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Manifest Destiny and the Land Ethic: On Aldo Leopold, Escudilla and the Big White Bear

Escudilla was once more than just a mountain. To Aldo Leopold, writing in Sand County Almanac, the massif in Arizona’s White Mountains was defined by the grizzly bear, “the outstanding achievement of… the pageant of evolution.” Leopold tells the tragic tale of how Old Bigfoot, one of the last grizzly bears in Arizona, was killed on Escudilla: “The government trapper who took the grizzly knew he had made Escudilla safe for cows. He did not know he had toppled the spire off an edifice a-building since the morning stars sang together… Escudilla still hangs on the horizon, but when you see it you no longer think of bears. It’s only a mountain now.”

I remember where I was, in a college library, when I first encountered Aldo Leopold and this essay. Unwittingly, I have since followed the trail that he helped blaze. It has been instructive, upon rereading his many writings, to better understand how his own route through the fields of ecology, wildlife management (which he helped invent), and conservation was something of a bushwhack—not unlike my journey.

Growing up at a time when predators were widely viewed as “varmints,” Leopold did not start out with reverence for bears, wolves, or mountain lions. In fact, as part of his first job as a ranger for the US Forest Service in the Southwest, he was charged with killing predators, especially wolves. In a 1920 essay, Leopold wrote of predators as “the common enemy of both the stockman and the conservationist.”

I have long been fascinated with Leopold’s conversion in his views about predators, which happened sometime during his late 20’s. The details of his process of transformation are still a bit of a mystery. Last summer, I asked his daughter, Estella, about her father’s metamorphosis. But she didn’t know precisely how or when it happened either. The mystery probably went to the grave with Aldo’s beloved wife, also named Estella, with whom he shared everything.

There are only Leopold’s words for what actually happened. In “Thinking Like a Mountain,” he writes about shooting into a pack of wolves, and then this: “We reached the old wolf in time to watch the fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes – something known only to her and the mountain. I was young then and full of trigger-itch: I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunter’s paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.”

It hardly matters that according to biographers, Leopold probably did not change his views in a flash. His story is better the way he told it. In some respects, the fierce green fire became Leopold’s own in his life-long crusade for wilderness, predators, and biodiversity writ large. Leopold’s fight has in turn become ours, in the sense that many scientists, educators, conservationists, and increasingly the broader public, care passionately about protecting the wild nature we have left.

The Spell of Escudilla

Escudilla has cast a spell on me since college. I was then already smitten with the West and mountains with magical names like “Wind Rivers” and “Beartooths.” Around that time, near Yellowstone, I nearly collided at dusk with a grizzly who wheeled and disappeared in the forest, but not before locking eyes for a split second that seemed to last forever. I subsequently underwent something of my own conversion, bolting from my birthplace in rural Pennsylvania to seek the wilds of the West, my home for the past 40-plus years.

Last winter David and I made a pilgrimage to Escudilla. We were stopped by snow at about 9,000 feet. In a grassy meadow, elk tracks and pocket gopher diggings spoke to what Old Bigfoot may have eaten before he walked into the string of the trapper’s set-gun in a narrow defile and shot himself. Rising two thousand feet above us, Escudilla Peak was as commanding as when Leopold rode, weeks at a time, as a Forest Ranger, and for hundreds of years prior, when Puebloan and later Apachean peoples hunted and camped on its flanks.

Scattered spruce, Douglas-fir, and leafless aspen did little to block a stiff, cold wind that muffled David’s joyful shout: he had found a southwestern white pine. David had documented black bears eating white pine seeds that had been conveniently cached by squirrels on the flanks of the San Francisco Peaks – not unlike the grizzly bear’s habit here in Yellowstone of raiding squirrel middens for the fat-rich seeds of the tree’s cousin, whitebark pine. (I have wondered what bear food David has not written about and have yet to find one.) Almost certainly, Old Bigfoot would have carried a map of the middens in his head.

David photoshopped a grizzly in several photos he took of the meadow on Escudilla. They were apparently so convincing that several of his Facebook fans did not get the joke.

Of Manifest Destiny and The Land Ethic

Leopold witnessed the tail-end of a blood bath during which almost all the grizzlies, wolves, and other wildlife – not to mention native peoples – had been killed in the West. Driving the killing was the ethos of Manifest Destiny, defined by the need to dominate and subdue nature in order to “be fruitful and multiply.” Well-armed settlers and government trappers, such as Old Bigfoot’s killer, shot, trapped and poisoned every predator they could – even gassing wolf pups in dens and burning whole forests to eliminate their last refuges.

In a mere 60 years, European settlers succeeded in wiping out grizzlies in 97% of the lands where they once roamed. In 1918, Leopold’s contemporary, C. Hart Merriam, head of the US Bureau of Biological Survey, published a report showing where the last populations of grizzlies hung on, some comprised of just a few individuals — essentially the walking dead. Merriam and his colleague Vernon Bailey thought eight species of grizzly roamed the Southwest, but taxonomists later concluded these were slightly different morphs of what we now call Ursus arctos. Still, their maps and reports tell the story of how small island populations of mammals go extinct, and the seeming inevitability of the trajectory.

A century later, David plotted the last known locations of Southwest grizzly bears from reports and journals written by Merriam, Bailey, and sundry trappers and early Anglo visitors, finding Escudilla to be part of a much bigger complex he called “Gila/Mogollon,” where grizzlies lasted longer than elsewhere in the region – but not by much.

Fortunately for all of us, Leopold did not sit on the sidelines. He pled for saving bears and “all the pieces” of ecological systems, arguing for a different, more compassionate relationship with nature. Coining the term “The Land Ethic,” Leopold famously wrote: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” It is no exaggeration to say that Leopold’s land ethic would revolutionize our views about our responsibility to nature.

Leopold’s thinking, as well as that of Olaus and Mardy Murie, Bob Marshall, Thoreau, Emerson, and Muir became my North Star. And they gave me a framework to deal with my distress about the destruction being wrought by the rampant clearcutting and booming oil and gas drilling underway in Wyoming. There WAS something I could do–something that involved saving wilderness and the wild animals that depended on it. I became an advocate for Wilderness in Wyoming, playing a bit part in a campaign that became the first of my career.  It succeeded.

In the fall of 1983, when I arrived at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies for graduate work, one of the first things I did was to climb to the fourth floor of Sage Hall to find Leopold’s face among the graduating class photo of 1909.

Luna: Of Ferocity and Fear

Leopold tragically passed away while fighting a neighbor’s grass fire in 1948, long before I was born. But during the 1980s I had the privilege of meeting his son, Luna, who had edited (very lightly) A Sand County Almanac and Round River for publication. I was then Field Studies Director of the Teton Science School in Jackson, near where Luna summered.

Luna, a Professor of Hydrology at Berkeley, had huge hands, an aquiline nose, and fierce eyes.  I was terrified, a feeling reinforced after almost bombing his summer hydrology seminar.

It turned out that Luna was a complex man whose interests ranged far beyond rivers and water.  True, Luna was a world class hydrologist, and eloquent like his father, writing: “Water is the most critical resource issue of our lifetime and our children’s lifetime. The health of our waters is the principal measure of how we live on the land.”

But little about the natural world escaped his interest. He kept notebooks in which, among many things, he recorded the emergence of different species of butterflies after rainstorms. One night, around a campfire, I heard him tell a story that made a deep impression. Holding an ancient hand axe found not far from his cabin in the Wind Rivers, he summarized the sweep of the earth’s geologic and human history, in a little over an hour. His knowledge, daring, and storytelling skill were boggling.

Once, I saw Luna and his friend and colleague, geologist Dave Love, in action in a meeting with the Forest Service convened to purportedly hear input on a proposed clearcut in grizzly bear habitat—in an area prone to landslides. (With input from Luna and Dave, my Teton Science School students also researched the proposal, making their opposition abundantly clear to stone-faced Forest Service managers).

Both Luna and Dave despised stupidity, but dealt with it differently, Dave with a devilish twinkle, Luna with a ferocious gleam. Over maps, they described likely impacts of the clearcut and proposed miles of roads. After several tries, the Forest Service minion still wasn’t getting their arguments, which were, to be sure, inconvenient. When Luna brought his huge fist down on the table to make a point, the minion cringed. The clearcut never happened, but explanations differ: some say it was because of all the fuss made by my students, but Luna and Dave provided the intellectual muscle.

Only much later did I discover, to my astonishment, that Luna could be afraid, including of grizzly bears. He said this about a trip to Alaska’s Brooks Range with his father, Aldo: “As I looked across the gravel to the bordering thicket, I wondered how long it would take a grizzly bear to cross that narrow open space. I realized then, but did not want to acknowledge it, that I was afraid.”  After a beautiful expose, Luna concludes with this: “The experience of fear in a wild landscape, even of short duration, leads to a reorientation of mind. It can clear out the clutter of the modern scene and allow one to see life and land in a new context.”

I regret feeling somewhat intimidated by Luna. I wish I would have had the guts to ask him more about his childhood, his family, and personal evolution. At least I had that chance last summer with Estella, who is now the only member of Aldo Leopold’s immediate family still alive.

Estella: Paleontologist, Campaigner, Friend

Estella shares a lot with Luna: his nose, luminous eyes, ready laugh, and musical talent. But unlike Luna, she put me at ease instantly.

For a day and a half, Estella generously shared her life and perspectives, so rich that I plan on devoting several future podcasts and blogs to hopefully do them – and her – justice.

I had come with a book Estella had written a few years before, Stories from the Leopold Shack: Sand County Revisited.  Like Escudilla, for me “The Shack” may as well be the Sistine Chapel, but located on a degraded farm near Madison, Wisconsin, that Aldo Leopold had purchased during the Depression. Together, the family brought the farm back to life, replanting pine forests, restoring fire, and, previously unimaginable, even restoring the prairie itself. The Shack was center stage in the thinking and writing of Aldo Leopold (a number of essays in Sand County Almanac are set here), but it was also ground zero for the family. To the Leopolds, The Shack meant work, play, scientific inquiry, love and adventure, long before it became hallowed ground to conservationists and ecologists around the world.

It was almost inevitable that young Estella would become a scientist. The youngest of five siblings (who each became leading scientists in their own right), when twelve years old Estella was asked by her father what she wanted to be when she grew up. She responded: “a bug-ologist, the others are already taken.” Estella became instead a ground-breaking paleobotanist. But throughout his life, her father only called her “baby” because, she said, her mother was the only “Estella” to him.

She inherited her father’s fierce intellect, basic kindness, love of nature, and storytelling gene, writing that: “The romance of a lost biome dominated by ice-age mastodons, and a warmer climate when prairie Indian cultures were in their heyday, can be inferred from fossil evidence and can be read in the lines of the pollen story.”

During my conversation with Estella I expected to hear about her scientific endeavors, but was astonished to learn that she had mastered environmental campaigning, preferring often to work behind the scenes. She showed her chops in a successful fight she helped lead to save the Florissant Fossil Beds, which she describes in Saved in Time: The Fight to Establish Fossil Beds National Monument, Colorado, coauthored with Herbert Meyer. These fossils beds have been called an Eocene Pompeii, as they were created when a huge volcano erupted some 34 million years ago, freezing in time a boggling diversity of living things — insects, mammals, birds and plants.

The campaign had it all: science, of course, but also effective use of the media, grassroots organizing and outreach (just the second time bumper stickers were used), public protest (picture ladies in pearls and high heels with small children in front of bulldozers), litigation, and federal legislation that ultimately protected this “Rosetta Stone” of fossils as a national monument.

Within a visionary strategy, Estella and her fellow campaigners fit the pieces together as if the outcome was preordained, capitalizing on mistakes made by the overzealous, thuggish developers they were up against. I have trained lots of smart young environmentalists over the years and most never acquired this level of strategic ability, political instinct and just plain skill—all as if passed down through Estella’s family genes.

I did not read the inscriptions Estella wrote on the books I had given her to autograph until I was on the plane home. “To a kindred soul,” she wrote in one. Tears of gratitude still stain the page.

The Long, Grizzly Road to Recovery

The wave of environmental laws, almost all passed after Estella’s fight for Florissant, have thus far ensured that we still have grizzlies somewhere in the lower-48 states. A number of these laws were direct descendants of Aldo Leopold’s ideas: Endangered Species Act, Wilderness Act, and National Forest Management Act.   Indeed, these laws (often enforced through litigation brought by environmental groups), stronger government institutions, and public support explain why we have made progress towards grizzly bear recovery in the Northern Rockies. Even so, grizzlies have held onto and regained no more than 3% of their former range in the lower-48, the same as they occupied during Leopold’s time.  With the shooting in 1979 of what is thought to be the last grizzly in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, no grizzlies remain in the southern Rockies or Southwest.

The fundamental problems for grizzlies are habitat destruction, excessive killing, and a very low reproductive rate. This year was a reminder that fear-based hostility towards predators is hardly a thing of the past, and that grizzlies are still extremely vulnerable. A record number of grizzlies died during 2018, almost all at the hand of humans – a minimum of 64 in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) and 51 in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE). If you include estimates of unreported deaths, the total is closer to 150 bears out of an aggregate population of perhaps 1500 animals divided among four ecological islands. Because population growth has stalled (partly the result of the warming climate), excessive killing could quickly reverse hard-fought progress and push the Great Bear back to the brink.

Aldo Leopold would be horrified (as Estella was). He certainly would speak up, maybe something like what he said years ago: “Only five states have any grizzlies at all. There seems to be a tacit assumption that if grizzlies can survive in Canada and Alaska, that is good enough. It is not good enough for me. Relegating grizzlies to Alaska is about like relegating happiness to heaven; one may never get there.”

Grizzlies in the Southwest?

Almost no one is talking today about grizzly recovery in the Southwest. But at least there is habitat if ever the time becomes ripe. In 2010 David and his colleague Troy Merrill completed the most detailed assessment yet of potential suitable habitat for grizzlies in this region. Not surprisingly, the biggest and best chunk lies along the border of Arizona and New Mexico in the “Gila/Mogollon complex” that includes Escudilla.

In addition to considering bear foods, vital rates, home range sizes, and numbers of people, David and Troy also took into account the remoteness of habitat from people with bad attitudes, noting that: “Potential hostility is related to a mix of high levels of employment in agriculture (Catron County), large numbers of elderly residents (Sierra County), and low levels of education (Gila and Sierra Counties). Relatively high rates of exposure to humans and conflict with private property rights are also potential problems in parts of this complex, especially in Catron County.”

Catron County has become the poster child for problems faced by all large carnivores in the Southwest. This backwater is famous for inflamed rhetoric and hostility towards Mexican wolves, as well as the government that reintroduced them in 1998. Prior to that, the last few hundred animals had been captured and relegated to zoos.  Fear, hatred, and excessive killing, the same factors lamented by Leopold nearly a century ago, have effectively blocked progress towards the recovery of what is now a population of not quite 100 wolves.

A few years ago, David and I got a taste of the Mexican wolf tragedy on a “show me” trip to Ted Turner’s Ladder Ranch in Sierra County in New Mexico, where a diminutive she-wolf had been captured and temporarily placed in a pen. A nearly hysterical local county commissioner came, sporting holstered guns, to observe the wolf darting, panicked, around a pen surrounded by a 5-foot electric fence. The experience reminded me of Leopold’s quip: “Saving grizzlies requires a long view of conservation and historical perspective.” From what David and I saw, we have a while to wait yet.

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Louisa Willcox is a longtime grizzly bear activist and founder of Grizzly Times. She lives in Montana.

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