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Leopold, Aldo, 1887-1948 | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Leopold, Aldo, 1887-1948

Father of Wildlife Ecology

Leopold, Aldo, 1887-1948 | Wisconsin Historical Society
Enlarge Aldo Leopold Portrait, 1928. WHI 34893.

Aldo Leopold Portrait, 1928

Head and shoulders studio portrait of Aldo Leopold wearing suit jacket and necktie. View the original source document: WHI 34893

A renowned scientist, scholar, teacher and writer, Aldo Leopold is considered the father of wildlife ecology. His "land ethic" redefined the relationship between humans and the earth and inspired the environmental movement that emerged in the mid-20th century.

Born January 11, 1887, in Burlington, Iowa, Aldo Leopold grew up in the woods, prairies and rivers of a still relatively untouched Iowa landscape. Throughout his school years in Burlington, Lawrenceville Prep in New Jersey, and at Yale University, he maintained a lively interest in the natural world and recorded his observations in a journal, a practice that became a lifelong habit. Leopold graduated with a master's degree in forestry from Yale in 1909.

After college Leopold joined the newly established U.S. Forest Service in Arizona and New Mexico. He soon became the supervisor for the Carson National Forest in New Mexico. His career as a forester was cut short, however, when a kidney disease almost cost him his life after he was caught in a storm in the backcountry. Leopold spent a year recovering in Iowa. When he returned to New Mexico, now assigned to fish and game, Leopold prepared a "Game and Fish Handbook" that defined the duties and powers of forest rangers as state game wardens. He also proposed that the Gila National Forest be managed as a wilderness area, the first official designation of its kind and 40 years before the Wilderness Act.

Leopold accepted a transfer to the U.S. Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1924. He left the Forest Service in 1928 and began conducting independent wildlife and game surveys while developing his philosophy of conservation. The surveys and his related work resulted in the publication of "Game Management" in 1933, a landmark book that established his reputation as an authority on the management and restoration of wildlife populations. The University of Wisconsin, impressed with his work, soon created a new department, the nation's first department of game management, and appointed Leopold as its first chair.

In 1935 Leopold purchased an abandoned farm on the Wisconsin River near Baraboo, in an area known as the sand counties, for use as a weekend retreat. The only structure on the property was a chicken coop, fondly called the Shack. It was here that Leopold put his beliefs into action — he planted trees, restored prairies and documented the changes in plants and animals.

Inspired by his surroundings and being a prolific writer, Leopold conceived of a book that would examine the human relationship to the natural world. Unfortunately, Leopold would not live to see it published, dying of a heart attack while battling a grass fire on April 24, 1948. The book, "A Sand County Almanac", was published in 1949. Read by millions, it remains Leopold's most influential work.