Just over a century ago, hundreds of record racks and skulls were being amassed in New York City for the National Collection of Heads and Horns. Inscribed above the front entrance was this dedication: In memory of the vanishing big game of the world. At the time, President Theodore Roosevelt, famed naturalist George Bird Grinnell, and other conservation leaders did what seemed illogical in the face of massive big-game species extinction across the continent: They encouraged people to shoot trophy animals.

Their efforts set the stage for the game laws, licenses, quotas, restrictions, and habitat studies that make our North American Model of Wildlife Conservation unlike anything else in the world. In the decades that followed, those game species whose representatives hang in the museum returned to their former glory, or at least some version of it.

But somewhere along the way, trophy hunting earned a bad name. The country urbanized and lost touch with its hunting roots. Wild-game populations boomed, and in many areas, herds needed to be managed in order to reduce numbers, not increase them. Hanging a trophy head on the wall was no longer a motivator for the majority of the hunting public. News outlets and tabloids attacked lion-hunting dentists and elephant-hunting sons of presidents.

Strip away all the controversy and rhetoric, and you’ll find that trophy hunting—the pursuit of the oldest, largest males of a game species—has been a critical part of the wildlife management success story on this continent. The question now becomes: Will it remain part of that success story in the future?

Trophy Hunting to the Rescue

Trophy hunting certainly didn’t start with Roosevelt and his American hunting buddies. Famed Canadian wildlife researcher Valerius Geist wrote in a 1986 paper that antlers of medieval red deer were “collected and exchanged as princely gifts.” And William Twiti, writing about hunting in 1327, specifically addressed rack size: “The head grows according to the pasture; good or otherwise.”

Back in those days, big deer hanging in even bigger halls were a sign of healthy, fertile land, says Justin Spring, director of big-game records with the Boone and Crockett Club. By the late 1800s, trophy hunting was being used in North America as a conservation tool for the first time.

It’s hard to overstate the destruction wrought on North American wildlife after Europeans arrived. Bison went from more than 30 million animals to about 1,000. Bighorn sheep from 1.5 million to 85,000. Elk from 10 million to 41,000. Pronghorn dropped from 40 million to 12,000. Turkeys disappeared east of the Mississippi. Two subspecies of elk, the eastern elk and Merriam’s elk, vanished. Reasons for the carnage included habitat loss, market hunting, overharvesting by homesteaders and pioneers, and the intentional elimination of food sources for Native tribes.

“You’ve heard the old adage, one buck. You got $1 for a deer in the days of market hunting—that’s where that term came from. What was once believed to be an inexhaustible resource was getting hammered,” says Spring.

So in 1887, a coalition of bigwigs in the conservation movement, including Roosevelt and Grinnell, formed the Boone and Crockett Club (named after iconic frontiersmen Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett), a place where hunters could dedicate their efforts to reversing the wildlife losses of prior decades. Under the framework of their new club, the founders set their sights on changing laws and the culture around hunting wildlife in North America. They would start with targeting only the oldest, largest males of any given species. In other words, trophy animals.

“If you reduced hunting pressure significantly and only harvested those animals that had the opportunity to breed or were past breeding age, then the populations would be able to rebound. At the same time, [hunters are] able to hunt without having a negative impact on the population,” Spring says. “They changed the narrative.”

Meanwhile, naturalist William Temple Hornaday established a place to keep and display a record of species that had existed across the continent. He wanted a collection of trophy mounts to serve as an official record of what had been.

“It seemed necessary to get while the getting was good, and before further exterminations of species rendered it too late. … As wild animal extermination now is proceeding all over the world, it is saddening to think that 100 years hence many of the species now shown in our collection will have become totally extinct,” he wrote in the Zoological Bulletin in 1922 about the National Collection of Heads and Horns.

As those early conservation efforts succeeded, the Boone and Crockett Club created a system for measuring and scoring big game. The scores of these animals, and the locations where they were killed, would be kept in the club record book, which was meant to keep track of what the world’s wildlands could produce. An animal’s score represented the quality of its habitat. And animals could be entered into the record books only if they were taken under fair-chase hunting conditions, meaning the animal had a true chance to escape. The record book gave hunters a goal and an ethic that required game animals have a sporting chance.

“The idea that had to be adopted by the public at that time was to say you took one, maybe. You got out and hunted, but killing a lot of game, a bunch of game, was not sustainable,” Spring says.

Recording the biggest animals, one after another for decades, allowed biologists to track how the health of land determined the robustness of herds. That information then informed hunting seasons, quotas, and habitat projects.

“And that’s been the mode of operation for our scoring system at our club ever since,” says Tony Schoonen, Boone and Crockett’s CEO. “We have our conservation policy efforts that have gone on for the last 130 years, and our scoring system exists to this day to measure the success of those efforts.”

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