The Real Aldo Leopold: Hero Or Villain?

By Peter Muller, VP, C.A.S.H.

Selected quotations of Aldo Leopold have been disturbingly embraced by some people in the animal protection and green movements who value individual animals in the wild. With the exception of game agents who revere Leopold, the general public knows little about him. C.A.S.H. wishes to let our readers have a fuller picture of Aldo Leopold. While he wrote poetically at times and pulled at the heartstrings of many with his description of his wolf killing, he was the single-most influential person to put our government into the hunting business. He showed the firearms industry that by funding wildlife management, they would bring billions of dollars to their own coffers via the killing of wild animals for sport.

Aldo Leopold is considered by those who promote hunting within our government as the Father of Modern Wildlife Management: The manipulation of habitat (home, cover, and food) of game animals to yield a continuous “harvestable surplus” of wild animals for hunters.

Leopold was born in 1887, in Burlington, Iowa, into an upper middle class family. His family’s business consisted of manufacturing desks. His father, uncles and family friends were hunters – not at all unusual for 19th century Iowa. However, Aldo outdid them, enjoying killing at every opportunity. He killed stray cats and birds in unlimited numbers. On one occasion, he proudly wrote to his vacationing parents that he had shot “eight sparrows in a few minutes.”

At 17, Aldo was sent to get an “Eastern Education” at the Lawrenceville School, a college-preparatory school in New Jersey. While there, he wrote home one day boasting about having shot 25 crows in one day.

Leopold later went on to Yale, where he earned a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in forestry. The Yale School of Forestry was oriented toward teaching how to manipulate nature to suit human goals and Aldo became indoctrinated.

Upon graduation, he entered the newly formed US Forestry Service at the Apache National Forest in Arizona. His job consisted of accommodating the local lumber and livestock industries in exploiting the forest by enabling access to timber and by granting grazing rights to ranchers. He was by this time sold on exploiting nature in the Roosevelt/Pinchot vein of wise use: loving nature with a gun and an ax.

In describing the forest, he wrote, “Millions of acres, billions of feet of timber, all vast amounts of capital.” While in Arizona, Leopold enjoyed shooting wolves, mule deer and ducks. He was tolerant of local poachers, suggesting to the forest rangers that they concentrate their enforcement duties on occasional wealthy tourists.

While on extended sick-leave from the Forest Service (he had contracted acute nephritis), he began thinking about maintaining wildlife in national forests for hunters. He wrote to the Forest Service arguing that “an abundant supply of game” could bring as much revenue as all the timber receipts and grazing permits combined.

Later he was assigned responsibility for “recreation policy” in District 3 (New Mexico and Arizona) of the Forest Service. In that capacity, he was responsible for turning the “great spectacles of nature” into tourist attractions.

At that time, he also began organizing the hunters of Arizona and New Mexico into Game Protective Associations (GPAs), advocating through the organized statewide GPA’s for the creation of areas where regulated hunting was permitted and predators were subject to “wise control,” i.e. extermination. He united ranchers and hunters in a common bond to eliminate predators from areas set aside for hunting. He further started to get the GPAs involved in political actions. When he resumed hunting, after his prolonged illness, he boasted that “he shot fifteen ducks before 10:00” one day.

In 1918 he left the Forest Service to become secretary of the Chamber of Commerce of Albuquerque. There he suggested draining the Rio Grande valley to aid agriculture. He urged the adoption of a sustained annual kill of wildlife just as there was a sustained annual yield of timber.

His views were, at this time, totally committed to the exploitation of nature and wildlife as resources for human utility and pleasure. All native species of animals that had some utility to mankind, such as enhancing the hunting experience, were to be maintained to yield a sustainable surplus in perpetuity. Predators: wolves, mountain lions, bird of prey and species such as rattlesnakes were to be extirpated. To accommodate the farmers and ranchers, which was vital to his suggested program, elk were not to be sustained as a game species because of the crop damage they did to farmers.

Aldo rejoined the Forest Service and remained adamant about killing all predators. By 1924 there were only 12 wolves in New Mexico.

He was having success in organizing the GPAs, and was approached by the Sporting Arms and Ammunitions manufactures Institute (SAAMI) to research and publish his theory of wildlife management for a perpetual sustainable yield of game animals. In 1932 he finished his book, “Game Management,” which was published in May, 1933. The first sentence reads: “Game management is the art of making land produce sustained annual crops of wild game for recreational use.”

Just as when Leopold was a forester seeing his job as growing board-feet of timber, he now saw his job as growing game-species for hunters. He saw no conflict of interest in taking money from SAAMI. He was just doing his job using natural resources for the benefit and pleasure of man.

There were, of course, at the time, other views of wildlife which held that nature, wildlife and individual animals had intrinsic value. Muir and Thoreau had certainly left their mark on the society, and both Muir and Thoreau were opposed to sport hunting. Yet, Leopold’s biographers continue to muddy the waters of environmentalism by intertwining his name with those environmental greats who actually held sport hunting in low esteem.

In one of Leopold’s most oft-quoted passages from his essay, “Thinking like a Mountain,” he is seen as coming close to repenting for his human-utility approach to managing nature:

We reached the old wolf in time to watch a 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 hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.

That passage has won the hearts of those in the animal protection movement. However, it was a revelation at a time when the wolf was almost extinct from actions such as his. The revelation was hollow, devoid of compassion for the individual animal. Leopold would endorse killing wolves if sheep ranchers demanded it.

Fortunately, fewer people are hunting than ever before. The numbers are declining drastically with every new report that is published. Hunting is heading steadily and surely for the dustbin of history.

There are multiple factors contributing to that which we’ve previously written about: single-parent households controlled by women, hi-action video and digital games, absorption with social networking, the animal rights movement, the disgust of the public, shrinking lands and land access, and so on. Hunting is truly a dying “sport.”


Peter Muller is VP of C.A.S.H.

Peter harvested most of the data in this article from “Aldo Leopold His Life and Work” by Curt Meine, The University of Wisconsin Press, 1988.


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