Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Audubon Society Crisis of 100 Years Ago this Month

One hundred years ago this month a crisis rocked the headquarters of the National Association of Audubon Societies. On June 2, 1911 the Audubon Board of Directors agreed to accept a $25,000 annual subscription from Winchester Repeating Arms Company. The next day the New York Herald published the story on the front page. William T. Hornaday, director of the Bronx Zoo, leaked it to the press in order to embarrass Audubon. It was not a gratuitious action on his part, he rejected in principle that a conservation organization should accept such a large sum of money from company that profited from the death of wildlife. Hornaday had his own prior dealings with Winchester. The gun maker approached him in March, but he would only to accept the money on his own terms. Having campaigned vociferously against the use of pump and automatic shotguns for nearly a decade, Hornaday would not take the gun maker's blood money unless they voluntarily limited the capacity of those weapons they manufactured to two rounds, exactly what he was attempting to do through legislation. Winchester could not abide to Hornaday's terms and turned to T. Gilbert Pearson, the Audubon Secretary. Hornaday knew of Winchester's discussions with Audubon, gauged that the Board would accept based on the membership, and waited to pounce. And pounce he did. For the two weeks after the Audubon Board voted to accept the money he kept up an unrelenting public and private attack. He successfully appealed to Gifford Pinchot, the most famous conservationist of the period, who threatened to resign his Audubon membership if the situation was not made right. Under such pressure a stunned Pearson second guessed the wisdom of accepting the money and began to lobby the Audubon Board to reverse itself.

The publicity did not trouble everyone. George Bird Grinnell, an Audubon Board member, considered it a tempest in a teapot created by a mere three people with only two newspapers. Despite his impeccable conservation credentials which included co-founding the Boone and Crockett Club, organizing the original, short-lived Audubon Society, and editing the influential Forest & Stream magazine, Grinnell proved unable to stem the tide against rescinding the vote to accept the money. Perhaps his own history as a sportsman blinded him to how bad the deal smelled to the larger public. Grinnell proved unable to steal Pearson's resolve. Instead, Pearson found a way out of the crisis. Frank Chapman, an influential Audubon member and editor of their journal, Bird-Lore, had been out of the country when the vote was taken on June 2. Despite telling the press that Winchester had offered the money without any strings attached, Pearson told Chapman that there were strings attached and he no longer considered it possible to comply with them. Predictably, Chapman entered the anti-gun money camp. With Chapman, reversals, and absenstions, Pearson obtained the desired result; two weeks after accepting the money, the Audubon Board rejected it.

Hornaday achieved a victory for having embarrassed Audubon, but he failed in his larger purpose of using this publicity to gain passage of pump and automatic shotgun regulations in New York State. Pearson survived the incident and served over 20 more years as the Audubon Secretary. Hornaday never trusted Pearson, and, although the worked together on occasion, he considered the Audubon Secretary to be a weak leader, easily swayed, and wrong on most wildlife protection measures. Having failed with Hornaday and then with Audubon, Winchester decided it was best to form their own organization. In the summer they created the American Game Protection and Propagation Association (AGPPA) and hired John B. Burnham, an associate of Grinnell, as president. Hornaday and Burnham spent the next two decades fighting over every wildlife conservation issue that came up. Theirs was an epic struggle that fractured the progressive wildlife conservation movement in the 1920s over a series of issues.

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