The government is us; we are the government, you and I. -Theodore Roosevelt

North to Alaska! - B&C Impact Series

By PJ DelHomme 

Gold brought the masses to the Last Frontier in the late 1800s, placing Alaska’s fish and wildlife resources squarely in the crosshairs. Members of the Boone and Crockett Club made it their mission to bring common-sense conservation to those industrious fortune seekers.  


Two years after the end of the American Civil War in 1867, U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward purchased more than half a million North American acres (Alaska) from Russia for roughly two cents an acre. The total price tag was $7.2 million, approximately $144 million today. Many considered the area a vast wasteland, and Seward was the nation's laughingstock. Members of Congress ridiculed him. The press called the purchase “Johnson’s Polar Bear Garden” and “Walrussia.” The nickname “Seward’s Folly” would come later. In 1896, when gold was discovered in Yukon’s Klondike region, miners were the ones laughing—all the way to the bank.

At the turn of the twentieth century, hundreds of thousands of would-be prospectors flocked to northern Canada and the newly purchased lands of Alaska around present-day Nome and Fairbanks. At the time of the Klondike gold rush, the National Park Service estimated that just roughly 30,000 native people inhabited the interior of Alaska.

The influx of miners brought other industries, namely market hunting. Of course, miners and their camps needed meat, and Alaska’s game seemed plentiful. Moose, caribou, waterfowl, and anything else resembling calories were ripe for the taking. There also was a growing taxidermy trade in exotic trophy heads of mountain sheep and giant moose. Fortunately, a group of concerned hunters had formed the Boone and Crockett Club in 1887. Some of its members had hunted the Last Frontier, and others climbed its peaks. While Alaska’s resources were vast, Club members understood that a free-for-all on its fish, wildlife, and timber would leave nothing for the future. Club Members went to work and began by establishing a few ground rules.

Alaska Game Law and Reserves  

Even though Theodore Roosevelt never set foot in Alaska, he was aware of its potential for both natural resource utilization and adventure. Much of Roosevelt’s intel about Alaska came in 1899 from his fellow Boone and Crockett members, who took a two-month cruise to the Alaskan coast and Siberia. The trip was compliments of Edward H. Harriman, railroad magnate and president of the Union Pacific. The Harriman Alaska expedition was initially an excuse for Harriman to relax and hunt Kodiak bears, but it turned into a scientific, fact-finding adventure. He invited biologists, botanists, zoologists, engineers, geologists, and notable Club members C. Hart Merriam and George Bird Grinnell. It’s likely Roosevelt would have been invited, but he had just been elected governor of New York.

Members of the Harriman Alaska Expedition pose at the deserted Cape Fox village, Alaska, in 1899. Note the Tlinget totem poles in background.

Upon his return, Merriam wrote a trip report, and Roosevelt read it. In 1901, Roosevelt was president of the United States and knew the power of the Forest Reserve Act of 1891, which allowed the president to create forest reserves by executive order. In 1902, he designated the Alexander Archipelago National Forest Reserve, which consisted of 1,100 islands off the southeastern coast of Alaska. These islands served as a haven and incubator for seabirds, seals, walruses, and whales. At slightly more than 4.5 million acres, the Alexader Archipelago was just a fraction of the 14.2 million acres of forest reserves Roosevelt designated around the United States in 1902.

Caught on a trail camera, these wolves navigate the dense understory of the Alexander Archipelago in Southeast Alaska.

Roosevelt was hardly alone in his efforts to protect resources in Alaska. In his corner, he had two fellow Boone and Crockett Club members, John Lacey and Madison Grant. The same year Roosevelt was busy setting aside forest reserves, Grant and Lacey drafted legislation that outlawed killing wild game and birds with the sole purpose of shipment out of Alaska. The law defined game animals and birds and established hunting seasons and bag limits. Exceptions were made regarding Native Americans and subsistence hunting. The law was known as the Alaska Game Act.

The law did not sit well with many Alaskans. A grassroots movement in Juneau sought to repeal the law. “Charging that the law promulgated by the Boone and Crockett Club and the Roosevelt administration favored rich sportsmen from the continental United States who wanted to bag a moose in the Kenai Penninsula, Alaskans flouted the game laws, risking arrest,” writes historian Douglas Brinkley.

Roosevelt was not impressed with the dissension. In response to cries from industry and timber interests along the coast where he created the Alexander Archipelago Forest Reserve, Roosevelt designated the 17-million-acre Tongass National Forest in September 1907. The law stood, but thanks to Club member William E. Humphrey, it was modified in 1908. According to George Bird Grinnell, the 1902 Alaska Game Act was largely unenforceable and ineffective. To establish long-lasting game protection, Club members needed the buy-in of those living in Alaska. Congress amended the act in 1908, outlining license requirements for nonresident hunters, the employment of game wardens, penalties, and enforcement. It passed in May but again didn’t prove effective enough.

The 17-million-acre Tongass National Forest was designated by President Roosevelt in 1907.

To give Alaskans more say in how the fish and game were managed, another act, the Alaska Game Law, established, among other things, an Alaska Game Commission in 1925, consisting of five members from different areas in the Territory of Alaska. The act was written by Club members Charles Sheldon (see Denali below) and Henry Bannon, an Ohio lawmaker. According to Club historian William Sheldon, this was “The most constructive work accomplished by the Boone and Crockett Club in the field of game administration….”

Alaska Brown Bears

The Boone and Crockett Club recognizes the area along Alaska’s southern coast and southeast to Juneau as the territory of the massive and well-fed Alaska brown bear. The grizzly, their smaller cousin, lives north of the Alaska Range and the 62nd parallel. Feeding on abundant spawning salmon, brown bears can grow up to 1,500 pounds. And it’s this love of fishing that nearly caused their demise.

The Alaskan Game Act of 1908 recognized Alaska brown bears as a game animal, and they received some legal protection against annihilation. This, as noted above, did not sit well with Alaska residents who saw the bear as a threat to personal safety and a bustling salmon cannery industry. In 1915, a bill was pending before Congress to transfer oversight of the bears from the Biological Survey (the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) to the Bureau of Fisheries. In essence, the fox wanted to guard the hen house. Club member Madison Grant countered the request to reclassify brown bears to fur-bearing animals.


In a letter to Dr. K. Lester Jones of the Department of Commerce, Grant wrote, “I wish to assure you that the Boone and Crockett Club and the Zoological Society, so far as I am in a position to speak for either of them, will be greatly relieved to hear that you are staunchly in favor of extending instead of diminishing the protection afforded the great brown bear of Alaska….” That persuaded lawmakers for a while, but Alaska stayed under the watchful eye of Club members Charles Sheldon and George Grinnell. Sheldon noted in his letters that Alaska residents pushed to strip protection of the bears to allow for the commercialization of bear hides. In the meantime, he tried to play peacemaker between Alaska’s governors and the rest of the country, whose opinion of those calling for the extermination of the bears was growing uglier with every newspaper article.

Sheldon continued to press for the bears' protection, especially regarding their habitat. When President Woodrow Wilson designated Katmai National Monument in 1918, the boundaries of the monument were drawn by Sheldon, who considered the area a refuge for the mighty brown bear. Today, we know the area as Katmai National Park and Preserve, consisting of more than four million acres of prime bear habitat.

Katmai was established in 1918 to protect the volcanically devastated region surrounding Novarupta and the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. Today, Katmai National Park and Preserve also protects 9,000 years of human history and important habitat for salmon and thousands of brown bears. Source: NPS

Denali National Park

Early 1900s was a busy time for Club member Charles Sheldon. After making a fortune in mining and retiring at 36, he devoted his life to hunting and the outdoors. His quest for mountain sheep and grizzlies took him to the wilds of Denali, North America’s tallest peak. Like Katmai, Sheldon was called upon to map the boundaries of a potential national park that included the land surrounding the Great One.

The photo of this pile of 142 Dall's sheep ram skulls was taken around 1939 inside the boundaries of Denali National Park. Note the old cabin in the background. 

Within those potential park boundaries, the Alaska Railway had its sights set on punching in a railroad in 1915. Sheldon was ready. He began his crusade by calling together the game preservation committee of the Boone and Crockett Club. The committee liked the idea of a national park. Sheldon then pitched his idea to the entire executive committee of the Club. It was another win. Then he pitched Stephen Mather, the Geological Survey, and the Bureau of Fisheries. Nearly all were in support, but then momentum slowed.

There were hearings and testimony in Washington, D.C. Sheldon was competing with other parks for designation, namely Mt. Lassen in California and Grand Canyon. He was steadfast in his resolve. By February 1917, Sheldon personally transported the approved bill from the Secretary of the Interior’s office to the White House, delivering it to President Woodrow Wilson, who signed it on February 26, 1917.

Known as the Great One, Denali is the highest peak in North America, reaching 20,310 feet.

Today, Alaska contains more than 225 million acres of federal land owned by all Americans. That’s roughly 62 percent of the state. Much has changed since humans arrived there some 18,000 years ago via the Bering Land Bridge. And yet, much remains unchanged. Thanks to hunters who preached and practiced a relatively new concept called conservation, the great state of Alaska remains wild and ripe for adventure. And it started for just two cents an acre.

About the Impact Series

The Impact Series is dedicated to showing how sportsmen, members of the Boone and Crockett Club in particular, saved the wildlife and wild places of the United States. Early members of the Boone and Crockett Club comprised the movers, shakers, and initiators of the American conservation movement. They were hunters, anglers, explorers, lawmakers, soldiers, and above all conservationists. These members established laws that allowed our wildlife resources to flourish. They also protected landscape-scale geologic marvels and American icons like Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Denali, and many, many more. These members may no longer be with us, but their legacy remains. This series aims to honor their accomplishments and remind us of the good work still yet to do.

PJ DelHomme writes and edits content from his home in western Montana. He runs Crazy Canyon Media and Crazy Canyon Journal.  


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"The wildlife and its habitat cannot speak. So we must and we will."

-Theodore Roosevelt