How Wisconsin Earned Its Reputation as a Champion for Wildlife and Mother Nature

About that reputation: it sometimes seems too obvious, or maybe even trite to keep bringing it up – Wisconsin’s reputation as a leader in the protection of wildlife and natural resources. Sometimes you have to wonder: does it really bear repeating all the time? Or is it just something we, in Wisconsin, tell ourselves because now and then we’ve gained attention beyond our borders for our natural resource policies

I wondered that yesterday when I wrote here about the Endangered Species Act of 1973, and cited Wisconsin’s similar statute that went into effect almost two years before the federal law. I’m happy to say I found an answer to this quandary by spending time at the DNR’s “There’s A Lot to Celebrate!” website, and by following a link I found there to the “History of Endangered Resources Program 1970-2006”.

Spring wildflowers in Door County, Wisconsin (A “Badger & Whooping Crane photo)

That link led to another website – one belonging to the South Central Wisconsin Association of Retired Conservationists. Interesting, I thought, immediately seeing a new source for blogposts, but I’ll leave that for another day! For now, let’s look at why I’ve come to believe that Wisconsin has truly earned its reputation.

It’s not just that Aldo Leopold settled here, wrote here, and held the first professorship in wildlife management – the first in the nation; nor that Wisconsin played a nurturing role in the boyhood of John Muir, although it did.

Continuing on the theme of what it “isn’t” – Wisconsin’s national reputation does not principally derive from so-called “recent” events – like the pretty-much global recognition of Wisconsin’s Senator Gaylord Nelson as the “Father of Earth Day.” Nor does it mostly stem from the state’s bureaucratic decisions, like the creation of the Department of Natural Resources in 1966. The DNR goes back a long way: it was the direct successor of the Wisconsin Conservation Department which had been established in 1927. And the WDC emerged from the state’s Conservation Commission – the first one appointed in 1908.

By consulting the timelines embedded in the “History of Endangered Resources Program”  (referenced above),  I feel that I’ve found the evidence that Wisconsin’s conservation ethic really IS part of the fabric of our state, and has been from the state’s beginnings. From random notes from the pre-20th century timelines I learned that Wisconsin’s first game management laws were passed in 1851, just three years after statehood was granted.

Here are other gems from that time period. For 1857: “Birds, nests, and eggs protected in any cemetery or burial ground.” And from 1867:  “Increase Lapham reported on the destruction of state forests.” A 3-man Fish Commission was appointed in 1874, and in 1877, Wisconsin became the first state in the nation to prohibit the killing of birds for “millinery purposes.” The state’s first warden, Rolla Baker, was appointed in 1879.

Once into the 20th century the “Conservation Events Impacting Endangered Resources” become all that more numerous. But one of my very favorites is listed in 1935: “Teaching of conservation made compulsory in public schools.” That’s three and a half decades before the words “earth day” ever crossed anyone’s lips, but conservation lessons were being taught to Wisconsin school children from those early years.

At Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, which was established in northern Juneau County in 1941 (A "Badger & Whooping Crane" photo)

At Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, which was established in northern Juneau County in 1941 (A “Badger & Whooping Crane” photo)

So yes, I do believe that Wisconsin’s reputation comes from more than making a few headlines now and then. Maybe it’s more like a package of things have come together to create a climate where an Aldo Leopold and a Gaylord Nelson could thrive. What about you – would you agree that Wisconsin has earned its reputation as a champion of wildlife and natural resources? Or do you see it another way? Comments are always welcome!

 

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