Iconic Ikes: Aldo Leopold

Janette Rosenbaum
Aldo Leopold - credit Bob McCabe

It’s hard to overstate Aldo Leopold’s contributions to our understanding of ecology, wildlife and the role of humans in the natural world. Much of his groundbreaking work as a conservationist was deeply connected with the Izaak Walton League’s early years.

Leopold grew up on the banks of the Mississippi River, hunting and fishing with his father and siblings. At an early age, he took an interest in observing and keeping careful records about the natural world.

He stuck with it, deciding to pursue a career in natural resources. Leopold traveled east to attend Yale, which had just started one of the nation’s first forestry schools, thanks to a donation from Gifford Pinchot, chief of the newly formed U.S. Forest Service.

In 1909, with a forestry degree in hand, Leopold secured a job with the Forest Service. The Service sent him to Arizona and New Mexico, where one of his first assignments was to cull the population of large predators, since they sometimes killed livestock. Later in his career, he developed a different perspective on the role of predators.

The insights captured in A Sand County Almanac live on, inspiring generations of conservationists.

As part of his work with the Forest Service, he wrote the agency’s first game and fish handbook and developed the first comprehensive management plan for the Grand Canyon. He also introduced the idea – novel at the time – that some national forests should be preserved as wilderness.

Leopold married Estella Bergere in 1912. They went on to have five children, all of whom became notable conservationists in their own right.

During his 15 years with the Forest Service in the Southwest, Leopold expanded his interest in wildlife conservation and watersheds. He had an opportunity to focus more on those topics when the Service sent him to the Midwest in 1924.

Linking with the League in the Midwest

Leopold had hardly arrived at the Forest Products Lab in Madison in 1924 when the League’s Wisconsin Division snatched him up. The Division had decided to take on forest conservation as one of its key issues, and they could not resist the chance to recruit one of the nation’s few experts on that subject. By October 1925, Leopold was speaking to Ikes about “Forestry in Wisconsin” at the Division’s state convention, one of many addresses he gave to the League.

He also produced important reports as a member of early League committees, and he was a frequent contributor to Outdoor America. Leopold’s writing still echoes in our feature “Thinking Like a Mountain,” named after a chapter in his landmark work, A Sand County Almanac.

A Sand County Almanac - credit Michael ReinemerFor decades, Leopold's book, A Sand County Almanac, has been required reading at conservation organizations, colleges and universities.

Leopold served as a director of the League’s Wisconsin Division, and he played a role in protecting the Boundary Waters region in northern Minnesota. The League was adamantly opposed to allowing road building in this wild region. When stakeholders reached an impasse over whether roads should be built in portions of the area, Leopold counseled a give-and-take to achieve progress, using his knowledge of the Forest Service. He recognized early on that working collaboratively was the only path to success for many conservation issues.

In 1928, Leopold began traveling the Midwest to understand why game was disappearing. At the time, the only accepted explanation for such a phenomenon was excessive hunting, and the typical response was more regulation. Leopold’s conclusion, however, was the paradigm-shifting idea that wildlife populations were suffering because their habitat was disappearing.

Comparing his experiences in the public lands of the Southwest to his time among the privately owned lands of the Midwest, Leopold saw that neither regulations nor incentive-based voluntary programs could reliably get landowners to manage their acres more responsibly, when doing otherwise better satisfied their own economic interests. His ideas about environmental ethics expanded to include the idea that conservation was only possible when landowners genuinely wanted to do the right thing for the land.

After publishing the results of his game survey, Leopold returned to Madison to become a professor of game management at the University of Wisconsin and a research director at the university’s arboretum. There, he undertook the work of creating the world’s first prairie restoration. That prairie can still be seen today and it continues to reveal important discoveries in restoration ecology.

Leopold then moved to the“sand counties” of south-central Wisconsin, where he organized decades of notes and composed his influential book. In 1947, he learned that the book had been accepted for publication. Unfortunately, he didn’t live to see it in print. On April 21, 1948, he rushed outside to help a neighbor battle a wildfire and while working to put out the flames, he died of a heart attack. But his insights captured in A Sand County Almanac live on, inspiring generations of conservationists.

The Land Ethic – Leopold's Legacy

Over time, Leopold’s views evolved as he considered the relationships between land, biological communities and the influence of humans. He developed a perspective that he eventually labeled “the Land Ethic,” which put forests, wildlife, soil and humans together in a moral as well as a scientific framework.

For instance, his view of apex predators shifted, after he realized that they play an essential role in the fabric of ecosystems. In his essay “Thinking Like a Mountain,” he describes an incident when he spotted a wolf and her pups in the wild and reflexively shot them. Checking the kill, Leopold observed the “fierce green fire dying in her eyes,” which haunted him as he learned more about the role of predators in controlling populations of deer and other species.

If a mountain had a point of view, it would look at biology, geology and changes over long periods of time – decades, centuries or millennia. Leopold asserts in his essay that by killing all the wolves, a rancher fails to understand the wolf’s role and purpose. And humans have failed to understand the natural world more broadly – whether the water, land or wildlife. We have not learned “to think like a mountain,” he wrote. “Hence we have dustbowls, and rivers washing the future into the sea.”

Leopold summed up his definition of the land ethic in a 1947 speech titled “The Ecological Conscience” at a meeting of the Garden Club of America. “The practice of conservation must spring from a conviction of what is ethically and esthetically right as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right only when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the community, and the community includes the soil, waters, fauna, and flora, as well as people.”


The Izaak Walton League's first century of conservation success was carried forward by committed heroes working together to defend America's natural resources. During our centennial celebrations, we're sharing their stories. Look for more profiles of iconic Ikes throughout 2022.

Today could be the first day of your own story as an iconic Ike.

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Top photo: Through his field work and hundreds of research papers, Aldo Leopold has had a huge influence on wildlife management and conservation practices. Photo credits: Bob McCabe.

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