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Art Lander’s Outdoors: Early Kentucky’s era of exploitation awakened conservation movement

This second article in a two-part series, in honor of Kentucky’s 225th anniversary of statehood, focuses on the 150 years from 1750 to 1900, with a timeline of human use of natural resources. The research for this article is courtesy of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources.

Kentucky’s historical era began when Virginia physician and land speculator Thomas Walker passed through Cumberland Gap on April 13, 1750. Walker found incredible natural resources, diverse fauna and flora, clean streams, and rich mineral deposits. What he wrote about the plants and animals observed, and what his party encountered, whetted the appetite of a generation of land-hungry Colonial Americans who would follow.

After erecting a crude cabin near what is today the town of Barbourville, Ky., Walker and his men spent the next few weeks exploring what must have seemed like a land of opportunity.

“We killed 13 Buffaloes, 8 Elks, 53 Bears, 20 Deer, 4 wild Geese, about 150 Turkeys, besides small game. We might have killed three times as much meat, if we had wanted it,” wrote Walker, in a journal entry upon completing the trip on July 13, 1750.

This unique area west of the Appalachian Mountains, that would become America’s 15th state in 1792, was bounded on three sides by major rivers, and had five distinct physiographic regions. There were 13,000 miles of rivers and streams teeming with fish and mussels. Old-growth forests covered 90 percent of the 40,395 square miles.

By the end of the 19th century, many of Kentucky’s native species that were here in 1750, were effectively extinct as a result of human activities. This included elk, black bear, American bison and large predators — wolves and mountain lions.

There were vast tall grass prairies, licks where salt water bubbled out of the ground, and an estimated 1.5 million acres of wetlands. In the rolling land of the interior, park-like savannas stretched for miles, with clusters of burr oaks and blue ash trees interspersed by grasslands, and vast stands of river cane.

Early Exploration

The first explorers found thundering herds of bison, majestic woodland elk, a white-tailed deer seemingly in every forest opening, and unimaginable numbers of bears.

Spring dawns were filled with a chorus of gobbling wild turkeys, and in the fall the skies were dark with migrating waterfowl. Beavers and otters swam in every river and wetland, and mountain lions and wolves feasted on the young, infirmed, or unlucky.

Walker was the first of many to venture into this unexplored wilderness on horseback, with little more than a knife, a tomahawk, and a flintlock longrifle.

Others that would follow included Daniel Boone, America’s quintessential frontiersman, who first set foot in Kentucky in the fall of 1767. He was a trail blazer and settler who was captured by the Shawnees in 1778 and adopted into their tribe as Shel-tow-ee, Big Turtle, “son” of Blackfish.

James Harrod, an excellent marksman and hunter, who founded the first permanent settlement in Kentucky, in modern day Mercer County, on June 16, 1774. He eventually became a well-to-do farmer who owned 20,000 acres, but the wanderlust got the best of him. He disappeared while on a hunting trip in the winter of 1792.

Pre-statehood Game Laws

It didn’t take long for early settlers to notice the game was getting scarce.

While Kentucky was still a colony of Virginia, the first game laws were passed. In 1776, a law was passed that restricted the time when deer could be taken. It read, “no deer to be killed until the first of August.”

Rapid Human Population Growth Impacts Wildlife

Settlers poured through Cumberland Gap. By 1780, Kentucky’s population was growing daily.

Esteemed Kentucky historian Thomas D. Clark wrote that by 1790, when Kentucky’s population had grown to 73,677, “Kentucky farmers and merchant traders had developed a rich commerce in tobacco, hemp, cured meats, lard, whiskey, corn, and small grains.”

By the end of the century many travelers reported diminishing wildlife populations. Kentucky’s population had ballooned to 220,955, according to the 1800 census.

Kentucky’s first legislature passed a law requiring all male citizens to help kill squirrels. Squirrels were so numerous that they were especially a problem in corn fields, threatening a basic staple in settlers’ diet.

During the late 18th century in Kentucky, fur was worn as winter clothing, and skins were used for clothing, leggings, rugs and bedding. Native Americans traded furs for goods. Deer skins and fur were valuable commodities of the New World, exported to Europe for hats and clothing.

Rivers Dammed, Forests Cut, End of the Buffalo

Grain was ground using water mills. Almost all free flowing streams along the Kentucky River in the Blue Grass Region were dammed. Later, the Kentucky River, and many of the state’s major rivers would be dammed, which impacted fish populations by making it possible to net migrating fish during spawning runs.

By 1810 most of the prime land in central Kentucky had been claimed, the forest cleared away, and cultivated fields and grassy meadows were yielding rich harvest of field crops and herds of livestock.

By 1820 the buffalo, which had fed a generation of early settlers, disappeared.

After the turn of the century, lumber production began, but the period of most intense logging peaked around 1870. Trees were cut down for fuel, too. Between 1830-1860, Kentucky ranked third in the nation in iron production and the process required large amounts of wood for furnaces resulting in the harvest of most of timber near furnaces.

Forest lands were disappearing, with each passing decade.

The 1870 Census of Agriculture showed 8,103,850 acres of “improved land, 9,134,059 acres of woodland, and 1,421,593 acres of other unimproved lands.” By comparison, consider that today, after 225 years of residential and commercial development in Kentucky, and a human population estimated to be 4.425 million by the U.S. Census Bureau, the Kentucky Division of Forestry reports that 48 percent of Kentucky is forested, about 12.4 million acres.

Commerce Blossoms, End of the Elk

Commerce blossomed as Kentucky’s first railroad, between Frankfort and Lexington, was completed. By 1852, the tracks have been laid, extending the railroad westward, to Louisville.

Domestic livestock was replacing wild game on the dinner table. The 1840 census of agriculture revealed that Kentucky has 787,093 cattle, 2,310,533 swine and 536,432 poultry. Livestock is allowed to “free range,” competing with wildlife for food.

By 1847 naturalist and wildlife artist John James Audubon wrote that “there’s likely no elk left within 100 miles.”

Destruction of Fishery Resources

A century after the beginning of the frontier era, in 1850, Kentucky’s population had reached one million. By the late 1850s the destruction of fishery resources so outraged the populace that local laws were passed prohibiting seines and nets on the Kentucky, Barren and Green Rivers, below locks and dams, and within a half mile of tributary streams. These laws usually included fines and the seizure of nets.

In 1876 Kentucky authorized $3,000 to establish a 10-member fish commission. Its first annual report concludes that “our streams are barren and it is evident that they have been depleted by the constant and indiscriminate use of nets and traps.”

Protective Wildlife Laws

By the late 19th century, several Kentucky counties had enacted protective wildlife laws, and set fines for those convicted of violations. Often, persons who turned in the violator, would share in the fine paid by the violator.

These local laws were typically related to: prohibiting the taking of birds and animals, prohibiting the live capture (netting) of birds and animals for commercial purposes, times of the year when bird and animals could not be hunted, or trespassing on lands to hunt or fish.

In 1894, a statewide wildlife law was passed by Kentucky’s General Assembly, establishing “closed seasons” during various times to the year, to provide protection when species most vulnerable. For example, deer were protected March 1 through September 1; ducks and geese, April 1 through August 15, and wild turkey, February 1 through September 1.

Other species protected included: squirrel, woodcock, quail, dove, and song birds (protected all year, unless destructive to crops). Wildlife were protected from live trapping, having their nests raided for eggs, and being sold during closed seasons. The penalty for violation of these laws ranged from $5 to $25, with county officials responsible for enforcement and prosecution.

By the end of the 19th century, many of Kentucky’s native species that were here in 1750, were effectively extinct as a result of human activities.

For more outdoors news and information, see Art Lander’s Outdoors on KyForward.

White-tailed deer, wild turkey, beaver, river otter and other important species still occurred in pockets of inaccessible or undisturbed habitat, but were largely depleted from the region.

Wildlife Conservation Movement Emerges

Woodlands were being cleared and burned, rivers dammed, wetlands drained, and wildlife populations were plummeting. It was time for the state and federal government to step in, demanded sportsmen.

Kentucky’s first sportsmen’s club, The Louisville Shooting Club, was founded in 1868. Today, there are more than 40,000 anglers and hunters who are members of The League of Kentucky Sportsmen Inc., which represents clubs all across the state.

In the late 19th century wildlife conservation had emerged as a social and political movement, led by “sport hunters,” who decried the devastating losses of wildlife caused by “market hunters” – those who hunted for profit.

One of the major causes of market hunting was the Industrial Revolution, since it shifted human populations from farms to the cities, and created a demand for meat.

As sport hunters organized to protect lands from market hunting, they developed codes of conduct and ethics and promoted the concept of “fair chase.”

With a stroke of the pen, President William McKinley signed landmark legislation into law on May 25, 1900, outlawing market hunting in America.

The Lacey Act, the first federal law protecting wildlife, made it illegal to take, transport, possess or sell illegally taken game. The law created civil and criminal penalties for the “hunter” and the person dealing directly with the end consumer.

After passage of the Lacey Act, the Kentucky General Assembly began passing state laws to further protect wildlife, paving the way for wildlife management as we know it today, and, ultimately, the creation of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources.


Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for NKyTribune and KyForward. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

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