In 1887 Theodore Roosevelt and some like-minded friends got together and formed the Boone and Crockett Club, electing young “T.R.” as the first president of America’s first conservation organization. At that time, American wildlife was in shambles.
By today’s standards, most big-game species across the United States would have been considered threatened or endangered, with extinction predicted for bison, pronghorn, elk, and more.
It was a long road back, requiring generations before real progress was seen. Against great odds, many of the most endangered North American species were saved—and today big-game animals are flourishing, some in unprecedented abundance.
The primary reason North America’s wildlife recovered and thrived is our unique North American Model of conservation, which places wildlife as a “public trust resource,” jointly owned and enjoyed by all, with management primarily funded by sportsmen and -women. No one person or organization deserves full credit, but much of our success goes straight back to T.R. and his fellow Boone and Crockett Club members. They laid out the basics of our North American Model and set the stage for today’s current conservation efforts. Early B&C members were the champions of our first National Parks, including Yellowstone, Glacier, Denali, and Grand Canyon; first legislation for wildlife, including the Timberland Reserve Bill, Yellowstone Protection Act, Lacey Act, and Migratory Bird Treaty Act; and first legislation providing federal funding for wildlife conservation, including the Wildlife Restoration Act (Pittman-Robertson) and the Federal Duck Stamp Act.
We can note that despite their origins not all conservation organizations remain supportive of hunting, either as a culture or (in accordance with the North American Model) an essential funding base. However, B&C remains grounded in its roots. Today B&C remains active in innumerable conservation projects and initiatives, but among America’s hunters, the Club’s two most visible aspects are Maintaining Records of North American Big Game and as both the author and chief proponent of Fair Chase hunting.
SO FEW DID SO MUCH
The Boone and Crockett Club has always been a small group with a limited membership. It’s amazing that so few accomplished so much. In 1887, to some degree a fortunate accident of history, they were the right people at the right time. America’s new conservation crusade got a huge boost when U.S. Vice President Theodore Roosevelt became president after William McKinley’s assassination in 1901. One of America’s most popular presidents, Roosevelt was elected in 1904, then chose not to run in 1908, departing for Africa with son Kermit shortly after William Taft’s inauguration. In 1912, famously running independently for president as the candidate of the Bull Moose Party, Roosevelt was defeated by Woodrow Wilson. He remained active in politics and conservation until his early death in 1919 at just 60 years old. To this day, Roosevelt remains the face of B&C, but his fellow founders must not go unnoticed. They included George Bird Grinnell, Gifford Pinchot, and Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman.
MORE THAN TROPHIES
Today the word “trophy” has been so effectively co-opted by anti-hunters that many, including too many avid hunters, look down their noses at “trophy hunting.” B&C’s answer to this is that records honor the animal. The club does recognize the successful hunters in their listing, but they also record found or “pickup” animals, regardless of origin.
B&C has been collecting and maintaining records of North American big game since the 1920s. There are sound, scientific reasons for maintaining records. First, it’s valuable to know how large animals within a species might grow. Horn, antler, and skull measurements are used because, unlike weight and body measurements, they are irrefutable and not perishable. It takes time; at the outset, nobody really knew “how big is big.” Over time, minimum measurements or “scores” for inclusion in the records books have been adjusted—usually upward as the database grows, but occasionally down if entries decline over time. Also valuable, as the database increases and trends appear, is knowing where exceptional individuals come from because this gives clues as to the most ideal habitat.
The most important reason, however, is B&C believes that a continuing flow of extra-large animals into the records database is an indicator of overall health of the herds and, over time, a scarcity of entries suggests problems. The long-term decline of mule deer across much of the West was documented by the lack of entries in the B&C record book. Most experts today agree that mule deer numbers are up and most herds are healthy again—and in recent years mule deer entries into the records have increased.
Mind you, this does not mean that every hunter will find a B&C mule deer—or a monster of any other species. With data now going back nearly a century, the minimums are lofty. The taking of a B&C-qualifying animal isn’t just a once-in-a-lifetime event, it’s a stroke of fortune that might not occur in a lifetime of hunting. And yet it may, because the B&C records provide absolute proof that big ones are still out there.
What is absolutely not true is that most large animals are taken by well-heeled hunters on costly guided hunts. Every three years B&C sets an Awards Period and calls in the largest animals taken in each records category. I’ve emceed the last several triennial awards, and I’m always struck by the number of great animals harvested by DIY hunters—often on public land close to home.
For the recent 30th Awards (2016–2018), 95 awesome North American animals were invited for the Awards celebration. I’ve reviewed both the 30th Awards booklet and Balfour’s detailed notes. Whether the hunt was guided or unguided isn’t always clear—and it makes no difference to records placement—but I’m certain that more than 55 of those 95 huge animals were taken by hard-working DIY hunters.
In the 19th century, America was fast losing its wildlife, largely due to then-unregulated market hunting. As a means of distinguishing market hunting from sport hunting, an ethical code of hunter conduct was discussed at the very first B&C meeting in 1887. “Fair Chase” is the name given to this code and was defined by the Club as: “The ethical, sportsmanlike, and lawful pursuit and taking of any free-ranging wild, native North American big game animal in a manner that does not give the hunter an improper advantage over such animals.”
The concept of Fair Chase is rich with meanings and benefits, but there is one very important aspect of a fair and honest pursuit that often gets overlooked. Sportsmen are the leading edge of the longest, continuous movement in American history: conservation. Fair Chase is about restraint, which is the essence of conservation.
When B&C’s founding fathers set out to lay the framework for this movement, they knew science, laws, and expert agencies staffed with trained professionals would be necessary, but these would not be enough. They believed an army that intimately knew and cared for wildlife would be needed to take part, stand a post, and never leave it. That army was hunters, and they needed something that connected a passion for the tradition of hunting and the game being hunted with the discipline conservation demanded. That something was Fair Chase.
B&C takes no issue with lawful hunting, but as the traditional keeper of North American records and chief proponent of Fair Chase hunting, they set high standards for inclusion into their records. Some of the details and conditions may surprise you.
CARRYING ON THE LEGACY
B&C recognized how fragmented we hunters are, and at the beginning of the new millennium, it was instrumental in organizing a conservation summit resulting in the founding of American Wildlife Conservation Partners, a coalition that now includes 45 wildlife organizations representing more than 4.5 million hunter-conservationists.
In 2001, B&C joined with Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and Mule Deer Foundation in creating the CWD Alliance in response to growing concerns over Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD).
In 1987, its centennial year, the Club acquired a working cattle ranch on the east front of the Rocky Mountains in Montana and renamed it the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Ranch (TRMR). Developed as a wildlife management and conservation research and education station, TRMR’s Conservation Education Programs now host some 2,500 students and teachers each year, many housed in the new 5,000-square-foot Elmer Rasmuson Wildlife Conservation Center. TRMR continues to operate as a working cattle ranch and is in Montana’s “block” hunting program, allowing public hunting access. Programs at TRMR are key to B&C education efforts today, but they are just part of the picture. B&C offers research grants to graduate students in wildlife management and conservation throughout the United States and Canada and endows the Boone and Crockett Professor of Wildlife Management chair at the University of Montana in Missoula, near B&C’s headquarters.
Even with all this, throughout its long, storied, ever-evolving mission, B&C still keeps records of North American big game and continues to advocate and promote Fair Chase hunting. Rather than a record-keeping organization, Boone & Crockett is the very foundation of America’s conservation movement and an advocate for all hunters, whether they hunt for horns, hide, or meat.