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Of Escudilla, the grizzly and Aldo Leopold

December 16, 2018

Escudilla was once more than just a mountain. To writer, philosopher and conservationist Aldo Leopold, the massif in Arizona’s White Mountains was defined by the grizzly bear, “the outstanding achievement of… the pageant of evolution.” In Sand County Almanac, Leopold tells the tragic tale of how Old Bigfoot, one of the last grizzly bears in Arizona, was killed on Escudilla: “The government trapper who took the grizzly knew he had made Escudilla safe for cows. He did not know he had toppled the spire off an edifice a-building since the morning stars sang together… Escudilla still hangs on the horizon, but when you see it you no longer think of bears. It’s only a mountain now.”

Growing up at a time when predators were widely viewed as “varmints,” Leopold did not start out with reverence for bears, wolves, or mountain lions. In fact, as part of his first job as a US Forest Service ranger during the 1920s, he was charged with killing the Southwest’s last big predators. He writes about shooting into a pack of wolves, and then this: “We reached the old wolf in time to watch the 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 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 hunter’s paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.”

In some respects, the fierce green fire became Leopold’s own in his life-long crusade for wilderness, predators, and biodiversity writ large. Leopold’s fight has in turn become ours, in the sense that many scientists, educators, conservationists, and increasingly the broader public, care passionately about protecting the wild nature we have left.

Escudilla has cast a spell on me since college. Last winter my husband David Mattson and I finally made a pilgrimage there. Rising over 10,000 feet, the peak was as commanding as when Leopold rode, weeks at a time, and for hundreds of years prior, when Puebloan and later Apachean peoples hunted and camped on its flanks. In a grassy meadow, elk tracks and pocket gopher diggings spoke to what Old Bigfoot may have eaten before he walked into the string of the trapper’s set-gun in a narrow defile.

David photoshopped a grizzly in the meadow on Escudilla — apparently so convincingly that several of his facebook fans did not get the joke.

The Endangered Species Act, a direct descendant of Aldo Leopold’s ideas, has helped ensure that we still have grizzlies somewhere in the Lower 48 states, though none remain in the Southwest. Even so, grizzlies have held onto no more than

3 percent of their former range in the Lower 48, the same as they occupied during Leopold’s time.

The fundamental problems for grizzlies are habitat destruction, excessive killing, and a very low reproductive rate. This year was a reminder that fear-based hostility towards predators is hardly a thing of the past, and that grizzlies are still extremely vulnerable. A record number of grizzlies died during 2018, almost all at the hand of humans — a minimum of 65 in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) and 51 in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE). If you include estimates of unreported deaths, the total is closer to 150 bears out of an aggregate population of perhaps 1,500 animals divided among four ecological islands. Because population growth has stalled — partly the result of the warming climate— excessive killing could quickly reverse hard-fought progress and push the Great Bear back to the brink.

If Leopold were alive today, he would be horrified. He certainly would speak up, maybe something like what he said years ago: “Only five states have any grizzlies at all. There seems to be a tacit assumption that if grizzlies can survive in Canada and Alaska, that is good enough. It is not good enough for me. Relegating grizzlies to Alaska is about like relegating happiness to heaven; one may never get there.”

Working for Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity and Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Louisa Willcox has advocated for grizzly bear preservation for over 30 years. She and a handful of others have prevented Yellowstone grizzly bear delisting for over two decades. She was also a leader in a successful campaign to prevent a massive gold mine from being developed next to Yellowstone. Willcox has a bachelor’s degree from Williams College and a master’s degree in forest policy from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. In 2014, she was given a lifetime achievement award from Yale. Willcox resides in Livingston, Montana.

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