Thinking Like a Mountain


Our tour theme took its name from one of Aldo Leopold’s most famous essays. It’s not about Wisconsin – we don’t have mountains here – but it is in large part about wolves, and we do have them. I should say “have them again,” for they are a re-establishment success story in our state.

This particular essay, from the “Arizona and New Mexico” section of A Sand County Almanac marks a change in Leopold’s thinking as a conservationist. Leopold and his companions – deer hunters negatively inclined toward what they see as their competition – shoot and kill an old female wolf. Approaching the creature just as she dies, Leopold describes “a fierce green fire” fading in her eyes, and he has a revelation about the place of wolves in the life of a mountain, or in any ecosystem. He begins to realize the place that large carnivores hold and the damage done when they are removed on a large scale or even completely.

Leopold leads off the piece by describing the majesty, the solemnity, and the multiple meanings of the call of the wolf. Each organism that hears the sound takes a different message from it, including, he says, the mountain itself. I myself am not lucky enough to have heard a wolf howl in the wild, but one of my guests on Sunday had. She described it as bone-chilling and primeval.

I learned two new words, years ago, when I first read “Thinking Like a Mountain.” One is “tyro.” Leopold scorns the “ineducable tyro” who fails to sense the presence or absence of wolves. This term troubled me for a time. It was unfamiliar. Could it be an ethnic slur of some kind, no longer in use or understood? But that thought was unworthy of Leopold. The man who said “Hatred should never be attached to whole species or classes,” but be reserved for “too many, too few, or in the wrong place,” would not have disrespected a whole group of his fellow humans.

It turns out that “tyro” simply means a beginner – a novice – a neophyte. It comes from a Latin word meaning “a recruit.” New word #1, neatly resolved and filed away.

The second new word Leopold taught me is “desuetude.” Pronounced “DEZ-wet-yude,” it means “disuse.” Something “desuete” (say “dez-WEET”) is outmoded or outdated. The word comes from French by way of Latin.

Our tour followed woodland paths in both Wingra and Gallistel Woods. Although none of the Arboretum forests would be large enough or remote enough to satisfy a wolf pack, it was the best I could do to establish the feeling of wolf habitat.

Brown leaves crunched under our feet as we moved along the trails, pausing every now and then to hear more of Leopold’s words. Along the way we noted balsam fir and hemlock trees; a large, multiple-trunked silver maple; warty-barked hackberries; black cherry trees, some of them showing the black knot fungus; and several varieties of oaks. We passed effigy mounds and threaded our way through the area of Wingra Woods that sustained the loss of hundreds of trees in June of 2004, when a tornado crossed Lake Wingra and roared up the hillside.

Wolves in Wisconsin are, as referred to earlier, a story that would have warmed Aldo Leopold’s heart. Present before European settlement in the thousands, they were extirpated from the state by 1960, due to hunting, loss of prey species, and shrinkage of habitat. However, during the 1970s, a few wolves filtered back into northern Wisconsin and, in 1975, they were listed as an endangered species here (though at least they were back). Over the years, due as much to the vagaries of court rulings as to the status of their population, they have gone back and forth between being considered “endangered” and “threatened.”

What is not in doubt is that their numbers have grown, and their territory has spread. In 1980, there were only 25 wolves in Wisconsin. That number stayed almost constant for nearly a decade, largely due to a recurring epidemic of canine parvovirus, but then the rebound began. The 2004-2005 DNR wolf count found approximately 450 individuals in 108 packs. About a dozen of the wolves live on reservation land.

What’s killing wolves in Wisconsin these days? In 2004, of 48 wolves found dead in the state, 22 were euthanized at depredation sites (where they had killed a domestic animal), 9 died after being struck by a vehicle, 7 were shot or snared, 5 succumbed to disease, 1 was killed by other wolves and, in 3 cases, the cause of death could not be determined.

If more than half of last year’s wolf deaths arose from depredation of domestic animals, what were the wolves killing? Cows, mostly. Of 55 cases altogether, 31 involved cattle, 15 dogs, 7 sheep, and 2 horses. I could not find information about how many individual wolves were responsible for these incidents, other than the fact that (as above) 22 wolves were killed in connection with them.

What about wolves’ impact on the deer population? It’s not as much as you might think. A healthy wolf, it is said, will take 18-20 deer per year. In round numbers, this means that in Wisconsin, between 8,000 and 9,000 deer were lost to wolves in 2004. That is a small number compared to the 40,000 that died from vehicle collisions or the 450,000 taken by human hunters.

Our last stop before returning to the Visitor Center was in front of the yew collection in Longenecker Gardens, where we heard the last installment of “Thinking Like a Mountain.” There was a reason I read that particular passage in that spot. Deer really, really love chomping on yews, and if we didn’t put up a snow fence around this collection in late fall every year, there would be no yews come spring! “A mountain lives in fear of its deer,” said Leopold, meaning that the deer would strip a wolfless mountain of its vegetation and leave it vulnerable to erosion and further loss. Here at the Arboretum, the yew collection must live in fear of our deer but, so far, the snow fencing has been protection enough. I don’t think we’ll be importing wolves any time soon!

Special note: Adrian Wydeven, the mammalian ecologist with the Wisconsin DNR who wrote the 2004-2005 wolf report, will be the featured speaker at the Friends of the Arboretum luncheon on March 29th. Get your tickets now by calling 263-7760.

Kathy Miner, Naturalist

Located between Lake Wingra and the West Beltline Highway at 1207 Seminole Highway, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum features the restored prairies, forests and wetlands of pre-settlement Wisconsin. This 1,260-acre arboretum also houses flowering trees, shrubs and a world-famous lilac collection. Educational tours for groups and the general public, science and nature-based classes for all ages and abilities, and a wide variety of volunteer opportunities for groups, families and individuals are available.