Early Twentieth‐Century Conservationists

Toward the end of the 1800s, the demise of the bison and passenger pigeon, and the overexploitation of many other species and other natural resources, began to affect the collective conscience of North Americans. Sporadic conservation efforts and localized restrictions on hunting had been implemented earlier, but these were of limited scope and were never effectively implemented (Loo 2006). What transpired at the turn of the twentieth century was a broad social movement that embodied a new way of thinking about wildlife and nature.

The first conservationists were mainly Americans. The end of the frontier was reached earlier in the US than in Canada, and environmental losses were more apparent, making the myth of limitless resources untenable (Foster 1978). Almost from the start, two disparate views of conservation emerged, and they remain distinct themes today: a utilitarian or “wise use” view and a preservationist view (MacDowell 2012). Advocates of the utilitarian approach, such as the first Chief of the US Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot, focused on the sustainability of resource use and elimination of wasteful practices. They also emphasized the importance of scientific management and centralized control over resource use.

The preservationists valued nature for its intrinsic qualities, rather than as a resource for human use. They were led by men such as John Muir, who co-founded the Sierra Club in 1892. The preservationists’ main concern was the loss of wilderness, and their preferred tool was protected areas, where resource development was prohibited. Pinchot and Muir were both advisors to President Theodore Roosevelt, who was himself a strong advocate of conservation. Both views of conservation were advanced under his watch, though the utilitarian view was dominant and eventually co-opted the term “conservation.”

Conservationist ideas percolating in from the US helped to generate a conservation movement in Canada, distinguished by strong support among political and business leaders (Sandlos 2013). The high-water mark was the establishment of the Commission of Conservation, through an Act of Parliament in 1909. The Commission was heavily influenced by Pinchot and his utilitarian views of conservation as well as ideas from the contemporary Progressive Movement about efficiency, science-based decision making, and professional management (Sandlos 2013). It published about 200 reports during its tenure, greatly expanding knowledge related to resource management and contributing to the development of public policy (MacEachern 2003). In so doing, it raised the profile and credibility of conservation and promoted its widespread adoption.

By World War I, Canada’s approach to resource management had been completely overhauled. The state was now firmly in control, and the fragmented and uncoordinated management efforts of earlier periods had been replaced with top-down bureaucratic management systems involving planners, scientists, foresters, game wardens, and others. The new approach incorporated the concepts of utilitarian conservation and featured a legal foundation, professional staff, research-based problem solving, and effective enforcement. Attention was focused on three main areas: game management, forest management, and parks.

Game Management

The decline in wildlife populations during the 1800s was, fundamentally, a manifestation of the Tragedy of the Commons (Box 2.1). Human populations were now far too high and technology was far too lethal to maintain a sustainable rate of harvest in the absence of effective control mechanisms. This control was achieved by the early conservation movement, but not simply through tougher laws and regulations. The critical change was the emergence of a sport hunting ethic, originating mainly in middle and upper-class society (Loo 2006). In the absence of such a shared vision and ethic, it is unlikely that regulation alone would have been effective, given the challenge of enforcing such rules in Canada’s vast wilderness.

Box 2.1. The Tragedy of the Commons

The Tragedy of the Commons is a resource management problem in which the users of a shared resource end up depleting it through the narrow pursuit of self-interest (Hardin 1968). In the absence of controls or assigned rights, individuals are motivated to take as much from the commons as they can because failing to do so means someone else may get their share. Perhaps the most grievous example in today’s world is the global decimation of fish stocks through overfishing of the high seas.

By the turn of the twentieth century, Canadian society was changing, as cities grew and became the focus of political power. Subsistence hunting had no relevance for these urbanites, though many retained a strong desire to hunt and reconnect with nature as a recreational pursuit (Fig. 2.3). Sport hunting reached its pinnacle during this time and was one of the top recreational activities for men (Herman 2003).

Fig. 2.3. Portrait of a sport hunter, circa 1900. Credit: B. Hoare, Provincial Archives of Alberta.

The objectives of sport hunting are far removed from those of subsistence hunting. It is not the meat, but the hunting experience that is of highest priority. And this changes everything. Instead of focusing on the most effective and efficient means of killing, sport hunting is based around ideas like challenge and fair chase (Posewitz 1994). As a result, wildlife is most valuable while it is alive, not dead. Finally, from the perspective of sport hunters, subsistence hunters, market hunters, and hunters that did not adhere to the sport hunting creed were all unwanted competitors.

The sport hunters, being largely urban based, were politically well connected. In fact, politicians were as likely as not to be sport hunters themselves. Therefore, the system of game management that developed during this period was designed to serve the needs of sport hunters over other users. The new system of management was based on three core policies, which remain in place today: (1) the absence of a market for the meat and products of game animals; (2) the allocation of hunting rights by law, not birthright, social position, or land ownership; and (3) a prohibition on the frivolous killing of wildlife (Geist 1988). Earlier piecemeal hunting laws and regulations were also coordinated and strengthened, and game wardens were hired to ensure compliance. Practices contrary to the sport hunting ethic of fair chase were generally banned, and restrictions were placed on the number and types of animals that could be taken and on the timing of the hunt (Donihee 2000).

These policies and regulations had several effects. First, they removed value from dead animals and increased the value of living animals. They also ensured that the killing of wildlife was not economically rewarding, once the costs of equipment and travel were accounted for. In addition, the take of individual sport hunters was reduced to a sustainable level. Finally, the system made each citizen a shareholder in wildlife, with a stake in maintaining healthy populations. An important caveat was that management interest was squarely focused on game species above all others. Species that were perceived to be a nuisance, such as wolves and raptors, were still killed indiscriminately.

The new system of game management was very successful in terms of its stated objectives. After decades of widespread decline, the populations of most game species stabilized and began to recover (Geist 1988). In turn, hunting opportunities increased, and so did economic benefits and jobs associated with wildlife (e.g., outfitters and equipment suppliers). Many conservation organizations also came into being, providing political and material support for conservation efforts.

This is not to say that the new system was free from detractors. Rural people, in particular, chafed at the new restrictions imposed upon them by what they perceived as urban elitists (MacDowell 2012). Market hunters were, of course, none too pleased either, though declining wildlife populations had already reduced their prospects for profit. In any case, neither of these groups had the political power needed to stem the tide of change.

The new system of wildlife management, which emphasized public access to the resource and the absence of markets, was applied to most game species. However, furbearers and certain fish species were handled differently. For furbearers, sustainable commercial harvest was achieved, and continues to be achieved, by regulating access through exclusive-use traplines. This privatization of the resource kept interlopers out and encouraged trapline owners to harvest at a sustainable rate. In addition, the high rate of reproduction of furbearers, relatively low economic potential of trapping, and the labour-intensive and arduous nature of trapping, all contributed to keeping supply and demand in balance.

Commercial harvest was also maintained for a variety of fish species, but here the outcome was generally very poor in terms of sustainability. In large part, this was because the resource could not be effectively privatized—neither fish nor boats could be tied to defined locations. Thus, the Tragedy of the Commons manifested, exacerbated by progressive improvements in the efficiency of commercial fishing. We will review an example involving walleye fisheries in Case Study 5 (p. 293).

Forest Management

Forest harvesting underwent a rapid expansion during the 1800s, supported by a thriving export market to the US and England, as well as growing internal demand. The general approach to harvesting was “cut and move on,” which propelled cutting crews down ever-smaller tributaries of the waterways needed to transport the timber to market (MacDowell 2012). The advent of railroads in the mid-1800s greatly improved access to backcountry forests, leading to further increases in the rate and spatial extent of cutting.

Forest harvesting was only loosely regulated throughout most of the 1800s. The main concern of governments was the extraction of rents and the control of competition through regulated access (Ross 1997). In contrast to the US, access to forests was generally provided through temporary leases rather than land sales, and this turned out to be a pivotal decision. Over the years, the retention of public land ownership in Canada has been a critical factor in advancing forest conservation.

The conservationists of the early twentieth century were not concerned about the commodification of forest products, as they were with wildlife. Their major worry was that forest depletion would lead to timber shortages, jeopardizing future economic development (Drushka 2003). This was conservation with a very strong utilitarian and economic orientation. Three main problems were identified that required attention: farmers, fire, and poor harvesting practices.

The primary tool for dealing with agricultural clearing was the establishment of forest reserves, where land clearing and human settlement were prohibited (MacDowell 2012). The basic idea was to allocate landscapes according to the uses for which they were most suitable. In some areas, the forest reserves were intended to also support watershed conservation.

Concerns about fire losses led to regulations on the use of fire and the deployment of fire rangers in many parts of the country. Rangers sought to prevent fires, especially from careless brush burning and sparks from trains. They were also expected to find and fight fires, to the extent this was possible at the time (Drushka 2003).

As for harvesting practices, the conservationists engineered a major overhaul, which included new measures to ensure forest regeneration, sustainable rates of harvest, and the prevention of waste (Ross 1997). In addition, under the influence of Pinchot and the Progressive Movement, management was thoroughly modernized. Formal bureaucracies dedicated to forest management were developed at the provincial and federal level, and professional foresters came into existence. Research into sustainable and efficient forest harvesting also got underway, led by the federal government’s new Dominion Forestry Branch (1899), Canada’s first Faculty of Forestry, at the University of Toronto (1907), and the Commission of Conservation (1909).


Another manifestation of the early conservation movement was the establishment of parks. Unlike the US, where wilderness preservation was an important driver of park establishment, Canada’s first parks were created mainly for their utilitarian benefits. A good example is Ontario’s Algonquin Park, established as the first provincial park in Canada in 1883. This park was created with three specific uses in mind (MacEachern 2003). Sport hunters sought a wildlife sanctuary to provide hunting opportunities. Logging interests sought a forest reserve where a secure supply of pine could be obtained. And municipalities sought the protection of the headwaters of several major rivers. Wilderness preservation and the conservation of biodiversity were notably absent as motivating factors.

The creation of Banff in 1885, Canada’s first national park, also illustrates the mindset of the time. In this case, the primary interest was the commercial potential of tourism (MacDowell 2012). The government and the directors of the Canadian Pacific Railway recognized that the region’s spectacular mountain scenery and the newly discovered hot springs would draw travellers from around the world. It took just three years for the 250-room Banff Springs Hotel to be built, and other mountain parks and Canadian Pacific Railway hotels soon followed. Although tourism was the main focus, additional revenue was sought from hunting, mining, and logging, all of which were permitted in the mountain parks in their early years.

In 1911, Canada formally established a Parks Branch, responsible for overseeing the expansion of the national parks system (Tanner 1997). The agency was led by James Harkin, who would become one of Canada’s leading voices on conservation and the preservation of Canada’s special places. Additional provincial parks were established during this period as well. Management efforts were primarily focused on creating the infrastructure needed to support tourism and recreation within the new parks. Additional efforts were directed at increasing wildlife populations and the prevention and control of fire (MacDowell 2012).

In addition to the new recreational parks, several wildlife reserves were established to support the rehabilitation of species that had been decimated through overharvest. The largest of these, at 44,800 km2, was Wood Buffalo National Park, established in 1922. Some of the other reserves that were established around this time, such as the National Antelope Parks in Alberta and Saskatchewan, were later decommissioned after the target species had recovered (Foster 1978).


Share This Book