This weekend, March 2-4, marks an opportunity to celebrate and reflect upon the life of one of the most influential environmentalists of all time. Aldo Leopold, born in Burlington, Iowa in 1887, was an instrumental figure in the development of modern land ethic. A forester, philosopher, ecologist and writer, Leopold dedicated his life to advocating the sanctity of wilderness. His monumental book, A Sand County Almanac, is a collection of essays that has inspired millions. If you have not read this work; please, do so immediately. It is one of the most important pieces of literature in American history.
The first weekend of March is officially recognized as “Aldo Leopold Weekend” by the Wisconsin state legislature, and commemorated by conservation groups across the nation. The Aldo Leopold Foundation encourages supporters to celebrate in the coming days by sharing and discussing the teachings of Leopold, or simply taking a moment for personal reflection while spending time in the great outdoors. While I certainly hope to indulge in the latter, I would like to take this occasion to address a topic that’s weighed on me for some time.
Photo by Chet Markgraf, acquired from BuckManager.com
Above is a photo you may already be familiar with. First of all, I want to make it clear that this is NOT one of my images. The shot has been circulating on the internet for years, and seems to find its way through my Facebook feed every couple months or so. What makes this particularly fascinating, beyond it being the trail cam catch of a lifetime, is how the story behind it continues to evolve.
The picture was taken in Oklahoma. Then came reports out of Tennessee. A reputable state trooper captured the image in Georgia, but not before coffee shops buzzed with rumors of a cougar photographed in Maine. Minnesota, Kansas, South Carolina, Illinois. The likeness continued to surface, and each time a new state laid claim. A virtual witch hunt was triggered in Virginia while Iowa conspiracy theorists admonished the DNR. All told, at least twenty nine states were credited with being the location of the scene, leaving two possible explanations. Either the nation was under the spell of a narcissistic cat boasting his prowess by dragging his quarry in a zigzagging cross country tour of trail cams from Washington State to South Florida; or in the world of social media, you can’t believe everything you read.
The image was actually captured several years ago on a ranch in South Texas. Here’s the story. I encourage you to read it and bookmark the page; just in case the need arises for refutable evidence next time this traveling cougar is sighted near your town. The article does a nice job of recognizing the driving force behind this viral phenomenon. It’s the same mindset that causes folks to get up in arms anytime there’s talk of a predator in their midst. It’s the lore of a campfire, a primal instinctual reaction; a fascination with that which remains truly wild.
I first discovered this image several months ago when it was posted to the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation Facebook page. Initially, the photo was said to have been captured by a trail cam in northwestern Iowa. Obviously, someone didn’t exercise due diligence in researching the validity of that claim. However, to their credit, the group didn’t succumb to the embarrassment of having purveyed false information. Instead, they admitted to their mistake, but left the post open in recognition of the sensitive discussion it inspired.
Mountain lions have been a hot topic in Iowa (and other states) in recent years. The talk first began to surface with tracks and alleged sightings, then found new urgency when a cougar was hit and killed by a motorist. Being from a state which had not knowingly hosted any species of large predator in generations, residents grew alarmed. Accusations flew, claiming this reemergence of mountain lions to be the result of a covert Department of Natural Resources effort toward deer control. The agency denied having taken such measures, and said these animals were transient males which had wandered in from neighboring states. Currently, the general consensus is that there are a very small number of mountain lions living within Iowa’s borders. If they are residents or just passing through remains unknown.
Still, each new cougar sighting evokes a firestorm of speculation. This was certainly the case in the aftermath of that INHF post as viewers flooded the comment box with their opinions on the matter. While I personally find the faction which believes this to be some sinister DNR plot laughable, reading through the commentary I was quickly enraged as another common philosophy reared its ugly head.
“I’d like to have that thing in my scope…”
The commenter wasn’t referring to the deer. Line after line revealed those eager to kill a cougar, seemingly without hesitation. My blood boiled as I scrolled through the discussion. One self proclaimed outdoorsman after another reeled against the presence of mountain lions, and bragged of how they would shoot one if ever given the chance. I fought to contain the building torrent of slurs staged on the tip of my tongue, until finally it manifested in a single flustered question.
Why would you kill a mountain lion?
Would it satisfy your ego; give you something to brag about to your friends?
Would it fill you with false confidence in some archaic desire to control the natural world?
Would you feel you served some justice toward a threat perceived of your own fears?
Why would you kill an animal, simply because it exists?
Compared to many of my neighbors, I take an uncommon stance on this issue. While I’m not opposed to hunting, I have never understood the mentality of killing an animal simply because it was there. And I never will. As Aldo Leopold once said:
“Harmony with the land is like harmony with a friend. You cannot cherish his right hand and chop off his left. That is to say you cannot love game and hate predators. The land is one organism.”
To me, the fact that we have mountain lions returning to the area is not a cause for alarm, but rather a reason for hope. It’s encouraging to think that we still have places, though not many, wild enough to support an apex predator. And while I am not arguing if these creatures are capable of posing potential dangers that those beyond their range haven’t faced in some time; I do advocate respect over destruction.
Of course, even Leopold himself was not immune from the pervasive theories of his time regarding predator control. In fact, the early part of his career was spent eradicating mountain lions, bears, and wolves from forest lands in the American southwest. However, one profound experience would change that focus, forever altering his cause. Coming upon a wolf he had shot and lay dying in New Mexico, Leopold recounted:
“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 to 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.”
Aldo Leopold learned and grew from his experiences, and few in this modern age are as suitable to speak on behalf of the wild. Most of us will never achieve the intimate understanding he had of wilderness; which only furthers the need to take his teachings to heart. If we truly wish to strive for harmony with the natural world, we must learn to respect and preserve all life as one.