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Spread across these pages in a graphic display is the balance sheet of conservation in America. The statistics which are here interpreted in picture form are among the most vital in our history (see opposite page). They reflect tragedy and hope in the long and often disheartening battle to preserve American wildlife against the encroachments of civilization—the tragedy of loss, the hope that the loss may yet in part be redeemed. SPORTS ILLUSTRATED herewith begins a continuing survey of conservation, past, present and future—the bloody story of early heedless massacres, the first awareness of the urgent need for conservation measures, the fumbling growth of this awareness into legislation and a science, a summary of what has been done and what must still be done. In our first article, Peter Matthiessen, author of the new work Wildlife in America, tells the history of conservation in the U.S. and eloquently pleads its cause.
In 1843, eight years before his death, John James Audubon made a journey up the Missouri River from St. Louis to Fort Union, on the present-day North Dakota-Montana border, in order to see, collect and portray western animals for his volume on quadrupeds. For the most part, his journey records abundance, and his observations for August 17 included bands of antelope, bighorn sheep, deer, wolf, swans and elk, as well as bear tracks. On another typical day, he reports: "Wolves howling, and bulls roaring, just like the long-continued roll of a hundred drums. Saw large gangs of Buffaloes walking along the river.... Fresh signs of Indians, burning wood embers, etc...."
Francis Parkman, who journeyed west in 1846, was also mightily impressed by the great frontier with its wildlife, and with the Indian tribes which were his passionate interest. In one of his vivid accounts he relates a scene in which "curlew flew screaming over our heads, and a host of little prairie-dogs sat yelping at us at the mouths of their burrows on the dry plain beyond. Suddenly an antelope leaped up from the wild-sage bushes, gazed eagerly at us, and then, erecting his white tail, stretched away like a greyhound. The two Indian boys found a white wolf, as large as a calf, in a hollow, and, giving a sharp yell, they galloped after him; but the wolf leaped into the stream and swam across.... A herd of some 200 elk came out upon the meadow, their antlers clattering as they walked forward in a dense throng...."
But the frontier, as the white man knew it, was short-lived. And Park-man, who recorded it so well, lived on to see it fade before the rising tide of the nation's westward expansion.
At first the white men came in trickles, but the flow rapidly increased. The smaller animals, especially the antelope, were taken whenever possible, as a supplement to the prairie diet of buffalo meat, and the slaughter increased as the buffalo declined. Whereas once the antelope was said to be as numerous as the plains bison, roaming from Alberta south to the plateaus of northern Mexico and west as far as the Pacific slope, by 1910 its bands were small and scattered, and only emergency protection spared it from complete extinction. The pronghorns have since recovered, and are even to be found in fairly large numbers in Wyoming and Montana, but those inhabiting the black sage sidehills and tablelands of the northern Great Basin area have declined again quite seriously in recent years.
The American elk, too, were nearly wiped out, and although they are no longer endangered, it is disheartening to reflect that they were once one of the most widespread of all American hoofed animals, ranging from the Southwest into Canada, and from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Their decline was made no less shameful by the fact that in their darkest days, early in this century, they were killed commonly for their "tusks" alone. An elk's tooth was considered lucky, even by the Indians, who once presented Audubon with an antelope robe decorated with 56 of them. In the winter of 1915 some 500 elk were poached in the Yellowstone area alone, to supply teeth to joiners of the benevolent order named in honor of this animal.
Today except for a few isolated and restocked herds, the elk (or wapiti) of North America are largely confined to the Rocky Mountain region from Wyoming to British Columbia; the greatest single herd inhabits the Jackson Hole-Yellowstone region of northwest Wyoming. A lesser herd—the mighty Olympic or Roosevelt race—has been able to maintain itself on the Olympic Peninsula of northwestern Washington.
Like the elk and the antelope, the great hosts of the woodland caribou which moved north and south on their seasonal migrations were once almost as striking as those of the bison, and, like the bison, these animals were crucial to the survival of the Indians within their range. In the U.S. the former range of the woodland caribou included all the Canadian border states from Maine to Washington. It was extirpated early, however, and was last seen in New Hampshire in 1885, and in Maine just after the turn of the century. In recent decades a small, wild herd was exterminated in Washington, and the last woodland caribou in the country persisted a few years longer in a marshy region near Red Lake, Minn. Though still quite common in Alberta, with small populations in Labrador, Newfoundland and the Gasp� Peninsula of Quebec, the woodland caribou is today embattled throughout its range.
The bighorn sheep also was among the western animals destined to fade away before the face of man, and a century of expansion devoured it. Lewis and Clark had found sheep abundant on the upper reaches of the Columbia, and they were commonly taken by the emigrants who came after. Very good to eat, the bighorn was a logical source of meat in the hill country. As time went on and their numbers declined, they could not withstand the competition of the domestic sheep imported to their terrains, and suffered seriously from scab and other diseases contracted from these stupid, stunted cousins. In the present century, the bighorn, bearing on its head a pair of magnificent curled horns, has been beleaguered constantly by big-game hunters. No longer a legitimate game animal in most of its shrunken range, it is still poached frequently by sheepherders, prospectors, and others, even within the confines of the vast, desolate refuges established in southwestern mountains for its protection. Several varieties are now extinct, among them the badlands bighorn and the rim-rock bighorn, a race native to the lava-bed country of the northern Great Basin. The Sierra Nevada race is also near extinction, as is the Texas bighorn, among the southern species; only the northern Rocky Mountain sheep, ranging from Wyoming to Alberta and British Columbia in what the first French trappers called the Shining Mountains, is still in fair condition.
At one time or another, in fact, the white man has substantially diminished all the hoofed mammals of North America except the mountain goat of the Northwest—Montana, Idaho, and Washington north to southern Alaska—and the Dall sheep, a small, white relative of the bighorn, which inhabits the northern areas of the same range as well as the mountains of the Alaskan interior; both animals have been generally spared to date by a wild and relatively inaccessible range and habitat.