(This was originally published in “The Guide”, October-November 2014. Special thanks to Scott Nunn for permission to reprint it on the North Country History website.)
Hunting and fishing is a way of life in northeast Michigan, but imagine the state empty of wildlife. Thanks to market hunting this nearly happened as Michigan lost two major game species and endangered another.
The passenger pigeon became extinct in 1914 after having been the most populous bird species in North America. In the early 1800s John James Audubon saw flocks of a billion birds that took three days to pass over his home in Kentucky. They proved to be an easy target. Sportsman William B. Mershon wrote in 1907 “They were slain by the millions during the middle of the last century, and from one region of Michigan in one year three million Passenger Pigeons were killed for market, while in that roost as many more perished because of the barbarous methods of hunting them. They supplied a means of living for thousands, who devastated their flocks with nets, guns, and even with fire.”
At the same time as the slaughter of the Passenger Pigeon, a unique fish was discovered in the AuSable River. The grayling was a popular game fish found in Europe but was unknown in the United States until it was identified in the waters below the village of Crawford in the 1870s. The fish was so numerous that the residents voted to rename their community “Grayling” in honor of the fish. During Michigan’s lumber boom another boom was happening on the same rivers sending logs to the sawmills. The grayling, described as “very beautiful and of a delicious flavor” was very easy to catch.
Thaddeus Norris described of fishing on the AuSable River in Scribner’s Weekly in November 1879, “On the second day we killed and salted down-heads and tails off-a hundred and twenty pounds of fish, besides eating all we wanted.” Hazen Miller wrote in The Old Au Sable “the activities of two Chicago groups that had camped on a northern grayling stream and had taken a total of eight thousand grayling. Most of the fish had been sent to Chicago, but many were left to rot on the banks of the streams.” Like the Passenger Pigeon, the grayling was a marketable commodity and was packed for shipment on the railroad. Rube Babbitt reminisced “from 1875 to 1881 father and I shipped our catches to a Chicago restaurant, which paid us the unheard-of-price of 25 cents a pound.” After the grayling disappeared Rube Babbitt introduced the brook trout into the AuSable River and was later appointed the first Deputy Game Warden in Crawford County.
With the extinction of the grayling, trout became a popular sports fish. Brook trout was native to some of Michigan’s rivers and was planted in those that had been home to the grayling. Also introduced were the Brown trout from Europe and the Rainbow trout from the American west. All three have thrived.
The third game species that market hunters went after was deer. The white-tailed deer was not populous in northern Michigan until the pine was cut and aspen and oak took its place. By the 1870s the deer population exploded and market hunting thrived. According to the DNR, “Market hunters slaughtered hundreds of thousands of deer for the sale of venison. The hindquarters and legs were shipped during the fall of the year with the rest of the deer discarded.”
In 1880 the Michigan Sportsman Association reported that of 70,000 deer taken in Michigan, market hunters took 66,000. An estimated five million pounds of venison was shipped out of state. This led to an 1881 regulation banning out of state sale of venison, but this was difficult to stop as no game wardens were appointed to enforce the law. Not until 1895 was a law enacted setting a season of November 1-25, a bag limit of five deer, and required a license to hunt.
Market hunting is now a thing of the past in Michigan and our wildlife has benefited from this. The Passenger Pigeon and the Michigan Grayling will never return but responsible game and habitat management will ensure that the white-tailed deer population is never endangered.