When I started into college, I wanted to go into wildlife management.
Okay, I know what you’re saying to yourself: “Wait…what?” “WTF?” “Wildlife doesn’t need a manager!” “What the hell was he thinking?!”
Clearly, I didn’t know what I was getting into. I knew I loved animals and wanted to work around wildlife, but what I didn’t realize was that about the only work in that field was in some game department promoting hunting, or in the vile Wildlife “Services” department, killing off animals by the droves in horrible ways.
I had enrolled in a small, rural college where the same teacher taught every class in the wildlife curriculum. In an obvious plug for the local logging industry, he started off each class (no matter which course he was teaching) with the mantra, “Clear cuts are good for wildlife,” at which point I would raise my hand and ask, “What about wolves or wolverine or grizzly bears who prefer wilderness and try to avoid people whenever possible?” To that he would rephrase his spiel and say, “Clear cuts are good for deer.”
It didn’t take long before I realized that wildlife “management” had an agenda, a higher purpose—to serve the hunting industry. Not, as I had imagined, to serve wildlife or to promote the balance of nature. No, quite the opposite, in fact.
Although it had been well established by then that the way to ensure healthy populations of ungulates was to maintain healthy populations of natural predators, “game” managers continued to make the same mistake that Aldo Leopold, known as the father of wildlife management, made in 1926. In a Sand County Almanac, Leopold reveals a regrettable experience that many people still haven’t learned from:
“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. What was literally a pile of wolves writhed and tumbled in the center of an open flat at the foot of our rimrock.
“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, but with more excitement than accuracy…When our rifles were empty, the old wolf was down, and a pup was dragging a leg into impassable side-rocks. 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 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.”
Unfortunately, Aldo Leopold’s eventual understanding of wolves’ necessary place in a healthy ecosystem came too late for at least one New Mexico pack. Judging by the vehemence with which today’s hunters are targeting wolves, it’s plain to see that wildlife management still hasn’t come very far in its grasp of nature’s mechanisms.
Richard Leaky, author of The Sixth Extinction, points to the folly of trying to manage wildlife, “It is far better to understand and accept the world of nature in its infinite variety and its infinitely complex processes, acknowledging the near futility of attempts to control them, than to imagine through ignorance that it is possible to do so.”