Wolves, Wisconsin, and Aldo Leopold

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The only wolves I have ever seen were lying dead in the back of a pickup truck. They had been collected by Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) officials in the spring of 2012 after being shot by poachers, and were being brought to the university where I work for examination. Although I hadn’t encountered it first-hand before, I knew such killing wasn’t entirely uncommon, and I was familiar with the various explanations for people’s lethal dislike of wolves. Still, as I stood looking at those stiff, gray corpses, I couldn’t help but ask myself again, “Why does this happen?”

The recent decision by the state of Wisconsin to allow gray wolves to be hunted has spawned a number of scientific questions that wildlife experts will, no doubt, be asked to address. But it has also raised questions about public attitudes towards large carnivores, the ethics of hunting them, and how we should assess the worth of the natural world around us—questions that scientists typically are neither trained to handle, nor especially eager to take up.[1] Indeed, outside of those academics and specialists who actively engage these issues, how many of us are well prepared to get involved in the sort of “values talk” that the removal of wolves from the endangered species list requires? If we aren’t, can we be confident that we will do so productively?

Questions about values can be daunting, especially when they concern an animal as controversial as the wolf. Yet they are important to explore, and fortunately we have, in the writings of Aldo Leopold, an accessible point of departure for the journey. Not only did Leopold regularly stress the need to reflect on environmental values, but he actually had a lot to say about the value of wolves, much of which he expressed in one of his most famous essays, “Thinking Like a Mountain.” Re-examining this essay, then, appears to be a fruitful way to begin this crucial conversation.

As most people who have read A Sand County Almanac are aware, “Thinking Like a Mountain” recounts an experience Leopold had near the turn of the last century when he was working as a forester in the southwestern United States. While eating lunch one day, he and some fellow foresters saw an old wolf and several pups crossing a river in the canyon below them. Being active at that time in the effort to rid the region of predators, as well as being young and “full of trigger-itch,” the foresters gathered their rifles and shot into the pack, mortally wounding two animals. Scrambling down into the canyon to confirm the kills, Leopold approached one of the wolves just in time to see a “fierce green fire” dying in her eyes. As he later recalled, “I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes—something known only to her and to the mountain.”[2]

Despite being one of the best-known passages in all of Leopold’s writing, this story is often misread in one of two ways. First, it is sometimes thought to be a tale of Leopold’s awakening to the dignity of wolves, a tale in which he suddenly realizes how wrong it is to kill such magnificent creatures. In reality, it’s about how he learned to see wolves and other predatory animals as integral parts of natural systems, members of “biotic communities” that, in the long run, are better off with their predators than without them. The story is, in short, about learning to value wolves ecologically—to think “like a mountain,” and not like a wolf.

Considering the way the essay is written, it’s easy to see how this first mistake could arise. Nevertheless, as time has passed, it has become clear that Leopold’s assessment of the ecological value of wolves was correct. Studies of wolf reintroduction in Yellowstone National Park, for example, have painted a compelling picture of their environmental influence, and as this understanding has grown, so too has our sense of wolves’ ecological import.[3] On the whole, therefore, it seems that some of us may be learning to think like mountains, and perhaps the best evidence for this is the fact that wolves still exist in the continental United States for us to think about at all.

The second mistake that people make about “Thinking Like a Mountain” is to believe it is entirely historically accurate. In point of fact, it’s a blend of two anachronous events in Leopold’s life. First there was the wolf killing itself, which recent archival evidence shows to have occurred in 1909. Then there was Leopold’s shift away from the belief that predators were pests with no redeeming value whatsoever—something that did happen, but not suddenly, and not as early as 1909. Rather, he continued to promote the eradication of wolves and other predators for many years after his experience in that canyon, and he came to see the error of doing so only later in life. By 1944, when he put pen to paper and wrote the story of the fierce green fire, his transformation was complete. But thirty-five years earlier, when he actually fired those shots, there is little doubt that neither protecting wolves nor protecting mountains was on his mind.

To be sure, this second mistake is as innocent as the first, and it may seem trivial even to point it out. The problem, though, is that while the truth behind Leopold’s changing relationship to wolves provides genuine insight into the nature of environmental values, the story of the fierce green fire, as it is often understood, does not. On the contrary, it has the potential to contribute further to our misconceptions about the subject, so it is worthwhile to try to clarify some of the more notable points of confusion to which it can give rise.

The main issue, briefly stated, has to do with the way in which “Thinking Like a Mountain” appears to depict attitudinal change. To many, the essay reads as the story of how a powerful, singular event brought Leopold to a radical change of heart on “the varmint question.”[4] After all, he does say that, upon seeing the eyes of the old wolf, he “realized then” something that was new to him, and that in that moment he “sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed” with his negative assessment of predators’ worth. Not without reason, therefore, people frequently take these pages to be describing a kind of “conversion experience,” a sudden “epiphany” Leopold had about the value of wolves that forever altered his relationship to predatory animals.

The problem with this understanding of what transpired that day, however, is that although numerous studies indicate that environmental attitudes are linked to people’s life experiences, there is little evidence that they change abruptly as a result of momentous, idiosyncratic events of the sort Leopold seems to be reporting. Thus, unlike what his essay often leads readers to believe, a single face-to-face encounter isn’t likely to make a person with a negative view of wolves feel much differently about them, or somehow recognize their ecosystemic importance. An avid detractor of wolves, that is, probably wouldn’t see much of anything in one’s dying eyes, let alone be moved by seeing it.

To some people’s disappointment, then, the true story of environmental values is less dramatic than “Thinking Like a Mountain” appears to tell it. Rather than being driven mainly by conversion experiences, the current view is that our attitudes are influenced by many factors and tend to change relatively slowly. For Leopold, this is shown by the fact that his outlook on wolves shifted only after long hours of research, years of fieldwork, and a maturing view of people’s place in and on the land. Many of us, however, get lost in the details of what seems to be the story of a life-changing encounter, and lose sight of how his life really changed.

We should quickly add that, unlike what Leopold’s example might suggest, people’s environmental values are not always correlated with how much they know about nature or environmental issues. Stephen Kellert, for instance, conducted numerous surveys showing that people with nearly opposite attitudes towards various species—including wolves—often have nearly identical levels of knowledge about them. Hence although Kellert and others contend that levels of education do generally impact a person’s views on wildlife and the environment, they also contend that simply providing someone with more data does not.[5] Being more or less informed about wolves, it seems, doesn’t always lead one to love them more and hate them less.

This last point is noteworthy, since it cautions against the fallacy that promoting tolerance of controversial species is solely a matter of dispensing additional information about them. But if facts and figures don’t change hearts and minds, then what does? Interestingly enough, one strategy that has been proposed specifically in relation to wolves is wolf hunting itself. The idea is that this will, in time, lead people away from negative perceptions of wolves as livestock killers or competitors for game, towards an appreciation of them as animals that provide unique recreational and economic opportunities. The thinking here, in other words, is that if we can find ways to make wolves appear useful, we will also make their presence tolerable.

This approach is quite different from Leopold’s call for people to think like mountains, but will it rally support for wolves? Based on studies done in Wisconsin, Adrian Treves and Kerry Martin argue that many would-be wolf hunters hold attitudes and engage in behaviors at odds with really effective wolf conservation. These include a tendency not to contribute to conservation funds, a desire to see wolf population numbers below the state’s already modest management targets, and a greater inclination to kill them illegally.[6] Thus it isn’t clear that allowing hunting will alter the sorts of hostilities that put the gray wolf in such peril in the first place.[7]

The further problem with wolf hunting, of course, is that even if it did increase tolerance of wolves among some of their biggest detractors, it does so by way of a practice that is itself highly controversial. Invariably, when researchers have examined public opinions of hunting, they have found little support for so-called trophy hunting, even among hunters. The reason for this, it seems, is that people tend to think that trophy hunting involves killing for trivial reasons. Obviously, this entails a statement of values: animals matter, and killing them is serious business. It also entails a statement of value priorities: some human pursuits are of less value than animal life, and trading animals for trophies gets these values mixed up.

These remarks remind us that wolf hunting is a flash point for value conflicts. Leopold knew this well. Indeed, he experienced it himself—first as a forester seeking to eradicate wolves, and later as an advocate for wildlands and wildlife. Luckily for us, he didn’t shy away from these conflicts or his own internal tensions regarding them. Instead, he took them on in his work and through his writings. He certainly regretted persecuting the gray wolf. We can surmise that he’d be proud of what we’ve done to make up for it, and concerned about what we’ll do next.

Prior to the 2012-13 season, the Wisconsin DNR received more than 20,000 applications for wolf permits. By the fall of 2012, nearly 800 people had received one. Can we assume that everyone involved also received the message Leopold tried to send? One recent survey found that many hunters in Wisconsin’s wolf range disagree with or feel neutral about the claim that wolves help maintain “the balance of nature.” This was in sharp contrast to members of some of the state’s Ojibwe tribes, who overwhelmingly agreed with that idea. Ojibwe tribal members also expressed high tolerance of wolves, and support for more protective, non-lethal wolf policies.[8]

Such statistics provide some validation of Leopold’s belief that an ecological appreciation of the roles of predators might lead us to evaluate them more positively. They also allude to the fact that deeply felt environmental attitudes, as well as the deep differences of opinion they can engender, are almost always about more than just whatever species is in question. They are about people’s differing ways of understanding who they are, what they want their lives to be, and where they feel like they belong.[9] Not all opinions about the gray wolf run so deep, it’s true, but when they do, it’s not too far-fetched to say that really hating wolves, no less than really loving them, isn’t so much a matter of evaluating a single species as it is a matter of defining a way of life.

Acknowledging this reality, Leopold wrote in A Sand County Almanac that “no important change in ethics was ever accomplished without an internal change in our intellectual emphasis, loyalties, affections, and convictions.”[10] That this is so largely explains why ingrained hostilities towards wolves are slow to transform. It’s also why, in the short term at least, simply providing experiences, explaining facts, or expressing alternative points of view may not bring that transformation about. Perhaps the most important thing it indicates, though, is the importance of stepping back now and then and taking a long view of the moral and social issues surrounding wildlife conservation. Here we discover another benefit of learning to think like mountains.

In the end, it seems fair to say that what ultimately animates Leopold’s writing is just this forward-looking concern about where we’ll place our loyalties, what we’ll learn to value, and how we’ll put those values into practice. Given these concerns, perhaps the question we should have addressed before isn’t whether “Thinking Like a Mountain” is fact or fiction, but whether or not it’s a more useful story than most. Does it help orient us to environmental problems and set our moral bearings straight? Are we more likely to get it right on the question of the value of wolves if, rather than tales about the “big bad wolf,” we listen instead to tales of fierce green fires burning out there along the rimrock?

Leopold closes his essay with a nod to Thoreau’s famous claim that “in wildness is the preservation of the world.” The reference is meant to warn us of the danger of thinking only of human interests, and trying to eliminate everything in nature we believe threatens them. This danger, Leopold says, has been “long known among mountains,” but “seldom perceived among men.”[11] At least his story, unlike others, recognizes the human ability to think about the value of wolves not just from our own narrow vantage points, but also from that of mountains. Increasingly, many of us also think about this from the vantage point of wolves themselves. Preparing ourselves for productive “values talk” no doubt requires that we keep all of these values squarely in view—and that we don’t get them mixed up.

[1]. Without doubt, there are scientists willing to take up with these questions, and this comment is not meant to slight their contributions. For discussion of some of the issues related to the participation of scientists in ethical and policy matters, see Michael P. Nelson and John A. Vucetich, “On Advocacy by Environmental Scientists: What, Whether, Why and How,” Conservation Biology 23, no. 5 (2009): 1090-1101.

[2]. Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac with Essays on Conservation from Round River (New York: Ballantine Books, 1970), 138.

[3]. For a summary of findings in this area, see William J. Ripple and Robert L. Beschta, “Trophic Cascades in Yellowstone: The First Fifteen Years after Wolf Reintroduction,” Biological Conservation 145, no. 1 (2012): 205-213.

[4]. See Aldo Leopold, “The Varmint Question,” in The River of the Mother of God and Other Essays by Aldo Leopold, ed. Susan J. Flader and J. Baird Callicott (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991), 47-48. Originally published in 1915, this essay clearly illustrates Leopold’s early hostility towards wolves and other predatory animals.

[5]. See Stephen R. Kellert, The Value of Life: Biological Diversity and Human Society (Washington, DC: Island Press, 1996), 103-111, and 57.

[6]. Adrian Treves and Kerry A. Martin, “Hunters as Stewards of Wolves in Wisconsin and the Northern Rocky Mountains, USA” Society and Natural Resources 24, no. 9 (2011): 984-989.

[7]. One might be tempted to make an analogy here between wolf hunting as a strategy for changing environmental attitudes and “damage payments” made to agricultural producers to compensate for losses of livestock due to wolf predation. Though these compensation programs are popular, and it seems logical that they could help sway anti-wolf attitudes, surveys done both in Wisconsin and in the northern Rocky Mountains region indicate that they haven’t been successful in that regard. As Treves et al. conclude in “The Price of Tolerance: Wolf Damage Payments after Recovery,” “the goal of raising tolerance through compensation failed in both regions . . .” (Biodiversity Conservation 18 [2009]: 4016).

[8]. Victoria Shelley, Adrian Treves, and Lisa Naughton, “Attitudes to Wolves and Wolf Policy Among Ojibwe Tribal Members and Nontribal Residents of Wisconsin’s Wolf Range,” Human Dimensions of Wildlife: An International Journal 16, no. 6 (2011): 397-413.

[9]. For a recent discussion of this point, see Thomas A. Heberlein, Navigating Environmental Attitudes (Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 2012), especially chapter 2.

[10]. Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, 246.

[11]. Ibid., 141.

  • Christian Diehm

    Christian Diehm is Associate Professor of Philosophy and coordinator of the Environmental Ethics program at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He has written widely on environmental ethics and is co-editor of Facing Nature: Levinas and Environmental Thought (Duquesne University Press, 2012).

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