In honor of Aldo Leopold…

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?

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.

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9 thoughts on “In honor of Aldo Leopold…

    • Thanks man. Don’t get me started on the wolf hunt (makes me sick…) but it did cross my mind a few times while writing this. How anyone could read that green fire quote and still find that acceptable is way beyond me.

  1. It’s not a mountain lion, but it is in Iowa! Andy Wulf has gotten several of these on his trail cams around Cedar County!

    • Yeah Brad, actually I’ve seen some of his pictures posted. It seems there have been quite a few bobcat sightings around the county lately. I think that’s pretty cool- again, a sign that we have the habitat needed to support them. Thanks for the comment!

  2. you’d have a better chance of seeing a “cougar” in a local cedar county “establishment” on a Friday or Saturday night than in the wild. While I have firm beliefs there have been a couple mountain lions traveling the cedar river corridor over the past few years, to believe they’re going to set up shop in Cedar County and call it home is about as bogus as most people’s embellished claims of seeing them. Unfortunately, with cougars, it’s not “where there’s one, there’s a hundred”…and they can cover 100miles a day (gesh you have to appreciate that!) so the same critter being seen in Solon, then Cedar Bluff, then Cedar Valley gets reported as three separate sightings.

    It’s just the hot-topic coffee shot item…give it time and it will become Elk or maybe black bear.

    The picture above is a prime example of “nature’s buffet”…and with respects to Aldo Leopold, I imagine he’d be greatly embarrassed by the exploitation of whitetails for monetary gain (yes, that’s pointed at Andy and all so-called outfitters) that seems to run rampant these days. The picture depicts a voracious predator picking off, what appears to be, a prime buck…pretty much nothing natural about that, when you consider that wolves, cougars, bears, coyotes, etc usually stake out claim of the weak and feeble. So how did it happen? Well, the learning curve of predators is rather quick and simple. You put a feeder in the middle of “the bush” (south texas in this case) and set it to go off at the same time every day, the predators know where to locate a simple meal…not much different than the poor-chaps who developed the dependence on the grain from the feeder.

    • You make several excellent points here, Tim. I agree that chances are good a cat or two may have passed through since all this hype started a few years ago- but don’t think there are any in permanent residence in Cedar County, and chances are, there won’t be. I wonder about the possibility of breeding pairs establishing territory in NE Iowa- which I guess is where I had in mind referring to the sign of hope. As for this photo- I’m right there with you as well. The first thing I had in mind when seeing that feeder was “easy pickins…” Aldo Leopold (father of wildlife management) is shaking his head somewhere in these latest attempts to exercise control over the wild.

    • That’s how dense I can be at times, I saw the feeder, saw the deer, and the kitty, never made the full turn connection of them all adding together. I often forget the intelligence of the animals.

      What I wouldn’t give for the animals to become a fixture in this area though, something to tell my children about, see the footprints, know that something to graceful was walking the hills. I can’t wait to take my children to the valley to see the bald eagles flying, look for the chance to scare a deer up.

      So what has changed in the past 50-60 years? my parents tell me how when they were children it was such an amazing thing for them to see a deer, something that would actually make the paper when someone would go hunting and bag a buck or a doe, what has increased their numbers so exponentially?

      • No worries on missing the feeder, Brad- very easy to do; but I think you honed in on what’s really important. The value of wilderness and having wild places cannot be understated. I too would love to see mountain lions in the area regularly, but agree with Tim that it probably won’t happen. These cats have a huge range and need enormous tracts of land to really prosper. Instead, we’re more likely to see them passing through from time to time while making their rounds. Just knowing that they could be out there gets me excited though. I remember when we were kids hearing stories of a bear that had been shot (somewhere over by Cedar Valley) in the 60’s or 70’s; or listening to my dad tell of hearing a bobcat scream while farming some rental ground over off Snaggy Ridge- or even listening to the coyotes howl myself. Every one of these instances caught my imagination and filled me with wonder (and in part, shaped who I am today.) The same will be given to your children, taking them out and spotting an eagle or deer. And the more diversity, the more curiosity and excitement there will be.
        As for the wildlife that has made a resurgence in the past half century or so, most of it can be attributed to improved conservation. Smarter hunting regulations, CRP and other programs that have improved habitat, etc. In some cases, like wild turkey, the DNR re-introduced them to chosen areas. Again, when we were kids, wild turkey weren’t nearly as common around here. I remember my uncle (who was a game warden) bringing birds up from Kentucky and releasing them in neighboring timber. And obviously, those efforts have been very successful.
        The final factor, though, is some wildlife is just adapting to live in closer proximity to humans. This isn’t as inspirational as other recovery stories, but still true.
        Thanks again for the excellent insight!

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