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Aldo Leopold and the Mark of the Wolf's Tooth

In the early 1900s, while cruising timber as a young forester, American conservationist Aldo Leopold, founder of the science of wildlife biology, encountered a female wolf with her pups. The common wisdom of that era was that the only good predator was a dead one, so he and his crew opened fire. But as he stood there watching the “fierce green light” fade in the wolf mother’s eyes, he felt a sharp, surprising pang of remorse. It would take him decades to parse out his feelings about her death. In 1935, Leopold bought an abandoned farm in southwestern Wisconsin as a hunting reserve. Today known as the Leopold Memorial Reserve, this land, which he and his family dubbed “the shack,” became the site of some of his deepest lessons about the ecological value of predators. In shack journals between 1939 and 1940, he noted that deer were nipping plants and trees down to eighteen inches in height. In a 1940s game survey, he found that humans had eliminated wolves throughout North America, causing an explosion in deer and elk numbers, and resulting degradation of forests through over-browsing. Meanwhile, back at the shack, deer calmly stood their ground in the absence of wolves, chronically browsing tender young saplings to death. Near the end of his life, in possibly his most famous and poignant essay, “Thinking Like a Mountain,” Leopold reflected on his early encounter with that mother wolf and the wildlife management implications of her death: “While a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades.” . . . Read more »