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Game laws are statutes which regulate the right to pursue and take or kill certain kinds of fish and wild animal (game). Their scope can include the following: restricting the days to harvest fish or game, restricting the number of animals per person, restricting species harvested, and limiting weapons and fishing gear used. Hunters, fishermen and lawmakers generally agree that the purposes of such laws is to balance the needs for preservation and harvest and to manage both environment and populations of fish and game. Game laws can provide a legal structure to collect license fees and other money which is used to fund conservation efforts as well as to obtain harvest information used in wildlife management practice.
In Great Britain the game laws have developed out of the forest laws, which in the time of the Norman kings were very oppressive. Under William the Conqueror, it was as great a crime to kill one of the king's deer as to kill one of his subjects. A certain rank and standing, or the possession of a certain amount of property, were for a long time qualifications indispensably necessary to confer upon any one the right of pursuing and killing game. Game laws such as the British Night Poaching Act 1828 and Game Act 1831, both still in force in modified form, and still more their predecessors, such as the notorious Black Act of 1723, enacted savage penalties for poaching. But the Game Act installed under William IV did greatly mitigate the game laws: the necessity for any qualification except the possession of a game certificate was abolished, and the right was given to anyone to kill game on their own land, or on that of another with permission.
During the early history of the United States, little or no attention was paid to the destruction of birds or other wild animals. Probably the earliest law on the subject was one passed in Massachusetts in 1817, establishing closed seasons for certain animals and birds shot as game. Eventually wild game, whether of forest, field or stream, became perhaps better protected than in any other country in the world. All states passed game laws of their own. Nearly every state instituted a game and fish commission and numerous game wardens.
A national game law, known as the Lacey Act, passed by the U.S. Congress in 1900, gave to the United States Department of Agriculture certain powers, by which, among other provisions, no importation of wild animals, birds or fishes could be made without a permit from Secretary of Agriculture. Many important additions and amendments to the Federal laws were passed during the succeeding 10 years, all tending to protect game and game birds in their natural state without interfering with the importation of birds, birds' eggs or animals for breeding purposes. During 1910 there was an increase in these importations.
Congress then came to adopt the theory that the migratory birds, being in most cases mere travelers across states, were not local residents nor state property, but belonged to the people at large; and if they were to be saved to the people the national authority must intervene. Therefore, Congress passed (4 March 1913) the Weeks–McLean Act, the gist of which was:
“All wild geese, wild swans, brant, wild ducks, plover, woodcock, rail, wild pigeons, and all other migratory game and insectivorous birds which in their northern and southern migrations pass through or do not remain permanently the entire year within the borders of any State or Territory, shall hereafter be deemed to be within the custody and protection of the Government of the United States, and shall not be destroyed or taken contrary to regulations hereinafter provided therefor. The Department of Agriculture is hereby authorized and directed to adopt suitable regulations to give effect to the previous paragraph.”
The most important effect of this law — and a very far-reaching benefit — was the stoppage of the shooting of wild fowl in the spring, which was especially prevalent in the Mississippi River Valley. Because of a constitutional weakness, this act was later replaced by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.
- Rines, George Edwin, ed. (1920). "Game Laws". Encyclopedia Americana.
- Rines, George Edwin, ed. (1920). "Birds, Protection of". Encyclopedia Americana.