Reconciling the Land Ethic and the Hunting of Wildlife

2,996 total words    

12 minutes of reading

Jeffrey Kramer, a resident of Brooklyn, NY, recently wrote an e-mail to Curt Meine, Senior Fellow at the Center for Humans and Nature (and at the Aldo Leopold Foundation), asking several questions about Aldo leopold, land ethics, wildlife conservation, and the hunting and killing of wildlife.  We found their exchange so helpful and challenging that we asked if we could present it here (in edited form).  We do so with their permission.

Hello Curt,

I have read twice your wonderful biography of Aldo Leopold, and have enjoyed your interviews with diverse people in the conservation field (YouTube). But I wish to ask you a question—actually a question that has haunted me for 30 years—pertaining to wildlife conservation and sport hunting, with a specific reference from your Leopold biography.

I live in New York, and have been somewhat active in both animals rights and conservation. I’ve felt as if I’m the rope in a tug-of-war, with Animal Rights pulling me on one side, and Conservation/Environmentalism pulling me on the other side.  Simply put, I feel deeply (I am well versed in Deep Ecology) for the environment, having reawakened my “ecological self,” but also feel deeply with the same respect and reverence for the life of each animal, so long as such animal  does not comprise a direct threat to my life, health or safety.  Can the two ever be reconciled?  I have often imagined, what would a roundtable discussion be like between John Muir, Arne Naess, Aldo Leopold, Albert Schweitzer, M. Gandhi, Thoreau and Rachel Carson as to how to protect the environment—but also how to protect all the nonhumans who inhabit it from human interference, exploitation and downright cruelty.  I can understand many points PETA,  the Humane Society of U.S., Animal Liberation Front etc. highlight; and, again, certainly  many points highlighted from the environmentalists, such a Sierra Club, Nature Conservancy, WildEarth Guardians, Earth First! (back when Ed Abbey had a say in things), etc.

Which leads to my question from the Leopold biography.

A. How could  have such a seminal thinker have been a killer of so many animals, both by gun and bow? Did he not ever feel or imagine the pain and suffering which all those animals felt, many no doubt lingering for hours or days from his shot or bow?  This is what blows my mind, and spoils my estimation of Leopold (I well understand Teddy Roosevelt’s lack of feeling, for he was the old utilitarian conservationist).  How can any conservationist state that they love nature, with all its wisdom and sacredness, and yet inflict crimes upon its citizens?  On page 525 you write:  “For one thing, the unrelenting procession of hunting tales did not sit well with nonhunting conservationists.”[italics mine]  I thought I was the only “nonhunting conservationist” alive. Can you name me any nonhunting conservation organizations that exists?  All, to my knowledge, condone hunting in some degree. Audubon neither condones or condemns it—which to me means they excuse it, since they support Ducks Unlimited as an ally, while also calling for the extermination of “invasive” species such as the mute swan.  One could perhaps go so far as to condemn Leopold for catapulting “Game Management” to the forefront as a wildlife science, since its essence entails the countless slaughter and suffering of animals for our enjoyment, not to mention all the “game” mismanagement which has caused even more needless slaughter and suffering—the “overabundance” of Canada geese now being slaughtered by the USDA-Wildlife Services thanks to our “game farms” of the ‘20s to restock them.   One thing I think the Animal Rights people state that is incontrovertible, and I wish Aldo Leopold were here now to rebut—killing animals for recreation is not a game.  Until the day comes when we submit humans to become the hunted in the same “game,” then there’s no defense other than anthropocentric hypocrisy.

B. On the same page 525, you write: “(No less a figure than Rachel Carson took Leopold to task, proving if nothing else that conservation still had its internal divisions.” Could you provide any sources of information , citations, articles etc. pertaining to this statement. I seek such sources purely from interest, not to contest or any other nonsense.  What materials gave you such information.

I hope this inquiry did not impress you as another diatribe from an animal rightest, for I acknowledge that we are all products of our time period, and that includes those once-in-a lifetime individuals who transcend their own lifetime. No doubt Aldo Leopold was such a person.  I’m just trying to put 2 & 2 together to help me understand what’s going on in my lifetime, and I write to you because of your solid credentials focus, and studies.

Please reply at your convenience only. I do look forward to it.

Thank you for your time and attention.


Jeff Kramer


Hello Jeff,

Thanks very much for your thoughtful message.  And thanks also for your generous words about the biography and Center for Humans and Nature interview videos.  These are large, complex, and important questions you ask.     

I do hope you spend time with the CHN question and discussion at–question-10.php.  It explores a number of aspects of the theme that you (and all of us perhaps) struggle with.  And the contributors have written many other books and articles that I’d recommend in exploring this topic.  And if you have time, you might also want to explore the materials here:  This on-line course was offered by the University of Wisconsin-Madison earlier this year, and attracted thousands of participants.

Let me start with the specific questions you ask.

How could have such a seminal thinker have been a killer of so many animals, both by gun and bow?  The more general version of this question would be:  How could any advanced conservation thinker justify killing (or otherwise exhibiting violence against) members of the ecological community?  I can’t do full justice to this large question.  There is a long and complex history of ethical discussion and debate on this very question.  (A famous early paper by my colleague Baird Callicott really delved into it:  Callicott, J. Baird. “Animal liberation:  a triangular affair.” Environmental Ethics 2, 4 (1980): 311-338.  And he later revisited and revised his argument in “Animal liberation and environmental ethics: back together again.” Between the Species 4, 3 (1988): 3.)  There is a different approach to this question, which would essentially turn the question around, and begin with the answer:  “Aldo Leopold would never have become the seminal thinker he became, had he not been a hunter.  It was in fact his lifelong passion for wildlife (which included, but was not limited to, hunting) that made him the thinker he was.”  That was one of the aims of my biography – to explore what can seem (and to many remains) a paradox.

Did he not ever feel or imagine the pain and suffering which all those animals felt, many no doubt lingering for hours or days from his shot or bow?  How can any conservationist state that they love nature, with all its wisdom and sacredness, and yet inflict crimes upon its citizens?  Leopold was by all accounts a deeply caring and empathetic person, not a moral monster by any stretch.  Conscientious, ethical hunters often speak of their deep and complex emotions of commingled regret and gratitude, and Leopold certainly exemplified that.  Although it is not about hunting per se, I strongly encourage you to read wonderful book by a friend of mine, Robin Kimmerer:  Braiding Sweetgrass.  In one especially powerful chapter, she explores the concept of “honorable harvest” that comes from her native Potawatomi tradition.  Modern “sport” hunting and indigenous subsistence hunting are obviously different experiences, but there are also ethical aspects of both that strongly resonate with each other.

There is again another different line of discussion on this theme that involves the impact of hunting (or not hunting) on the healthy functioning of ecosystems.  Probably the best example for northeast North America – although it is much more pervasive than that – is the challenge that comes with high numbers and density of white-tailed deer (and other wild ungulates in other areas).  You’ve read the biography, so you know how Leopold had to come to terms with “too many deer.”  Ecologists have confirmed what Leopold understood, and there is a whole field of “trophic cascade” studies that now provide much more sophisticated understanding.  See, for example, this work by a colleague of mine.  The author, Don Waller, was a non-hunter who became a deer hunting in part through what his research was telling him.  The same day your email came, I had another from a friend who works at a wildlife sanctuary in Massachusetts where hunting is strictly prohibited.  He wrote:

Revisiting… after about 12 years was like time travel.  I remember as it was, the various little places where I documented such a rich and interesting flora.  Sure, deer were rather plentiful back then, but their impacts then seemed rather inconsequential. What a difference a decade makes!  Today, the uplands were becoming Pennsylvaniesque in character.  There is a dramatic herbivocline near the trail-head, with plants a-thriving, but in the interior not a single deciduous tree species is able to regenerate – not even Castanea dentata, whose sprouts are heavily browsed.  I saw just one fruiting stem of Viburnum acerifolium – it was protected amid the branches of a fallen tree.  Kalmia latifolia shows a distinct browse line.  The herbaceous layer is now dominated by recalcitrant, browse-resistant species.  Aralia nudicaulishas become very scarce.  Flowers in general, even in the more enriched hickory slopes, were essentially absent.  There was conspicuous browse damage to Pinus strobus, but not enough to prevent its regeneration.  …. Dense stands of Berberis thunbergii exist on the fertile, gently sloping bottoms – all of the co-occurring Lindera benzoin there is greatly suppressed by browsing and therefore cannot compete with the Berberis.  The deer are successfully suppressing the Celastrus orbiculatus and Rhamnus cathartica in this area.  One forb that is locally abundant is the toxic Ageratina altissima. I could go on and on.  It is my professional assessment that [the] forest  has been severely degraded by overly abundant deer, and is doomed unless the deer impact can be lessened.

This naturally leads to a discussion of hunting vs. recovering large predators in the landscape, which in turn leads to discussion of the practical and political realities that come with that.  That’s another conversation.  It is somewhat analogous to discussing the role of fire in conserving forestlands.  As young environmentalists we (or at least I) learned that fire destroys trees and forests.  As more critical conservationists and thinkers, we come to understand that fire is a natural and even necessary agent of disturbance in many grassland and forest ecosystems; that prairies and forests evolved with fire as a key factor in the ecosystem; that the health of the land community, the “capacity for self-renewal in soils, waters, plants, and animals” (to use Leopold’s terminology), depends in part on having fire as an active agent in the ever-changing system.  Without it, the system will still change, and some of those changes will bring unintended consequences.  (Just as without hunting, the deer population will change, potentially resulting in  unforeseen consequences for the population and for the ecosystem, e.g, deer starvation, loss of plant diversity, and higher incidence of lyme disease.)  And so we do prescribed burns.  And we try to do so with as much humility and awareness of consequences as we can bring.  Following this line of thought, one could make the argument that it would be a “crime” not to burn, or hunt, or otherwise intervene or take actions that promote the health of the ecosystem.  (This is very much the theme behind Leopold’s well-known essay “Thinking Like a Mountain.”)

Can you name me any non-hunting conservation organizations that exists?  Oh, yes; they are myriad.  Land trusts.  Watershed organizations.  Ocean groups.  River-keepers.  The Soil and Water Conservation Society.  The Nature Conservancy.  The Wildlife Conservation Society.  .  For that matter, Sustainable South Bronx, Chicago Wilderness, Growing Power (Milwaukee).These are all conservation organizations, but hunting (or not hunting) is not at the core of their missions.  Of course, a lot of this depends on one’s definition of “conservation” (and “environmental”).  I think of conservation broadly (in, I think, a Leopoldian way):  any organization that aims to promote healthy human and natural communities, and more sustainable and resilient relationships between them, qualifies.  Conservation involves not just “wildlife,” but all biological diversity and all aspects of ecosystems;  it embraces (and sees the connections between) urban and suburban landscapes, rural and agricultural landscapes, wild lands, the atmosphere and climate, the oceans, etc.

Your comments about Leopold’s Game Management deserve a longer response than I can provide here.  I’d recommend a couple of essays in my book Correction Lines:  Essays on Land, Leopold, and Conservation.  See especially Ch. 5, which is called “Emergence of an Idea.”    It tracks Leopold’s evolving understanding and appreciaton of biological diversity in his conservation work and thought.  I’d also recommend reading Leopold himself – one especially pertinent article that comes to mind is his 1932 essay “Game and Wild Life Conservation” that I quote in the biography.  You can find it in my Library of America edition of Leopold’s work.  In that article Leopold shows himself to be a determined pragmatist, trying to develop the new field of wildlife ecology and management at a time when species were disappearing and whole landscapes were deteriorating.  He was unapologetic:

            …Does anyone still believe that restrictive game laws alone will halt the wave of destruction which sweeps majestically across the continent, regardless of closed seasons, paper refuges, bird-books-for-school-children, game farms, Izaac Walton Leagues, Audubon Societies, or the other feeble palliatives which we protectionists and sportsmen, jointly or separately, have so far erected as barriers in its path?

            …I have tried to build a mechanism whereby the sportsmen, and the Ammunition Industry could contribute financially to the solution of this problem without dictating the answer themselves….These things I have done, and I make no apology for them.

On Rachel Carson’s doubts
:  This is also a bit of a long story, but it involves her cold reaction, especially to the volume Round River, which drew on Leopold’s hunting journals.  She likely never read A Sand County Almanac, and as a devotee of Albert Schweitzer’s reverence-for-life philosophy, she was appalled by Leopold’s hunting practices (especially in his youthful journal accounts).  Her animosity was expressed in letters and comments to friends and colleagues.  This was anecdotal information for a long time, but her response was clearly recalled my intimates who knew both of them.  It was confirmed when a letter did come to light not so long ago in which Carson declared Leopold “a completely brutal man” who “[glorified] cruelty” (among other harsh accusations).

I know how difficult it is to reconcile these seemingly irreconcilable differences.  I was brought up in a fishing and camping (but not hunting) family, and I held to a fairly strict non-hunting ethic through my early adulthood.  I am not a regular hunter, though I do hunt on occasion.  In some ways, reconciliation is now a far more difficult task now than it was in Leopold’s day, especially with the cultural changes that have came over the last century—changes in the transition from the older conservation movement to modern environmentalism; in the culture, practice, and technologies of hunting; and in the power of money and political influence.  In other ways, though, reconciliation is actually more possible now, with the insights that environmental history, ecological science, environmental ethics, and practical experience now offer.  I think Leopold can be helpful in that reconciliation.

The last thing I’d say is perhaps the most challenging of all.  If you have not done so before, you might go into the field with a conscientious hunter sometime — not to hunt yourself, but to experience first hand what hunting involves.  I have many hunting friends who are almost over-eager to do this – to counter the all-too-prevalent image of the “slob hunter” and demonstrate what ethical hunting entails.

And a final recommendation.  Some day you might want to sign up for one of the Aldo Leopold Foundation’s Land Ethic Leaders workshops.  The workshops provide opportunities to explore the complexities and tensions that are inherent in the large task that Leopold promoted – the evolution of a robust land ethic for our time.

There is a lot more to say, but I hope all this helps in some way.

Best wishes,



Thank you Curt for such time spent. Everything in your reply is helpful. Indeed, I felt a tinge of guilt in imposing such a question–long, complex, and even more convoluted in today’s society.

I have read some of CHN’s question essays. I never had a problem with true, subsistence hunting (as by American Indians for 20,000 years). One coworker of mine, who was a hunter, told me it was unthinkable for him to kill any animal except for food. I still hold by that. For those that seek to experience and “go home to the Pleistocene,” then I would like them to enact it fully. Fair Chase, and a Fair Game—use only those implements, in those environs, which replicate all, so that the risk of suffering and death of the hunter is more equal to that of the prey. Having said that, I’ve been a serious fan of Boxing, and must watch an old fight (from the 50s-70s, when boxing was in its heyday) once a month. I too can’t really explain what attracts me to watch such a blood sport. One has to always be on guard for self-hypocrisy.

Will definitely get Robin’s book (she made an absolutely beautiful presentation at last year’s Passenger pigeon commemoration in Chicago). And look forward to signing up to Land Ethics Leaders workshop.

Thanks again, and stay well.


  • Curt Meine

    Curt Meine is a conservation biologist, historian, and writer who serves as a senior fellow with both the Aldo Leopold Foundation and the Center for Humans and Nature, and as associate adjunct professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He has written several books, including Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work (University of Wisconsin Press, 1988).

Related Responses

Scroll to Top