The government is us; we are the government, you and I. -Theodore Roosevelt

B&C Member Spotlight - Aldo Leopold

By PJ DelHomme 

As the father of wildlife ecology and a driving force behind the creation of a wilderness system, Aldo Leopold left a monumental legacy for conservation. 

Aldo Leopold with quiver and bow seated on rimrock above the Rio Gavilan in northern Mexico while on a bow-hunting trip in 1938. On April 5, 1923, Aldo Leopold was elected to the Boone and Crockett Club.

Born in 1887, the same year Theodore Roosevelt and George Grinnell founded the Boone and Crockett Club, Aldo Leopold was the oldest of four children. His family was neither poor nor exceedingly wealthy; they were comfortable. Aldo’s father, Carl, owned the Leopold Desk Company, and he was an avid outdoorsman. He also admired Roosevelt’s “strenuous life” and taught young Aldo how to hunt and enjoy the outdoors.

Aldo went to college prep school in New Jersey, and in 1906, he enrolled in the relatively new Yale Forest School. Founded in 1900 by Gifford Pinchot and Henry S. Graves, the school paved the way for extraction-minded foresters like the 22-year-old Leopold, who received his master’s of forestry in 1909. 

Forest Assistant Aldo Leopold and dog ‘Flip’ at land cut by trespassers, later set aside as part of the Apache National Forest, Arizona, 1911.

Leopold’s first assignment took him to the Apache National Forest in western Arizona along the border with New Mexico. It was here in 1912 that he sat atop a rimrock canyon in New Mexico. From that vantage point, he shot a female wolf. The act would stay with him until his death and become a focal point in his future writing. At the time, he was doing the job he was paid to do, which was to eliminate any threat to big game and ranchers. It was a widely held belief that a landscape without predators was healthy. 

Just after he married Estella Bergere in Santa Fe in the fall of 1912, Leopold nearly lost his life in the hills he loved to explore. In the spring following his marriage, Leopold tended to work on his forest via horseback. He got lost and soaked to the bone with snow and sleet in the Jicarilla Mountains. On his ride home, his joints began to swell. Eventually, his face and limbs became so bloated that he could barely move. Leopold was in kidney failure and knocking on death’s door. 

A doctor diagnosed him with Bright’s disease, also called nephritis. While recovering in Burlington, Vermont, with his family, Estella gave birth to the first of their five children. Leopold kept busy by reading, thinking, and writing about game management as he regained strength. These ideas would become the foundations of what we now know call ecology and game management. 

More Game, Fewer Predators 

Leopold’s bedside library included William Hornaday’s Our Vanishing Wildlife and works by Thoreau. The former influenced his future writing on game management, while the latter planted the seeds for a federal wilderness system.  

When Leopold returned to work after his illness, he gave his forest supervisor a memo outlining ways to restore game populations. He suggested that managers set aside game refuges for which hunters could purchase permits. The revenue would pay for rangers to control predators and enforce game laws. Initially, his superiors rejected his ideas.

He was disappointed but undeterred. On an assignment to promote tourism in the Southwest, Leopold stopped at the Grand Canyon. While awash in natural beauty, the area was soiled because of tourist trash and unregulated development by local vendors. Flora and fauna of the region had been sacrificed to the almighty tourist dollar. Along with the forest supervisor, Leopold worked to turn things around. In doing so, he wrote the first Game and Fish Handbook for the Forest Service in 1915. It focused on the value of all species, from big game to songbirds, except for predators. There was still no place for those. 

This call for the propagation of game led Leopold to spearhead the creation of the New Mexico Game Protective Association. He convinced Hornaday to speak at game protection rallies, and Leopold’s efforts even gained the attention of Theodore Roosevelt in 1917, who wrote Leopold a letter congratulating him on his efforts. 



During this time, Leopold was still conducting field research. One project, which the Boone and Crockett Club fully funded, studied the causes and effects of a massive die-off of all mule deer in the Black Mesa area of Arizona. According to Club records, this was the first scientific management study of a major wildlife program in America. Leopold eventually became a Club member in 1923 until he died in 1948. 

The Case for Wilderness 

By 1919, Leopold had been working in the Forest Service for a decade, and he started to think of wild places, wildlife, and their habitat as entire systems. He watched as Americans began to “discover” and visit places like the Grand Canyon and their national forests. While there were plenty of places he could get away from tourists, Leopold wondered how long forests might stay undeveloped, free from pull-through campgrounds, marinas, and gift shops. 

His observations culminated in an article he wrote for the Journal of Forestry in 1921. Nearly 23 years before the Wilderness Act, Leopold called for large chunks of land to be set aside from development. He wrote, “By ‘wilderness’ I mean a continuous stretch of country preserved in its natural state, open to lawful hunting and fishing, big enough to absorb a two weeks’ pack trip, and kept devoid of roads, artificial trails, cottages or works of man.” In that article, he highlighted the headwaters of the Gila River on the Gila National Forest—a place he knew well. 

Middle fork of the Gila River.

Leopold mapped the boundaries of his proposed wilderness area in the Gila and presented his idea and maps to Frank Pooler, a district forester. At first, the Forest Service rejected Leopold’s proposal. Some said it would “lock up” resources. Others claimed it would only be a place for the rich and entitled. And yet others cheered the proposal. For years, the idea germinated, and Leopold cultivated it with the help of other men like Arthur Carhart, who had similar ideas in Colorado. Then, five days after the Leopold family moved to Wisconsin, Leopold's proposal for the nation’s first wilderness area was approved in May 1924. 

The Move to the Shack  

Leopold’s penchant for thinking was recognized by Forest Service management, and he was transferred to the Forest Products Laboratory in Wisconsin in 1924. Returning to the Midwest was a shift for Leopold and his family, but his new role at the lab did not sit well. He left after only a few years. 

From 1928 to 1933, Leopold worked as a game management consultant, putting his keen observation skills to work. During this time, game management, which was synonymous with game propagation, was working too well in places like the Kaibab Plateau in the Southwest. Here, the near-elimination of both predators and hunting resulted in an explosion of deer populations. Once managers reinstated hunting to the area, it was too late; the deer had eaten themselves out of their habitat. 

Leopold family at the shack. Back row: Aldo, Estella, Luna, Starker. Front row: Nina, Estella Jr., Gus. Carl took the photo. Courtesy of the Aldo Leopold Foundation and University of Wisconsin-Madison Archives.

Even as the effects of the Great Depression strained resources and the Dust Bowl strangled farmers and crops, Leopold managed to eke out a living and finish his book, Game Management, in 1933. This work wove together forestry, agriculture, biology, and zoology in an effort to show that managers, farmers, and citizens can work to restore wildlife populations. Finally, in the summer of 1933, the University of Wisconsin offered Leopold a position teaching the nation’s first graduate program in game management. As evidence that Leopold’s work was making waves, he was named to a presidential committee to reverse declining duck numbers. The Beck Committee included Thomas Beck, J. N. Ding Darling, and Leopold. Beck’s committee pushed for a one-cent tax on shotgun shells to fund conservation efforts, but the idea was shot down. 

During this time, Wisconsin held the nation’s first bowhunting season in a century, and the Leopold family gave it a shot. “Their arrows flew wide, far, narrow, and short,” writes biographer Marybeth Lorbiecki. “But they had such a rousing good time they decided to look for some farmland to buy for a future base camp.” With a new job and a family that loved to hunt, Leopold was soon in search of a weekend getaway property. 

He found an old shack on a handful of abused and neglected acres near Baraboo, Wisconsin, on the Wisconsin River. It was cheap—and for good reason. With the country still in the grips of the Dust Bowl, the farm saw frequent dust storms from which local wildlife would choke to death and dirt would pile up around the buildings. The farm was essentially barren. With Aldo at the helm, the Leopold family dug in their heels and worked to transform it into thriving habitat for wildlife. They planted 2,000 pine tree seedlings and then hauled water to them as they waited for the rains to come. They built an outhouse and played guitar at night while they cooked dinner in a Dutch oven. All the while, Leopold was taking notes and journaling about the experience. 

Coming Full Circle 

At 52, Leopold became chair of a new Department of Wildlife Management at the University of Wisconsin. Conservation and wildlife management were becoming more common subjects in the college classroom, and Leopold was the tip of the spear. But when the U.S. entered World War II, many of Leopold’s students enlisted, and the country’s focus shifted. The war effort called for increased dam construction and resource extraction. Leopold’s son served in the Pacific, and Aldo spent more time at the family farm. He rose long before dawn to look, listen, and take notes in his journal. 

Aldo Leopold stands next to virgin timber on the upper peninsula of Michigan. Circa 1938.

In 1942, Leopold found himself in the crosshairs of an angry public when the Wisconsin governor asked him to serve on a committee to help solve the state’s deer problem. Like the Kaibab in the 1920s, Wisconsin’s deer population had exploded, and they were eating themselves out of a home. The governor asked for Leopold’s help, but no one liked the answer. He suggested a short, intense open season on does for the short term. In the long term, he suggested the state eliminate the bounty on wolves and encourage them to roam in wilder portions of the state. Citizens revolted at the idea, and politicians caved to their howls. Leopold was subject to personal attacks, which took a toll on his health. 

“I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer. And perhaps with better cause, for while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades.”

—Aldo Leopold, Thinking Like a Mountain 

In response, Leopold returned to the solitude of the farm, where he penned more of his thoughts. It was here in 1944 that he wrote, Thinking Like A Mountain. In that essay, he reflected on his time as an early forest ranger, enlisted to kill predators in the Southwest. The image of that old female wolf he shot two decades earlier stuck with him. “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.”

This essay and others, along with journal entries, were compiled by Leopold, who spent four years trying to find a publisher for them. Leopold's daughter took over the search when one publisher suggested he rewrite his entire manuscript. On a Wednesday in April 1948, Leopold received word that Oxford University Press wanted to publish his work. The family packed up the car and headed to the farm to celebrate. The following Wednesday, a fire broke out on a neighboring farm. The family pitched in to help put it out. After Leopold sent his daughter to call the fire department, his chest tightened. He sat down, folded his arms, and died in the grass of a heart attack. His best known work, A Sand County Almanac, was published the following year. 

Aldo Leopold near his Baraboo shack in 1946.

Aldo Leopold spent his life outside—observing, listening, working, thinking, and journaling. At first, he was a forester, doing the work he was taught to do. Attending the Yale Forest School built a solid, pragmatic foundation, which Leopold needed in the early days of his career. Thankfully, somewhere along the way, he was taught to be a free-thinker. He wasn’t afraid to question established norms and procedures. He learned that nature was in a constant state of change. As he got older, his views on man’s relationship to the natural world evolved. Thankfully, he wasn’t afraid to write it down for future generations. 

Member Spotlights

Boone and Crockett Club members have come from a cross-section of famous accomplished people whose lives and careers have written and recorded the history of this country since the late 19th Century. They have been naturalists, scientists, explorers and sportsmen, writers and academicians, artists, statesmen and politicians, generals, bankers, financiers, philanthropists, and industrialists. Their diversity of ideas and activities during their careers have made the Boone and Crockett Club rich in its fellowship and achievements. To read more member spotlights, just click here

PJ DelHomme writes and edits content from his home in western Montana. He runs Crazy Canyon Media and Crazy Canyon Journal

Support Conservation

Support Hunting

Support Conservation

Support Education

"The wildlife and its habitat cannot speak. So we must and we will."

-Theodore Roosevelt