Thinking Like a Conservationist

Aldo Leopold’s “Thinking Like a Mountain” is brief but monumental in importance

By Rob Breeding

Aldo Leopold’s “Thinking Like a Mountain,” is a brief, barely 900-word essay, humble in tone, but monumental in importance.

It appears in Leopold’s classic, “A Sand County Almanac: And Sketches Here and There.” “Thinking” is just a sketch, but it marks an essential pivot point in the way we think about wildlife conservation.

“Almanac” was published posthumously in 1949. It helped recast our underlying philosophy of wildlife management from its agrarian roots to a more holistic approach, emphasizing biodiversity. We continue to hear echoes of this evolution in our contemporary debate about wolves.

In his sketch, Leopold recounts a lunch break during a day of forestry work in Arizona’s White Mountains. As he and a colleague relax on a high ridge, they notice what they think is a deer crossing the stream below. As the animal emerges on the other side, shaking its tail while greeting its pack, the foresters realize the deer is actually a wolf. Their reaction was typical for the time: they opened fire.

Their aim was rather poor, though they still managed to wound a pup and strike the alpha female with a lethal shot. The foresters raced down from the ridge in time to watch, as Leopold described it, “a fierce green fire dying in her eyes.”

Leopold realized in that instant that the wolf, as well as the mountain where it lived, knew something about which he had no comprehension. It was a classic Dunning-Kruger moment, when someone who considers their knowledge limitless is suddenly blindsided by their ignorance. A long process of education follows this “aha” moment, and only this education can restore someone’s confidence to the level they enjoyed before, in their ignorant bliss.

Before Leopold watched that wolf die the forester in him brought an agrarian perspective to wildlife management. Kill all the predators and you’ll get more game. Or instead, let the cattle loose to graze all the grass so we’ll have more beef. And while you’re at it, cut the forest because we need more two-by-fours.

The trees will surely grow back.

There’s nothing wrong with an agrarian approach, if your business is agriculture. But American wildlife and ecosystem management has been on a nearly century-long, albeit uneven, trajectory away from this agrarian model. Nothing illustrates this better than wolf reintroduction.

Leopold came of age in the “Shoot, Skin and Show Off” era of predator management. Countless studies, as well as actual elimination schemes, have since demonstrated this isn’t a magic bullet. Game species may boom if you remove predators and mortality rates drop, at least for a while. You may also get a secondary benefit if you extirpate persistence predators. Remove the pursuing wolf and ungulates relax, the way they do the day after hunting season. With wolves the threat remains year round, however, so prey are always on edge.

Leopold’s education taught him the boom isn’t sustainable. He writes that just as the deer fears the wolf, so the mountain fears the deer, “And perhaps with better cause, for while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades.”

I’m a fan of wolves, but I’m not oblivious to the need for management. It’s no longer Leopold’s era, much less the boundless presettlement West. But our premise has changed. We don’t kill wolves today because we think they’re a disease; we now regard them as therapy. Landscape therapy.

Like any therapy, however, too much of a good thing often isn’t. So we kill some wolves  because society and biology demand it. Yet thanks to Leopold, and the many other developers of the North American Model, we remain ever cognizant of the need for that fierce green fire.

The mountain’s mortality depends on it.