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State of Missouri v. Holland

Bird Protection And Treaty-making

Legislative controls for the protection of wildlife were rare during the 1800s. The few existing laws were state laws, not federal regulations. By the beginning of the twentieth century, however, the decimation of bird species through careless hunting practices and wholesale slaughter for items like feathers used in the feminine millinery industry produced growing pressure for some kind of control.

On 16 August 1916, the United States and Great Britain (acting on behalf of its colony, Canada) signed a treaty recognizing migratory birds as an international food resource and as ecologically important consumers of vegetation-destroying insects. When the U.S. Congress ratified the treaty by passing the Migratory Bird Act on 3 July 1918, it became a federal offense to capture, kill, or sell migratory bird species named in the treaty. Regulations formulated by the secretary of agriculture prohibited spring shooting, set bag limits on ducks and geese, and permanently forbade the hunting of certain nongame species. The act was backed by politically influential hunters, who were generally comfortable with the modest new controls.

Yet the government of the state of Missouri, which lies on the bird migration route between Canada and the United States, challenged the new law. The state, whose hunting season was four months longer than the new federal law allowed, saw the treaty as an invasion of its sovereign rights. When U.S. game warden Ray P. Holland arrested Missouri Attorney General Frank McAllister for shooting ducks out of season, the legal confrontation between the two men's bosses began. The state sued Holland to prevent him from enforcing the Migratory Bird Act and its regulations, implicitly challenging his employer, the federal government.

Rather than challenge specific regulations, the state attempted to scrap all of the new laws by declaring the entire treaty unconstitutional. The Tenth Amendment states that "powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." Missouri argued that all birds found within its borders were essentially the property of the state and thus subject to state, not federal, control. By this rationale, the treaty and its enforcement provisions were an unconstitutional interference with Missouri's rights as a state.

This argument proved to be unsuccessful. A U.S. district court in Missouri ruled that while the enforcement provisions of the act would have been unconstitutional if the treaty did not exist, passage of the treaty validated federal control. The state appealed this decision before the Supreme Court on 2 March 1920.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1918 to 1940State of Missouri v. Holland - Bird Protection And Treaty-making, The Ownership Of Nature, The Migratory Bird Treaty, Further Readings