On Aldo Leopold, Escudilla and the Big White Bear

Escudilla was once more than just a mountain. To Aldo Leopold, writing in Sand County Almanac, the massif in Arizona’s White Mountains was defined by the grizzly bear, “the outstanding achievement of… the pageant of evolution.” 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.”

I remember where I was, in a college library, when I first encountered Aldo Leopold and this essay. Unwittingly, I have since followed the trail that he helped blaze. It has been instructive, upon rereading his many writings, to better understand how his own route through the fields of ecology, wildlife management (which he helped invent), and conservation was something of a bushwhack—not unlike my journey.

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 ranger for the US Forest Service in the Southwest, he was charged with killing predators, especially wolves. In a 1920 essay, Leopold wrote of predators as “the common enemy of both the stockman and the…

Read more