I recently read an interesting piece written by Aldo Leopold, one of the founding fathers of the modern conservation movement, that helped to describe my own beliefs towards wildlife conservation and our role as humans in protecting the living things on Earth. Thinking Like A Mountain is an essay included in one of Leopold’s most famous and influential books, A Sand County Almanac.
After reading the essay, I understood what the author is driving at – that we as humans often fail appreciate our wildlife for the role they instinctively play as predator and prey in our ecosystems. Leopold talks in-depth about the relationships that humans have had with Earth’s animals and how people often affect the natural order because of a lack of understanding of the roles that every member of an ecosystem plays. If only humans had the patience and experience that a mountain has accrued after thousands of years of witnessing nature take its course, he says, would they understand the value of wildness in ultimate survival for all species.
In his story, Leopold retells a story from his youth in which he and some friends came across a pack of wolves one day. The group opened fire on the animals and ended up injuring one young wolf and mortally wounding an old, worn wolf. As Leopold approached the dying wolf he witnessed a “green fire” dying in her eyes as she slipped away. This experience had a profound effect on the man, and he uses it to springboard into the predator/prey relationship that exists between wolves, deer, and livestock, even to this day.
The story is a classic in the study of ecology. Both wolves and humans are natural predators to deer and livestock, and both rely on the same deer and livestock in a given area for survival (and sometimes recreation, in the case of humans). However, humans are more advanced and are able to kill off the wolves who they feel are hurting the deer and livestock populations. With fewer predators to keep prey species in check, the livestock and deer must begin to browse further and further away from their home ranges until eventually there is not enough grass, leaves, and crops to eat and the populations crash spectacularly.
Wolves and their impact on deer and livestock is an important issue facing Minnesota. Actually, it is a hot button issue that occasionally flares up into heated debates and demonstrations. Some believe that wolves have such a negative impact on those resources that they should be eliminated completely, while others feel wolves should be protected from hunting and trapping. Others feel there should be some middle ground in which regulated, managed hunting should be offered in the hope that wolf and deer populations will remain at appropriate levels.
I tend to reside in this middle ground. For me, wolves are beautiful, graceful animals that have a certain mystique to them. The way a wolf pack is organized into a family hierarchies is fascinating and should be researched more. But while they are amazing animals, they should be managed just like any other game animal. I think a balance exists among the interest of wolves, deer, livestock, and humans, and this point is easily reachable simply by educating those involved in hunting, animal protection, and agriculture the importance of maintaining a balanced ecosystem. Wolves play an important role in the food chain by being a top predator. Yes, wolves will kill a certain percentage of deer each year. They will also kill livestock here and there. But they are important none the less.
I think the best way to look at wolves is to think of them as being on our side as wildlife managers. Without them, deer populations would likely rise resulting in all kinds of negative effects for both humans and deer (deer/vehicle collisions, disease, starvation, nuisance problems).
Thinking Like a Mountain was written as a way of expressing Leopold’s interest in showing others why conservation is important. I think we can all learn from Aldo Leopold and try to understand that just because we have the ability to alter landscapes, purposefully kill off species, and only consider own own well-being instead of the well-being of the planet in general, it doesn’t mean we should.
Thank you for reading!