The Brutality of Aldo Leopold

US Forest Ranger Skinning Gray Wolf
One of the Most Important Phases of Federal Game Protection—U. S. Forest Ranger Skinning Gray Wolf

In the fall of 1909 Aldo Leopold notoriously killed wolves in the Apache National Forest in Arizona, acting in his official capacity as a hunter and trapper for the newly established U.S. Forest Service. Decades later, in his 1944 essay “Thinking like a Mountain,” he described the “green fire” he recalled seeing in the eyes of one of the wolves he had killed. When Oxford University Press included the account in its collection of his essays published posthumously as A Sand County Almanac, the incident became “the most iconic wolf kill in conservation history.”

The essay continues to inspire self-described “disciples” of Leopold, notably in a series of articles in Grizzly Times and Counterpunch. In the first article the author notes: “To many disciples, Aldo [Leopold] seems hardly of this earth, relegated to a sort of Mount Olympus of Conservation, shared perhaps with Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Rachel Carson, Teddy Roosevelt.”

Rachel Carson v. Aldo Leopold

Rachel Carson was among the conservationists who were skeptical of Leopold’s supposed conversion to what he described as a “land ethic.” When Oxford University Press followed up on the success of A Sand County Almanac by publishing Round River, they sought out Rachel Carson’s opinion. “Notwithstanding the pious sentiments on conservation expressed elsewhere in the book (and in the light of the journal entries they become disgusting hypocrisy),” she wrote, “Mr. Leopold was a completely brutal man.”

A consideration of Leopold’s entire career justifies Carson’s view of him. Leopold learned well the power of creative writing. By leaving out the date of the “green fire” killing, he left the impression that he had believed for decades what he only began to describe at the end of his career. A decade after he supposedly saw the “green fire” in the eyes of a wolf, claiming to have “realized then and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes,” Leopold was working in New Mexico to exterminate not only the last remaining wolves, but also mountain lions. In “The Game Situation in the Southwest,” a 1920 address to hunters and stockmen published in the Bulletin of the American Game Protective Association (the source of the captioned photos on this post) Leopold said:

Baby Mountain Lions targeted by Aldo Leopold
Baby Mountain Lions. It Is Hard to Realize That When Grown These Kittens Will Each Kill Thirty Deer per Year, as Estimated by Mr. Leopold

It is going to take patience and money to catch the last wolf or lion in New Mexico. But the last one must be caught before the job can be called fully successful. This may sound like a strong statement, but if any of you have lived in the West and seen how quickly a piece of country will restock with wolves or lions, you will know what I mean. … When the wolves are mostly gone, will the necessary appropriations be forthcoming?

Wilderness for Hunters

When Leopold promoted the establishment of wilderness areas, it was with hunters in mind. In a 1925 essay called for the designation of wilderness on Forest Service lands: “Wilderness areas in the National Forests would serve especially the wilderness hunter, since hunting is not … allowed in the Parks.” Leopold was one of the first members of the Boone and Crockett Club founded by Theodore Roosevelt and George Bird Grinnell. At the time, membership was restricted to one hundred men, all of whom had to have shot three different large species of American wildlife, including bears, bison, caribou, mountain lions, and moose.

Leopold returned to the Midwest, where he literally wrote the book on game management, which he established as an academic department. Following the example of their mentor, game managers have engaged in creative re-branding, describing themselves as “wildlife biologists.”

A recent Mountain Journal interview with Leopold biographer Curt Meine sheds some light on how Leopold came to rebrand himself from a professional game manager to an environmental philosopher. Meine notes that it was Albert Hochbaum, one of Leopold’s graduate students, who “pushed Leopold into writing ‘Thinking like a Mountain,’ arguing that Leopold had to admit that he did not always appreciate the ecological significance of predators—that he in fact had played a role himself in the extirpation of wolves from the Southwest. Leopold resisted at first, but finally came around. It was a turning point in the evolution of Leopold’s manuscript, and in the voice that he adopts in his writing.”

Leopold learned creative writing skills to present the false impression that he had a long-standing appreciation of the value of wildlife. But while he was ablet to portray an imaginary thinking mountain, he was never able to appreciate a wolf as a real thinking, feeling being.

Moronic Delight in Killing

Leopold remains a strong influence in New Mexico, largely through the efforts of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, which counts Leopold as one of its founding members. The influence is clear in the recently concluded session of the New Mexico state legislature.

To protect the reputation of established trophy hunters, the New Mexico Wildlife Federation signed onto a bill, which has now become law, to ban coyote-killing contests. As part of the argument for the bill, environmental and animal lobbyists promoted the idea that “fair-chase” hunting is an “ethical” alternative to killing contests. Even Animal Protection Voters of New Mexico, which once described itself as an “animal rights” organization, issued materials promoting “ethical” hunting based North American Model of Wildlife Conservation.

This left wildlife lobbyists in a weak position to argue for a trapping restriction bill which the New Mexico Wildlife Federation opposed. TrapFree New Mexico lobbyists concluded, “It wasn’t clear we could win, and we did not want fence-sitting representatives to be on record with a ‘no’ vote.” The next scorecards issued by Sierra Club, Animal Protection Voters and the other organizations comprising TrapFree will be meaningless, as they will be unable to evaluate politicians’ stance on wildlife issues.

If there is a way in which Leopold was ahead of his time, it was his ability to reinvent himself. Like Leopold, U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich (D-NM) has managed to win the support of environmentalists while pushing the agenda of hunters (not to mention the nuclear industry). Like Leopold, Heinrich has long been concerned that not enough Federal lands are open to hunting. As part of his efforts to increase “access” to Federal land, he was a strong supporter of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. Yet many environmental lobbyists were shocked – shocked! when Heinrich recently supported Zinke’s deputy, former(?) fossil fuel industry lobbyist David Bernhardt, to succeed Zinke as Interior Secretary, many environmental lobbyists expressed surprise. Perhaps they were too busy reading Aldo Leopold to see the pernicious influence of the hunting lobby.

Fortunately, a younger generation is moving beyond the hunter-conservation model of Aldo Leopold and Teddy Roosevelt. Extinction Rebellion is following the example of Henry David Thoreau, who literally wrote the book On Civil Disobedience. Concerned that the many candidates running for President of the United States are not adequately addressing climate change. Youth Climate Strike is circulating a petition to “be sure we hear how candidates plan to stop companies accountable for polluting our water and air and what they think about opening up federal land to fracking, drilling, and trophy hunting.”

In her correspondence with Leopold’s publisher, Rachel Carson wrote: “Oxford has done a service in revealing one of the things that is wrong with conservation—that so much of it is in the hands of men who smugly assume that the end of conservation is to provide fodder for their guns-and that anyone who believes otherwise is a sentimental fool.” She concluded her letter with the following statement:

[Until] we have the courage to recognize cruelty for what it is—whether its victim is human or animal—we cannot expect things to be much better in the world. There can be no double standard. We cannot have peace among men whose hearts find delight in killing any living creature. By every act that glorifies or even tolerates such moronic delight in killing, we set back the progress of humanity.