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Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic and the Need for a New Approach to Managing Wildlife

Emblematic of his time and education, Aldo Leopold wrote during 1920 that predators were “the common enemy of both the stockman and the conservationist.”  But, in one of Sand County Almanac’s classic essays, Aldo writes about a radical transformation that he underwent just a handful of years later. After shooting into a pack of wolves, he describes reaching “…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.”

In another essay, Leopold describes Escudilla—a mountain massif in Arizona’s White Mountains—that was defined for him 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.”

Challenging the ethos of domination, Leopold emerged as one of the first scientists in the twentieth century to assert that apex predators such as wolves and mountain lions both diversify and stabilize ecosystems.  He became an advocate for saving all the pieces of ecological systems, a notion that would become the backbone of the Endangered Species Act passed 40 years later.

He saw that the challenges facing wildlife were not only scientific, but also spiritual, moral, economic, and institutional in nature. At the time, the field of wildlife management did not exist. Indeed, he would become the first professor in the country to teach what was then called “game management.” The field has since become so specialized and technical that students today might also be surprised that its father had exhorted those in the profession to also be well-rounded human beings able to “marry science and the arts.”

As the profession developed, Aldo made sure that carnivores were a valued part of the picture. In 1930, he helped shape the first “American Game Policy,” which went unaltered for more than 40 years. In his introduction to the policy, Aldo wrote that he hoped Americans might avoid “the ruthless suppression of predators which goes with game management in most European countries… Its standards were set before biological science was born. Our standards can be better.”  And his sense of urgency comes through when he wrote: “Timidity, optimism, or unbending insistence on old grooves of thought and action will surely either destroy the remaining resources, or force the adoption of policies which will limit their use to a few.”

Of Ego, Gadgetry and the Land Ethic  

Sociologists today speak of “competitive and conspicuous consumption,” a recent term for an ancient phenomenon that infuriated Leopold. He was unsparing in his criticism of “boosters” of all stripes — chambers of commerce, developers of lake shore weekend retreats, even hunters reliant on “gadgets” such as trailer campers and “modern” hunting technology.

Leopold saw that roads, in particular, threatened increasingly scarce wild country. A founder of The Wilderness Society, he famously wrote that the challenge was “not building roads into lovely country, but of building receptivity into the still unlovely human mind.”

Leopold clearly saw the need for a national constituency to protect nature. If left to their own devises, self-serving and parochial locals would spell the end of wilderness and wildlife. Even though a committed meat hunter, Leopold worked with many who were not. Indeed, his last public talk was not to hunters but to the Garden Club of America.  One of his most powerful, lasting messages was this: wildlife does not belong to the wealthy or any single special-interest group, but to all of us.

Still, as the nation grew, so did the toll on wildlife, habitat, and wildlands. To counter this problematic trend, Leopold offered a philosophic frame called the Land Ethic, famously writing: “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.”

Amplifying this proposition, Leopold later wrote: “There must be some force behind conservation more universal than profit, less awkward than government, less ephemeral than sport, something that reaches into all times and places. … I can see only one such force: a respect for land as an organism; a voluntary decency in land-use exercised by every citizen and every land-owner out of a sense of love for and obligation to that great biota we call America.” It is no exaggeration to say that Leopold’s Land Ethic would revolutionize modern views about our relations with nature.

Leopold scholar J. Baird Callicott applied Leopold’s land ethic to resolving conflicts over land uses. As a logical derivative, Callicott proposed that “stronger interests…generate duties that take precedence over duties generated by weaker interests.” In other words, according to Leopold’s frame, more transcendent values should outweigh baser ones centered on greed and ego-gratification. Freud would later view this same contest through the lens of struggles between the transcendent superego and the more vulgar ego and id.

The North American Model: Wildlife Management in the Rear-View Mirror

Leopold has been cast by some revisionist historians as a father of the North American Model of Wildlife Management, despite the fact that this doctrine was formalized many years after he passed away. This so-called “model” is a codification of financial and cultural dependencies by wildlife management agencies on hunters and fishers through funding based almost solely on revenues from hunting and fishing licenses, and federal grants from taxes on sales of arms and ammunition—all under the guise of “serving the public trust.”

The Model claims that hunters universally support measures that conserve wildlife—all wildlife. But as applied, it is deeply hostile to carnivores. Research has found that those most closely identified with hunting and status quo wildlife management typically reject any measure that would conserve or curb the killing of carnivores. The Model not only fails to reflect Leopold’s land ethic, but also principles of the 1930 American Game Policy.

Disturbingly, proponents of the Model are throw-backs to the world pre- Leopold. They are more than just simply looking in the rear-view mirror; they are defying mega-trends in science, society, and culture. Despite mountains of evidence showing that large carnivores play a beneficial role in ecosystems, and that an over-whelming majority of the American public support carnivore conservation, state game managers and the trophy hunters they serve still tend to see a “harvestable surplus” of large herbivores such as elk, deer, and bighorn sheep as the paramount goal of wildlife management. As a result, hunters and managers—mostly white men—typically see relations with wolves, grizzlies, and mountain lions as a zero-sum competition for surplus herbivores and masculinity-enhancing trophies.

Advocates of the Model justify their stance through “just so” stories featuring Great White Hunters as hero protagonists.  Not surprisingly, ardent public champions of The Model such as the beefy heavily-bearded Shane Mahoney invoke the tough-guy mythology and looks of those who slaughtered most of our wildlife—including carnivores—during the 1800s.  Mahoney’s counterparts in Wyoming Game and Fish likewise collectively sport more facial hair than President U.S. Grant’s hairiest Cabinet of all time—together with an impressive collection of cowboy boots, hats, and belt buckles. When Mahoney spoke at a meeting of grizzly bear managers, I thought I had mistakenly walked into a religious revival.

Needless to say, these are not the faces of today’s visitors to Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks.

Changing World Views and the Endangered Species Act

The public’s views about nature and wildlife have changed dramatically during the last century. Recent research by Mike Manfredo and a slew of co-authors has shown a significant 6% decline in numbers of people who ascribe to “Traditionalist” views of wildlife during the last 14 years, and a corresponding 5% increase in numbers ascribing to “Mutualist” perspectives. Traditionalists tend to see wildlife as objects to be dominated and used—a relic of Manifest Destiny—whereas Mutualists tend to see wildlife as an extension of their social network, and, as such, prioritize moral obligations and environmental protection. Not surprisingly, Traditionalists are far more likely to hunt. By contrast, Mutualists are far more likely to engage in less lethal activities such as wildlife watching.

Leopold would likely fall out as a Mutualist in this system, but he was not easily pigeon-holed. He was a scientist who sought a marriage between science and beauty. He was a pragmatist with high moral principles. He hunted yet did not see his prey as lesser beings. He valued private property rights yet felt that personal freedoms needed to be sacrificed at times for the greater good. In Dr. Stephen Kellert’s more elaborate schematic for describing people’s attitudes toward nature, Leopold’s eclectic views could be categorized as scientistic/ecologistic, humanistic/moralistic, and naturalistic/aesthetic.

Consistent with other research, Manfredo and his team attributed the burgeoning of Mutualists across the country to increasing urbanization and levels of education. The percentage of people who hunt has correspondingly declined from 13% of adult males during 1990 to only 9% of the same during 2016, representing an absolute drop of 20% in numbers of hunters. During the same period the percentage of people interested in watching wildlife grew by 37% — and the trend is expected to continue. Traditionalists still have an edge in more extraction-oriented western states, but that too is changing. This shift explains both the enormous national appeal of the Endangered Species Act and the mounting conflicts between residents of western states and other parts of the country.

There is no denying the explosion of national public interest in recovering iconic species such as wolves and grizzly bears. Families are flocking in record numbers to national parks such as Yellowstone and Glacier in hopes of catching a glimpse of a grizzly or wolf. Comments submitted during recent government solicitations of public input provide a measure of this support. During the mid-1990s, comments to the US Fish and Wildlife Service supporting reintroduction of wolves to the Yellowstone ecosystem shattered previous records. So did public comments – nearly a million – submitted during 2016 opposing removal of Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections for Yellowstone grizzly bears, representing over 99.99% of the submitted comments and petitions.

The point is that, under the ESA, citizens across the country are given authoritative standing to participate in management of imperiled species. The law levels the playing field by empowering a national constituency and curbing excesses of state game managers, while requiring the use of the best available science to recover threatened species.

Species don’t just matter because scientists tell us so; they matter spiritually, aesthetically, and morally to overwhelming numbers of people. A Leopold contemporary, the American writer and naturalist Henry Beston, offered this: “We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals… They are not brethren, they are not underlings: they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the Earth.”

The Worst Ecological Disaster?

But Traditionalists are hardly going gently into that good night, especially trophy hunting groups such as Safari Club International (SCI), NRA, and Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF). All three not only hold special animosity for large carnivores, but also disproportional sway over game management agencies. Emblematic of this collective mindset, David Allen, the recent Director of the RMEF, called wolves “the worst ecological disaster after the decimation of bison herds.” Meanwhile his organization raises funds — as do other trophy hunting groups — on the back of Leopold’s name. The exploitation could not be crasser.

Adding insult to injury, the RMEF had until recently bestowed an award named after Leopold’s good friend and colleague, Olaus Murie, who was also a founder of The Wilderness Society and an advocate for carnivores. Several years ago, Murie’s descendants asked that Murie’s name be removed from the RMEF award because of the organization’s rabid stance towards wolves.  Almost as a deliberate insult, RMEF went on to replace the award with a new one named after a rich and famous NASCAR driver who shared the group’s hatred of predators.

It should be no surprise that the RMEF, SCI, and similarly regressive states of Wyoming and Idaho have been leading the charge to remove federal ESA protections for grizzlies throughout the northern Rockies and institute a trophy hunt, as they did with wolves.

An Education About Trophies

I confess to a time of confusion and unfounded hopes about trophy hunters and SCI. I have befriended many hunters over the years, and together we protected Wyoming Wilderness from development, the Clark’s Fork of the Yellowstone from damming, and a number of National Forests from destructive timber sales, roads, energy development and mines. But, like Leopold, these were meat hunters, not trophy hunters who I learned were a different breed altogether.

In 2003, I attended an SCI annual convention in Reno, Nevada, where I encountered near 20,000 members swimming in a figurative sea of trophies – giraffes, hippos, grizzlies, and wives – the last of which sported breasts that were similarly stuffed. Music throbbed and huge screens above streamed images of colorful Amazonian “sportfish,” cheetahs chasing gazelles, and charging Cape buffalo. Below, the floor was strewn with their dead stuffed bodies, along with booths selling military-grade weaponry.

Without big breasts, big hair, and big jewelry, I was all but invisible in the swaggering crowd. My appeals to some members about what I hoped was a shared purpose promoting human-carnivore coexistence and protecting habitat for grizzlies fell on deaf ears, the din notwithstanding.

The Oscar-style award ceremony involved (unironically) handing out trophies for trophies. I learned that with mounting numbers of trophy kills, you enter ever more elite clubs — “the Inner Circle.” As in Dante’s Paradiso—or Inferno—with ever more slaughters you climb (or descend) progressive realms: Copper, Bronze, Silver, Gold and Diamond. To become a member of the exclusive Diamond Club, you must slay animals representing at least 322 different species, many highly endangered. This includes the “Bears of the World Grand Slam” that requires bringing home an Alaskan brown bear, a grizzly, a Eurasian brown bear, and a polar bear.

Climbing the stairway to SCI’s version of Heaven costs many millions of dollars. A single permit to kill some wild sheep can go for $300,000. Predictably, the Safari Club encourages its wealthy members to dodge the IRS and related taxes to support our national well-being by donating trophies to nonprofits such as the Smithsonian–and then deduct the expense of the associated safaris. The outcome? More money to spend on yet another high-end hunt of an imperiled animal—prospectively to include Yellowstone grizzly bears.

In Search of Leopoldians

Leopold’s writings should give members of the Safari Club pause.  In Sand County Almanac, Leopold was especially disturbed by “the trophy-hunter who never grows up,” who, in order “to enjoy…must possess, invade, appropriate.” And this: “He [the trophy hunter] is the motorized ant who swarms the continents…. For him the recreational engineer dilutes the wilderness and artificializes its trophies.”

In this week’s podcast, Estella shares a story that essentializes what hunting meant to the Leopold family. All were archers, but Estella’s mother, also named Estella, was so good some called her “Lady Diana.” As the younger Estella tells it, one day her dad and brother Carl decided to put Estella Senior in a particularly good place where “as a good a shot as she is, she is really going to get a deer… But some grapes were behind her, and she had put her bow down to reach over and get a few grapes, which she had in her lap, and of course missed the shot. The deer was standing there, only about 14 yards away…  When Dad and Carl came up to see her… Mother said: ‘Oh he was a beautiful deer, he ran away.’ And everybody got a good laugh.”

Hearteningly, today hunters who consider themselves “Leopoldians” also see hunting as, perhaps more than anything, a window into the beauty of the natural world. They are challenging the ethos of trophy hunting while advocating conservation of predators, wilderness, and a more ethical approach to hunting.   Not surprisingly, a tribe of Leopoldians left Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation in protest when the organization adopted its current anti-carnivore, anti-conservation stance. Stalwart Leopoldian (and former RMEF staffer) David Stalling shares his experiences on a Grizzly Times podcast soon.

Fortunately, today’s Leopoldians include not only hunters, but also garden clubbers, teachers, lawyers, reporters, elected officials and, yes, members of chambers of commerce. And brainy, concerned people inside and outside government are coming up with innovative ways to reform our institutions of wildlife management, particularly in the western states, to better reflect the values of the broader public, not just a privileged few.

They come perhaps in the nick of time. Evidence is mounting showing the unprecedented and devastating impact of humans on our planet and the species who share this fragile globe with us. We have entered, scientists say, the Sixth Great Extinction–caused by us. According to science writer Elizabeth Kolbert, we are poised to lose 20 to 50% of all the biota on Earth by the end of the 21st century. Such losses have not occurred for at least 60 million years—200,000 times longer than the Industrial Revolution has lasted. We humans are tantamount to the impact of a giant asteroid.

Current environmental challenges seem overwhelming with complex personal, political, economic, institutional, moral, and spiritual dimensions. Leopold himself could not have foreseen today’s harmful trends that are seemingly on steroids. Nor could he have anticipated how resource agencies would become so deeply entrenched in harmful patterns and narratives, reinforced by perverse financial incentives and ossified cultures. Still Leopold’s personal evolution is instructive: his views changed radically in the face of new information, a strong ethical orientation, and a sense of beauty. Nearly a century after he penned the words, he is still calling us to abandon our unbending insistence on destructive “old grooves of thought and action.”

Now more than ever, we need a Leopoldian revolution of thought and attitude, one characterized by “voluntary decency” rooted in love and responsibility for this beleaguered planet. Indeed, as we struggle to navigate the mess we have created, the Land Ethic can serve as a beacon in a storm. Long may spirit of the Leopold clan live.

More articles by:

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

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