized that there was still much to be done in the way of conservation. He also realized that he was uniquely positioned to do more than just form a club and write books. So in 1889, Theodore Roosevelt left the West and returned to his political career, hoping that by doing so he could help preserve the sport of hunting and protect the wild places he loved.

The presidency and beyond

After he first became president in 1901, Roosevelt set to work by establishing more than 150 national forests; 51 bird reserves; four national game reserves; 18 national monuments on more than 230 million acres of public lands; and five national parks—including America’s first and second largest.

After his presidency, Roosevelt continued to hunt and advocate for conservation. He traveled to Africa, where he and his son took more than 512 different game species, all the while cataloging the specimens. Later he presented them to the governments of several African provinces, including Kenya and Uganda, and advocated for the establishment of their own game reserves, bag limits, and protection against poaching. He wrote a book titled “African Game Trails” in which he wrote, “In the creation of the great game reserve through which the Uganda railway runs, the British Government has conferred a boon upon mankind.” The sheer attitude of the book and its promotion of conservation helped facilitate the establishment of great game parks found in East Africa today.

Teddy Roosevelt was probably the first hunter, or at least the most famous at the time, to openly speak about hunting, the importance of conservation, and the connection between the two. So often he is portrayed in popular media as a gun-toting, machismo-oozing, maniac of blind patriotism, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. The reality is that Theodore Roosevelt was a great American president who realized that the best way to the future was to preserve and protect. He looked at our great country and saw the importance of the wild places, and he knew that they represented more value than just simple monetary gain. He recognized that, to be a sportsman and not just a killer, one had to value wild animals and wild places, and be willing to fight for them so they remain available for our children and their children to enjoy. In this modern age, rife with so much political and environmental dissension, it’s more important than ever to remember the legacy of Theodore Roosevelt.

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