The Problem With Scientific Deer Management

Despite his efforts to educate the public on sound deer management, Aldo Leopold realized the lessons learned from wars between nations apply to those waged over natural resources.

By Marybeth Lorbiecki

whitetail deer management

Antlerless deer hunting in Wisconsin set the stage for what would later become known as “The Crime of ’43.”

In September 1939, Germany invaded Poland. During the dark months of the next 2½ years, Europe exploded with tanks, bombs and guns. The violent side of Hitler’s new German policies proved worse than anyone could have imagined, including legendary conservationist Aldo Leopold.

It is quite ironic how the perils of war run parallel with historic and current political battles over deer management.

As the brutality of World War II increased, Leopold became entangled in vehement debates on the conservation front. Both state and national governments were promoting the construction of dams for more power and the clear-cutting of wilderness areas and state forests for more timber and roads. Leopold fought these acts of violence against nature with his sharpened pencil and lined notepads. His words deepened in philosophical content and scientific scope.

As one of University of Wisconsin conservation students said: “When most biologists were thinking of individuals, he was thinking in terms of populations. When it was usual to think of populations … He was thinking of ecosystems, and of humans as components of ecosystems … He was seeing beyond the preservation of nature apart — toward the integration of human and natural worlds.”

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The titles of some of Leopold’s most significant addresses, lectures and essays of the war years show the depth of the human questions he was tackling: “Economics, Philosophy, and Land,” “A Biotic View of Land,” “War Ecology,” “Land Use and Democracy,” “A Conservation Esthetic.”

Leopold’s solutions to conservation problems emphasized widespread, in-depth ecological education to change American assumptions about the land and the society’s cultural values.

He wrote, “The real substance of conservation lie not in the physical projects of the government, but in the mental processes of citizens. … All the acts of government, in short, are of slight importance to conservation except as they affect the acts and thoughts of citizens.”

Deer Herd Takes Center Stage
Leopold had a chance to distill this theoretical principle into action as he became embroiled in state politics. Since 1936, reports had been coming in of a population explosion in Wisconsin’s white-tailed deer herd.

awolf_growlThe state had experienced mild winters and had been nearly wolf-less for years, due to an effective bounty system. As a result, deer were destroying their habitat. They were feeding heavily on the seedlings of the state’s newly replanted forests, and, yet, many North Woods deer were still starving to death.

At first, most deer hunters refused to acknowledge the problem. Less than 20 years earlier, conservationists had pressed for deer hunting limits and wolf eradication, saying there were too few deer. Now there were too many deer for the habitat. Why should hunters believe the conservationists?

In 1942, as the deer crisis was coming to a head, the governor called upon Leopold to serve on the Conservation Commission, which appointed him to its Citizen’s Deer Committee. A friend, Wallace Grange, wrote of the governor’s decision: “I am still rubbing my eyes in disbelief over the state’s inconceivably good fortune in having you on the Commission. I thought those things happened only in the storybooks. …  The situation had become so hopeless as to be almost irremediable. Now it is as fresh as a seed, which has germinated after long dormancy. …  The ecology of the Conservation Commission has been subjected to something that will leave its mark on the face of things from here onward.”

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The Wisconsin State Journal applauded the appointment just as enthusiastically: “Aldo Leopold may not be a popular commissioner with everyone. He, better than any other man in Wisconsin and probably better than any other man in the entire country, knows what real conservation is and how to achieve it. That will involve stepping on toes, but, fortified by and informed love for nature and having no political axes to grind, he will not be reluctant to step. … If the people of Wisconsin allow men like Leopold to direct their conservation program, the generations to come will be blessed.”

The newspaper’s words proved beyond prophetic.

Leopold’s public education effort began without delay. He led members of the public into winter fields. There, they saw white-tailed fawns too weak to stand and mature does that could not flee when people approached.

Wisconsin deer huntingLeopold called the group’s attention to seedlings, limbs and young trunks that had been nibbled to nothing. The state Conservation Department supported his teaching by producing a documentary film entitled Starvation Stalks The Deer, explaining (and, in Leopold’s opinion, “sensationalizing”) the situation. A lot of people were swayed, but not enough. Changing years of thinking was a difficult task.

“The real problem is not how we handle the deer in their emergency,” Leopold told writer Gordon MacQuarrie. “The real problem is one of human management.”

Leopold later theorized: “This public we are talking about consists of three groups. Group 1 is the largest; it is indifferent to conservation questions. Group 2 is the smallest; it thinks with its head, but is silent. Group 3 is of intermediate size and does all its thinking with mouth or pen. Perhaps a Conservation Commission would do better not to try to convert Group 3, but to convince Group 2 that there is an issue, and that it should say or do something about it. Perhaps this would shorten the 23 years. [It had taken that long to get an effective conservation policy passed.]”

Disaster Strikes
The situation became critical in Winter 1942-43. Something had to be done immediately to reduce deer densities to save the habitat from further degradation. Leopold advised the state policymakers on the Conservation Commission that hunters be allowed to shoot does rather than bucks; this would bring herd numbers down quickly and improve buck-to-doe ratios.

According to Leopold, overbrowsed refuges had to be opened to hunting, with increased antlerless bag limits in areas with higher populations. He warned, however, that intense hunting would only be a short-term solution. Hunting, he said, could never approach the natural efficiency of predation. As proof, he cited the deer population eruptions in other predator-less states. Thus, Leopold said the state must abolish the bounty on wolves and encourage a small population of wolves in the state’s northern tier.

The Conservaton Commission made what it considered a comprise by instituting a short buck season and longer doe season to be enforced consistently throughout the state. It also put a ban on wolf bounties.

Leopold saw this as the worst of all possible solutions. Indeed, the compromise turned out to be a disaster, which became known as “The Crime of ’43.” During that year’s hunting season, deer were slaughtered in easy-to-reach areas, while herd numbers remained large in more remote spots. Poaching was rife.

Enraged Wisconsin deer hunters called for an end to advice from wildlife managers. In hopes of rebuilding the deer herd, they again called for a total eradication of the wolf population via a return of the bounty system.

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Leopold stood firm against the tide. He asked for a study on wolf ecology so the public would have definite facts upon which to base its decisions. But the prejudice against the wolf ran too deep to be undone by science.

One sporting club couched its rage in racist wartime metaphors: “The wolf is the Nazi of the forest. He takes the deer and some small fry. The fox is the sly Jap who takes the choice morsels of game and the songbirds. Can Professor Leopold justify their existence because deer meant for human consumption should be fed to the Nazi because we must have that protection for the trees?”

Situation Gets Ugly
The venom of the attacks increased. Some hunters in Hayward, Wis., started the “Save the Deer Club.” They assailed Leopold and the commission in their newsletter, calling him “Bambi killer.”

Aldo Leopold

Aldo Leopold

Leopold fired back with a public statement: “Those who assume that we would be better off without any wolves are assuming more knowledge of how nature works than I can claim to possess.”

The club newsletter retaliated, “Read it again because it has that touch of ‘Leopoldian egotism’ and insinuates that he, the great Aldo, places his knowledge above that of any Wisconsin citizen.”

The deer controversy unraveled Leopold’s health even more. Pains in his thighs and upper jaw required surgery. Sleep eluded him.

The strain on him showed itself in other areas as well. Leopold found himself painfully at odds with some of his colleagues and former students, including Hans Albert Hochbaum, a former student skilled in wildlife research and art, and Paul Errington, a scientist working with Leopold on prairie-chicken research. Yet, many of Leopold’s colleagues and students recall that the professor hardly ever ended tense conversations without the statement: “Let’s not sweat the small potatoes.”

A Turning Point
Many of Leopold’s fellow citizens, deer hunters and even professional colleagues did not fully comprehend his brillant understanding of conservation until Hochbaum coaxed it out of him with a new approach. That transpired when Leopold penned a book of personal essays.

While editing the book for his mentor, Hochbaum suggested that Leopold admit that he, too, once viewed wolves with disdain.

“You never drop a hint that you yourself have lacked something: humility,” Hochbaum wrote. “You’ll have to admit you’ve got a least a drop of blood on your hands. I think your case for the wilderness is all the stronger if, in one of these pieces, you admit that you haven’t always smoked the same tobacco.”

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On April 1, 1944, in response to Hochbaum’s comments — and his own wranglings with the Conservation Commission — Leopold wrote the essay, “Thinking Like a Mountain.” In it, he described the wolf that he had once shot in the Apache National Forest. In the essay, he told of the fierce green fire he had seen in the wolf’s dying eyes.

“I was young then, and full of trigger-itch,” he wrote. “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 concluded the essay by referring to the words of Henry David Thoreau: “In wildness is the preservation of the world. Perhaps this is the hidden meaning in the howl of the wolf, long known among the mountains, but seldom perceived among men.”

Hochbaum thought the essay fit the bill perfectly.

The wolf became a symbol for Leopold of “the fierce green fire” of healthy, wild land, and he said those who understand the role of predators understand some of the inner workings and drama of the land itself.

“You cannot love game and hate predators. … The land is one organism,” he wrote.

Another Breakthrough
Leopold’s shift in philosophy toward predators in the animal kingdom applied to the plant kingdom as well. Leopold once considered fire the forest and grasslands’ enemy. Now he began experimenting with it as one of the elements that could help move degraded land toward greater health.

Prescribed burning is one great way to eliminate understory growth and leaf litter, and rejuvenate the soil.

Prescribed burning is one great way to eliminate understory growth and leaf litter, and rejuvenate the soil.

At his university’s arboretum, Leopold and his students worked with botanist John Curtis in setting up small burn plots aimed at uncovering the role of fire in prairie growth cycles. True to their suspicions, the scientist discovered fire was an essential ingredient in a healthy ecosystem. It rebuilt the soil, diversified plant and animal life, and broke open the seeds of some plants species.

Today, prescribed burning is used by deer managers across North America to improve habitat for all species.

Despite the diversions, Leopold had no respite from his ordeals. The battles over whitetails and wolves continued with Leopold as the public’s favorite target. For many years to come, Wisconsinites would have to grapple with the issue. Inevitably, Leopold would be caught in the crossfire.

Mercilessly, World War II and its deadly machinery sped dangerously onward. Out of the blue, in February 1945, Carl Leopold called from Chicago to tell his dad that he had just arrived home on a month’s leave from his Marine duty. He and his wife took the train to Madison, Wis., a few days later. Carl stepped off the train, and Aldo and Estella wrapped their son in their arms. For the first time, Carl saw his father cry.

Then, in August 1945, after a horrendous crescendo, the war ended. All of Leopold’s graduate students returned to the states unharmed, but two of his undergraduates had been killed in action. Pondering these deaths and the agonies of the atomic bomb, Leopold sat down to write an essay he never finished.

“We are now confronted by the fact  … that wars are no longer won; …  all wars are lost by all who wage them; the only difference between participants is the degree and kind of losses they sustain. … Science has so sharpened the fighter’s sword that it is impossible for him to cut his enemy without cutting himself.”

— This article is an adaptation from Marybeth Lorbiecki’s book, Aldo Leopold: A Fierce Green Fire. Although out of print, the book can be found on secondary markets like

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One thought on “The Problem With Scientific Deer Management

  1. blastkelly

    Absolutely brilliant piece. -not one I expected to read on D&DH, but am really glad I did. Thanks, and keep them coming.

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