Market Hunting — When Population Boomed (Part 3)

American bison, numbering about 60 million at the founding of the nation, were hunted almost to extinction, mostly by market hunters. By 1889 just 541 animals remained. This female bison and calf are two of today’s roughly 31,000 wild, free-ranging bison, mostly in national parks. (The skeleton in the lower right corner is that of a pronghorn antelope.)
Contributing Writer

Steve Sorensen

The industrial revolution was one of history’s great rapid advancements. Praised for raising the standard of living and transforming the United States into an economic power, it also led to the decimation of wildlife populations through market hunting.

The industrial revolution began around the time of America’s founding and faded in the mid-nineteenth century, but it set the pattern for converting the country from a rural, agrarian society to an urban, industrialized one. As America’s economic engine sped forward, cities pulled population from rural areas well into the twentieth century. Railroads made long distance travel easier and faster than ever and gave settlers, explorers, tradesmen and people looking for a fresh start easy access to the west. Then, refrigeration meant wildlife from the west, especially bison which roamed the plains in vast herds, could be killed and transported to serve people who had migrated to those urban centers.

“Manifest Destiny” was the watchword of the day, and it applied not only to westward expansion but also to the conquest of the continent. America’s wildlife seemed a never-ending resource, and what better ticket to economic prosperity among rural people than hunting to meet the needs of the emergent nation? Not only bison, but deer, elk, and turkeys along with countless other birds were slaughtered for hungry workers at lumber camps who were deforesting the landscape in order to provide lumber for new homes in the rapidly growing cities.

It wasn’t only the massive need for food that was met through market hunting. Vanity also played a role, as birds were killed so that fashionable folks could wear their fancy feathers.

Even those who didn’t live near wild game needed to eat, and wildlife was abundant. It soon became a product of trade, a cash commodity without regulation. This was market hunting, and those who engaged in it were expanding on the idea of subsistence. In a matter of decades market hunting brought the extinction of some species and threatened to eradicate others.

Before the mistakes of market hunting could be corrected, the eastern elk and woodland bison were gone. The passenger pigeon was extinct and American bison and pronghorn antelope were in steep decline. Deer and wild turkeys were suddenly rare. Market hunting proved to be no friend to wildlife.

Although subsistence hunting and market hunting were both practiced to feed people, their effects were radically different. It was a matter of scale. Subsistence hunting could be sustained, but a bourgeoning human population dependent on market hunting was a serious threat to survival of many wildlife species.

By the end of the nineteenth century, something needed to change. Thanks to the prosperity of a maturing nation, wildlife became a subject of serious scientific study by trained naturalists, many of whom were also hunters. By that time, the United States of America extended from coast to coast and, because of the diversity of habitat and the variety of species across the nation, the states were the logical political bodies to regulate hunting. These visionary hunters began lobbying for states to take action, and shaped ideas that would save wildlife.

Today, we’re all against market hunting not just because it brought about the demise of some species, but also because sport hunting introduced a view of wildlife that had never existed before. Market hunting had to become illegal, and we would be right to say the transition from market hunting to sport hunting saved wildlife. In North America, sport hunting became the tool that guarantees wildlife remains abundant, accessible, and renewable for hunter and non-hunter alike. Sport hunting has been the prevailing model for more than one hundred years now, and although poorly understood by most of its critics, sport hunting is in the interest of everyone.

Stay tuned. In Part 4 of this series, we’ll focus on sport hunting and its benefits.

When “The Everyday Hunter” isn’t hunting, he’s thinking about hunting, talking about hunting, dreaming about hunting, writing about hunting, or wishing he were hunting. If you want to tell Steve exactly where your favorite hunting spot is, contact him through his website, He is a field contributor to Deer and Deer Hunting magazine, and won the 2015 and 2018 national “Pinnacle Award” for outdoor writing.