In 1600, the land that was to become Illinois was covered with millions of acres of prairies, forests and wetlands. Wildlife was plentiful. The only people were Native Americans. These people had systems of trade with other Native Americans, but for the most part, they provided for all of their needs with the resources available to them. They wore clothing made of animal skins and furs. They slept on furs. They harvested only those animals needed to supply food, clothing and shelter.
By the late 1600s, people originally from Europe began arriving in this land. They were missionaries and traders. The missionaries came to the area to spread their religion, while the traders came to find furs and other natural resources.
Why did they want furs? Fur-bearing animals had been overhunted in Europe. There were low numbers of these animals, and fur was scarce. Fur was needed to make coats, men’s top hats and other clothing. There were many animals and few people in North America. Furs were a source of money for the fur traders, who would kill the animals for their fur and purchase furs from Native Americans, then sell the furs and ship them to Europe in boats. Although the value of furs varied, American beaver (Castor canadensis) pelts were the ones most in demand for a long time.
As word spread about the riches that could be made from the furs, hundreds of people from the eastern part of the United States began to move to the Illinois Territory to trap beavers and other animals. There seemed to be a huge supply of beavers. Everyone wanted to trap as many as they could. None of these people knew much about beavers, such as how they reproduce and grow or the value that they provide to the environment. Thomas Jefferson, our country’s president from 1801-1809, encouraged everyone to trap beavers and sell them. Trading and selling beaver pelts brought in goods and money from other countries.
This process went on throughout the 1700s and 1800s for other animals, too. Populations of many species, including beavers, declined so much from hunting and trapping that it was difficult for them to survive in Illinois. Greater prairie-chickens (Tympanuchus cupido), elk (Cervus elaphus), gray wolves (Canis lupus), beavers, passenger pigeons (Ectopistes migratorius) and white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) are just a few of the species affected. Beaver populations were so low in the early 1900s that they may have been eliminated from the state. Passenger pigeons became extinct in the early 1900s. Greater prairie-chickens, once among the most common Illinois birds, are an endangered species in Illinois.
There were no statewide conservation laws to protect species in the 1600s, 1700s and most of the 1800s. With wildlife species becoming rare in the state, people began to see the need for rules to help protect our natural heritage. The first conservation law in Illinois was passed in 1853, but it applied to just a few animal species and only covered a few counties in northern and central Illinois. It was changed to cover the entire state in 1873. In 1871 the first limited fish conservation law was passed. In 1885 the first “game wardens” were hired to cover the Peoria, Chicago and Quincy areas.
The first federal law to help save wildlife was passed in 1900. Known as the Lacey Act, it made transport of live or dead wild animals, or their parts, across state borders without a federal permit illegal. It was also illegal to import foreign wildlife without a government permit.
The Department of Conservation was formed in 1925 and Law Enforcement was added to this agency’s duties in 1928. The Department of Conservation became the Illinois Department of Natural Resources in 1995.
Many federal and state laws were passed in the 1900s to help save wildlife, plants and natural areas. There are too many laws to talk about here, but you can learn more here.
We will feature two of these important conservation laws: the Pittman-Robertson Act and the Dingell-Johnson Act.
The Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act was passed in 1937. It is also known as the Pittman-Robertson Act, for U.S. Senator Key Pittman of Nevada and U.S. Representative A. Willis Robertson of Virginia who worked to make this legislation possible. This law places an 11 percent federal tax on all sales of sporting arms and ammunition. These funds are provided to the states for hunter safety education programs, surveys and investigations, land acquisition and research. They also support management and restoration of wildlife in the states.
The Federal Aid in Sport Fish Restoration Act, also known as the Dingell-Johnson Act for its sponsors, U.S. Senator Edwin Johnson of Colorado and U.S. Representative John Dingell, Sr. of Michigan, was passed in 1950. This law places a 10 percent federal tax on fishing equipment. It provides federal funding to the states for management and restoration of sport fish in the marine and fresh waters of the United States.
In 1929 beavers were reintroduced to Illinois. With the enforcement of hunting laws and with management of this species and its habitat, beavers were able to reproduce and spread throughout the state once again. Their population increased enough so that trapping of beavers was legalized. They have maintained a good population since then. There will never be as many beavers in Illinois as there were in the 1600s, but we can be pleased that people made a difference in order to bring this and other parts of our natural heritage back to the state.