Spare predators; think like a mountain

Paul Andersen
Fair Game

Shooting mountain lions and bears, treed by dogs or snared by traps, is an “experiment” Colorado wildlife officials think may improve deer herds and benefit the “hunting industry.”

Wildlife managers reason that by killing keystone predators there will be more deer for hunters to kill. By experimenting with an inhumane final solution, they are forgetting how to think like a mountain.

“Thinking Like a Mountain” is a landmark essay by Aldo Leopold, America’s first conservation biologist, whose writings have influenced bioethics. It describes the author as a young hunter who assumes that fewer wolves means more deer for the hunter, more sport for the sportsman.

“We were eating lunch on a high rimrock, at the foot of which a turbulent river elbowed its way,” wrote Leopold in 1949. “We saw what we thought was a doe fording the torrent, her breast awash in white water. When she climbed the bank toward us and shook out her tail, we realized our error: it was a wolf. A half-dozen others, evidently grown pups, sprang from the willows and all joined in a welcoming melee of wagging tails and playful maulings.

“In those days we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf. In a second we were pumping lead into the pack. When our rifles were empty, the old wolf was down, and a pup was dragging a leg into impassable slide-rocks. We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes.”

Leopold was forever moved by that green fire. “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.”

Leopold went on to advocate for the interconnectivity of all life, the same view shared by John Muir, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Albert Schweitzer and others who have expressed reverence for the web of life.

“Since then,” Leopold wrote, “I have lived to see state after state extirpate its wolves. I have watched the face of many a newly wolfless mountain, and seen the south-facing slopes wrinkle with a maze of new deer trails. I have seen every edible bush and seedling browsed. I have seen every edible tree defoliated to the height of a saddlehorn.”

Leopold observed that misguided, short-term policies often result in unforeseen, long-term problems.

“We all strive for safety, prosperity, comfort, long life and dullness,” he wrote. “The deer strives with his supple legs, the cowman with trap and poison, the statesman with pen, the most of us with machines, votes, and dollars, but it all comes to the same thing: peace in our time.”

Leopold referred to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain who, in 1938, pledged “peace in our time” as rationale for appeasing Adolph Hitler. Killing predators expresses a similar appeasement to weak scientific data for what one conservationist labels a 19th-century approach to game management.

Instead of killing predators, wildlife officials should look at other reasons for deer decline, like 15,000 new oil and gas wells on deer habitat in northwest Colorado, where predators will be targeted starting in May. Deer also are lost to sprawling subdivisions and increasing highway traffic that can kill more deer than hunters.

Killing seems to be the most expedient consideration for problem solving, but not according to scientific evidence: “Not a single experiment in which predators were killed has ever successfully applied this randomized controlled design,” reported “Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.” “Lethal control methods need to be subjected to the same gold standard of science as anything else.”

Wildlife managers are not extirpating all bears and lions, but their approach appears to randomly toy with sentient beings that deserve humane treatment.

“Too much safety seems to yield only danger in the long run,” Leopold warned. “Perhaps this is behind Thoreau’s dictum: In wildness is the salvation of the world. Perhaps this is the hidden meaning in the howl of the wolf, long known among mountains, but seldom perceived among men.”

Paul Andersen’s column appear on Mondays. He may be reached at


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