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Lessons from Aldo Leopold's historic wolf hunt

The nation's legendary conservationist saw the value of preserving wildness. Perhaps someday politicians will too.

December 13, 2009|By James William Gibson

This fall, hunters have killed more than 193 wolves in Montana and Idaho, and the slaughter is not finished. The Idaho season has been extended to March 31 to allow hunters to reach the quota of 220 wolves approved for killing in the state by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The limit exists because wolves in the area were only recently removed from the endangered species list. In Alaska, where wolves are more plentiful and there is no such quota, hunters in airplanes have killed more than 1,000 wolves in recent years.

Some of those hunters, if they follow in the path of one great American outdoorsman, may come to regret killing wolves.

One hundred years ago this fall, Aldo Leopold made the most famous wolf hunt in American history. Leopold, now regarded as one of the nation's most important early conservationists, went to Arizona's Apache National Forest as a 22-year-old officer in the U.S. Forest Service. He had just graduated from Yale's School of Forestry and taken his first job as an assistant supervisor. After lunch one fall day, Leopold and his crew of surveyors opened fire on an old mother wolf and her six adolescent pups at the foot of a mountain.

"In those days we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf," Leopold later said. "I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no more wolves would mean a hunters' paradise." But after seeing the "fierce green fire" in the wolf's eyes die out, he wrote, "I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view."

For the next 20 years, Leopold continued to advocate killing wolves, and in doing so he was very much in step with long-standing American tradition. In the Colonial era, theologian Cotton Mather disdained New England's dark, wolf-filled forests as a demon-ridden "howling wilderness" that should be cleared into a "fruitful field."

Wolf extirpation accompanied westward expansion. After the near extermination of the buffalo in the 1880s, wolves of the Great Plains and Rockies turned to the new cattle herds, and that provoked the wrath of ranchers, state governments and eventually the U.S. government's trappers and hunters. Newspaper articles about successful wolf hunts routinely referred to criminals put away: "The story of Lobo, the outlaw, master marauder, is a story of yesterday and today. His cruel, rapacious devastations give him no place in modern civilization," concluded a 1923 Rocky Mountain News account.

By the 1930s, Leopold had seen that predator eradication didn't lead to a hunters' paradise but to paradise lost: rapid expansion of deer and elk herds, followed by overgrazing of plant life and erosion, culminating in starvation and population collapse.

Mass automobile-based tourism had also changed the landscape. For example, by 1916 the Grand Canyon had been transformed, Leopold wrote: "Gaudy electric advertisements lit up the rim-top nights. Hawkers from competing travel companies squalled through megaphones at the break of dawn."

In response to both the ecological and cultural deterioration, Leopold began to advocate preserving roadless or wilderness areas in the nation's parks and forests and for protecting wolves. His 1933 opus, "Game Management," which essentially founded the field, recommended that wildlife managers think carefully about predators before deciding to kill them, and to question their own motives in the manner suggested by the Greek philosopher Epicurus: "It is impossible but that those who are feared by many should themselves be in continual fear of some." Leopold's famous 1944 essay, "Thinking Like a Mountain," concludes with a reflection on the nature of wildness: "Too much safety seems to yield only danger in the long run," he wrote. ". . . Perhaps this is the hidden meaning in the howl of the wolf, long known among mountains, but seldom perceived among men."

Leopold's collection of essays sold only a few thousand copies when first published in 1949, but in the late 1960s and 1970s, he finally found a mass audience. The emerging environmental movement embraced his vision and has relentlessly advocated bringing wolves back. In 1995-96, the Fish and Wildlife Service introduced 34 gray wolves from Canada into Yellowstone National Park. They became an immediate success story -- their numbers escalated, they helped restore the park's ecosystem, and they became a highly valued, charismatic presence attracting new visitors.

But not everyone wants the gray wolves to actually recover into a viable population. Ambivalence and outright hatred still linger. What the Fish and Wildlife Service considers wolf recovery is astonishingly paltry: A 2008 survey found 1,650 wolves living in the northern Rockies, an area estimated to once have had tens of thousands. Moreover, government officials have concluded that a mere 300 to 450 wolves in the region would be sufficient for species survival, which is why the hunts are allowed.

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