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Vanishing Big Game of the World -- A Memorial that Was Never Needed

Celebrating the Centennial of the Boone and Crockett Club’s National Collection of Heads and Horns with the 31st Big Game Awards


May 25, 2022 marked the centennial anniversary of the opening of a building housing the National Collection of Heads and Horns at the Bronx Zoo in 1922. Organized by several Boone and Crockett Club members, the Collection was intended to raise visibility for declining wildlife species and was officially dedicated “In Memory of the Vanishing Big Game of the World.” 

But the idea of displaying these “vanishing” species kindled a commitment to conservation, and that commitment burned strongest in the sporting conservation community. With a foundation in Fair Chase ethics and selective harvest of only mature males, coupled with wildlife conservation policies, the species on display in the National Collection of Heads and Horns began to thrive once again. 


As we celebrate the centennial of the Collection, it is appropriate to reflect on how far we have come for wildlife conservation and how sportsmen and women—through the Boone and Crockett Club and other hunting conservation organizations—must continue to lead the charge. It also provides the opportunity to recognize how the Club’s system for maintaining records of the heads, horns, and antlers of big game species has validated these conservation successes, particularly since the Collection’s centennial falls in the same year as the 31st Big Game Awards.

Founding the National Collection

Sportsmen of the late 1800s were witness to the “Era of Extermination” of the nation’s wildlife and were the first to demand change. Most citizens were largely unaware that after unregulated and relentless killing, the nation’s wildlife were in grave condition. The New York Zoological Society—an organization formed by the Boone and Crockett Club and led by B&C members William T. Hornaday and Madison Grant—formulated a plan to create a depository of outstanding big game trophies from around the world to preserve for future generations…before it was too late. The vision included a memorial to preserve, through museum displays, species that they thought would be extinct within the century. The goal was to create two complete collections of all the heads, horns, and antlers of the world’s ungulates. It would be called the National Collection of Heads and Horns.

In 1907, Hornaday and Grant used their connections to the Boone and Crockett Club and other organizations to spread the word to sportsmen that they were looking for donations. Contributions to the National Collection came from all over the world—Hornaday even donated his personal collection of 131 heads and horns representing 108 species. Many others followed and the Collection totaled more than 700 specimens by 1910. Not more than a dozen years later, a special building in New York City’s Bronx Zoo was constructed to house the display. 

Hornaday and Grant standing in front of the National Collection of Heads and Horns building.

When the building was dedicated in May 1922, Hornaday noted that, “The National Collection of Heads and Horns was founded and formed as a duty owed to the American people and to the vanishing big game of the world… As wild animal extermination now is proceeding all over the world, it is saddening to think that 100 years hence many of the species now shown in our collection will have become totally extinct.” 

Hunting for Conservation and the Growth of the Records Program

In the 1900s, there were few whitetail deer, just 5,000 pronghorn and only 41,000 elk. The age of extermination had nearly wiped out bison. So, imagine this sales pitch to the American public: wildlife is being decimated by overharvest, and the new plan to save what’s left and recover these populations is to… continue to hunt them! This might be the very definition of “counterintuitive.” And it certainly begs the question: why not just stop all hunting and all use? The genius of Theodore Roosevelt and Boone and Crockett Club members is that they knew that taking hunters out of the equation would cut off the only lifeline game populations had. No access, no advocates, no funding for conservation programs. 

The Boone and Crockett Club’s records program began as an effort to memorialize these vanishing species. In 1895, shortly after its founding in 1887, Theodore Roosevelt, George Bird Grinnell and Archibald Rogers demonstrated how to measure big game during a sportsman’s show in Madison Square Garden. Club member Member James Hathaway Kidder then published the first “scoring manual” in 1906.

Painting from John Seerey-Lester's book, The Legendary Hunts of Theodore Roosevelt: Boone and Crockett Edition depicting Club members measuring big game during the 1895 Sportsmen's Exhibition. 

As noted, the National Collection and the measurement system were initially conceived to record species of North American big game thought to be vanishing. A 1931 report calling for the start of the Records of North American Big Game, stated: “The idea of this record originated not through a desire to inspire hunters to indiscriminate killing in an effort to acquire a record head, nor to promote a market for heads of extraordinary size, but rather to preserve an official record of vanishing game of North America.” Shortly after in 1932, the Club’s first big-game record book titled, Records of North American Big Game was authored by long-time Club member, Prentiss N. Gray in cooperation with the National Collection of Heads and Horns.

During this time, the conservation movement began to take hold. Over the course of the first half of the 1900s, the first laws and policies governing wildlife and providing funding for conservation were enacted, and the hunting community including the Boone and Crockett Club led the charge. Thanks to these efforts and the public visibility of the National Collection of Heads and Horns, wildlife once again began to thrive. 

In 1907, Hornaday appealed to the sportsmen of America to donate their best specimens to be considered for display. Shown here is the Mackay Collection, which was presented to the National Collection by Clarence H. Mackay between 1911-1912. The collection included 12 Alaska-Yukon moose, 10 American elk, and four bison.

Wildlife managers and others in the scientific community soon recognized that the system designed to record what was thought to be the last of certain big game species, was also an effective means of tracking the success of new conservation policies and programs. The Club’s measuring system was refined and standardized in 1950 and the system is still used today. 

Because the measuring techniques have remained constant since then, the Boone and Crockett Club’s records program has established a baseline and allows standardized comparisons of big game animals through time, which researchers can use to study wildlife management. These trends are used by wildlife managers as an indicator of herd and habitat health. 

The National Collection of Heads and Horns Today and the 31st Big Game Awards

The National Collection of Heads and Horns exhibit at the Bronx Zoo closed in the 1940s and three decades later, Boone and Crockett Club member Lowell Baier led an effort to salvage many of the North American specimens including six mounts that were the “nucleus” of the original Collection. The display moved to the NRA’s Firearms Museum in Washington, D.C., in 1978 and then to the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming, in 1982. 

The wall of North American big game in the National Collection of Heads and Horns, June 2022.

Today, the National Collection of Heads and Horns is a featured exhibit at Johnny Morris’ Wonders of Wildlife National Museum & Aquarium in Springfield, Missouri. The exhibit tells the story of conservation and the work of the Boone and Crockett Club. And this year, for three months, the National Collection of Heads and Horns is situated next to a temporary 31st Big Game Awards display highlighting the top trophies added to the Club’s Records of North American Big Game over the last three years. 

This year’s 31st Big Game Awards is a continuation of 75 years of recognizing some of the most remarkable specimens of big game. The Boone and Crockett Club formally began hosting what were originally called annual “competitions” in 1947. This was changed to every two years in 1952, and to every three years by 1968. These triennial events were renamed Awards in the early 1970s to better reflect the basic concept of recognition of fine trophies taken under the principles of Fair Chase rather than “competition” for such trophies. 

A portion of the 31st Big Game Awards Trophy Exhibit in the Wonders of Wildlife National Museum & Aquarium.

At the close of each three-year Award Period, the Club publishes a Big Game Awards record book, which includes all qualifying trophies entered and accepted during that time. The top trophies in each category are invited to the Big Game Awards. These top trophies are first panel scored by senior Boone and Crockett Official Measurers to verify their entry scores, and then put on display so the public can see firsthand the successes of North America’s wildlife management. The trophies included within the 31st Big Game Awards were re-measured by a judges panel in late April before being placed on display in the Wonders of Wildlife Museum.

Conservation and wildlife management have come a long way since the time when a National Collection of Heads and Horns was necessary to document what were thought to be the last of vanishing big game species. The 31st Big Game Awards presents an excellent opportunity to celebrate these successes.




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

-Theodore Roosevelt