John Olin Launches Scientific Game Management

  • Nature, Animals & Parks
  • 1951

In the 1940s and ’50s, as sporting game like deer, waterfowl, and turkeys became rare amid post-war hunting and building booms, John Olin had an idea. Wildlife could be replenished through scientific improvement of habitat, stocking of creatures bred in captivity, and relocation of seed animals captured elsewhere. And this needn’t wait on state action—it could be done right away by private landowners. Both government wildlife agencies and hunters were dubious, thinking such efforts sounded artificial, and unlikely to make much difference. But Olin was not only a passionate lover of hunting himself but also a determined man with extensive personal resources. He had built a range of Olin enterprises into a juggernaut with 40,000 employees and strong revenues, and after years of financial support for his alma mater Cornell University he enjoyed excellent connections to research expertise. Olin was also a scientist himself, with deep experience as an investigator and a couple dozen U.S. patents to his name. In addition, Olin had funded early studies on private husbandry of land and wildlife conducted by Aldo Leopold, the nation’s first professor of game management at the University of Wisconsin, who bought 120 acres of played-out land on the Wisconsin River floodplain in 1935 to test his ideas on building a conservation ethic among property owners (spelled out in his 1949 classic A Sand County Almanac).

In 1951 Olin launched his own bold conservation experiment. He purchased a farm along the Mississippi River and converted its 522 acres to food and cover plants favored by game birds. He hired a staff of trained conservationists to manage his new “preserve,” and installed a breeder and trainer of field dogs on the property. Soon his “Nilo Farms” (and companion private reserves he established in Georgia and elsewhere) were teeming with wildlife, and his Labrador retrievers and other sporting dogs were winning national field trials and sending their prize offspring around the country to generate new lines of hunting companions. “In less than a decade the Cornell-Nilo relationship has been reversed,” wrote Sports Illustrated in a cover story on this success. “Where once the university assisted John Olin in setting up his program, Olin is now assisting Cornell with valuable research and experimentation undertaken at Nilo.”

Actively managed game preserves exploded in popularity, soon numbering in the thousands as they were established in both private and public formats all across the country—most of them patterned after Nilo Farms. And wild game of all sorts made tremendous comebacks.