In his classic work “A Sand County Almanac,” Wisconsin conservationist Aldo Leopold describes killing a wolf in the Southwest as a young man full of “trigger-itch.” Seeing a pack of wolves playing near a river, Leopold emptied his rifle, killing two. The author found his way to one of the slain animals and watched as a “fierce green fire” died in its eyes.
In that instant, he questioned what he had done. Initially, Leopold recalled, he thought killing the wolf would help create a deer hunter’s paradise. But another thought occurred to him. In shooting the wolf, Leopold realized, he encouraged an overabundance of deer, promoted overgrazing of brush and, in time, erosion. The local rimrock landscape itself would be harmed.
Leopold called this thinking like a mountain.
It was uncommon wisdom then as it is now.
Earlier this month, Sen. Tom Tiffany (R-Hazelhurst) organized a Wolf Summit in Cumberland. At the conference, farmers lamented the loss of sheep and cattle to wolves. Hunters deplored the loss of deer. Homeowners said their pet dogs had fallen prey to wolf predation.
The solution, said Tiffany, is to, once again, delist the wolf from the federal Endangered Species Act and resume a state management program with a wolf hunting season.
“Wisconsin is not a wolf sanctuary and it is irresponsible to allow it to continue to be treated as such,” he said. “The state of Wisconsin is more than willing, and able, to manage the wolf population within our borders when the species is once again delisted.”
Sen. Tiffany, of course, is doing what any politician does. He wants to make our lives comfortable, prosperous and safe. He would strike a “balance” between the demands of farmers, hunters and environmentalists. He would maintain a measure of wilderness, but only that.
But is this political prescription wise? Does it solve our problems?
The error here is to think that we, as humans, can take the wolf out of an ecological system without consequence and then, in further arrogance, say that science-based management can fix it all. What folly.
Thousands of politicians just like Tiffany have over the years come up with the same answer for the wolf. Guns, leg traps and poison. But there are other, deeper questions to work through. How would any of these politicians, for instance, correct an ecology gone wrong once a top predator is eliminated?
What about the deer? Since 1960, the state’s deer herd has nearly tripled from 400,000 to almost 1.2 million. The DNR cannot find enough hunters to stop this population explosion. In 2009, 800,000 hunters bought nine-day gun deer licenses. That number fell to 612,000 this past year. The DNR, desperate for deer hunters, now allows 10-year-old children to hunt deer in this state. It has sanctioned blaze pink clothes in an effort to attract women to the state’s hunting ranks. Can anyone disagree that increased predation is the only practical way to control the state’s runaway deer herd? This week, the DNR itself said as much. It announced a five-year study to determine whether coyotes and bobcats might thin out southwestern Wisconsin deer sickened with Chronic Wasting Disease.
What about the land and water? Marathon County has over 300,000 rolling acres of cropland and pasture. The land, interspersed with wood lots, produces feed primarily for the county’s 65,000 dairy cows, but, also, on the margins, for an estimated 55,000 deer. The wolf is an infrequent visitor. But the land suffers chronic erosion. Rivers and lakes, choked with algae, are declared impaired. The wolf, if it had its way, would return the county to a solid pine forest with crystal clear waters. That’s not a happy option for us humans, of course, and, as a practical matter, is not going to happen. But do anti-wolf politicians have any realistic proposal to deal with the state’s agriculturally-caused water pollution? No, they don’t.
I don’t know whether it is a good or bad thing that the wolf is protected by the federal Endangered Species Act. The question is too big. It overwhelms me. Yet I don’t think the path to an answer begins with us thinking like a politician.
To that end, I return to Leopold’s epiphany that took place when he bent over, rifle in hand, to stare at a dead wolf carcass.
We have to think like a mountain.
Peter Weinschenk is the editor of the Record Review newspaper, serving Marathon, Athens, Edgar and Stratford, where this column also appears.