Resources for New Landowners: Aldo Leopold’s Five Tools of Wildlife Management

Aldo Leopold wrote, “Are we too poor in purse or spirit to apply some of it to keep the land pleasant to see, and good to live in?” Photo by Abigail Holmes.

“The central thesis of game management is this: game can be restored by the creative use of the same tools which have heretofore destroyed it — axe, plow, cow, fire, and gun.”

This does not mean that increasing hunting rates and raising more cattle will improve wildlife populations — the key word here is creative use of these tools. Through regulated hunting and careful application of prescribed fire, brush management, and other means of sculpting the landscape, land stewardship becomes a little easier. Although Leopold refers specifically to game management, these tools can benefit a multitude of wildlife species. For example, NRI has a strong focus on quail, but management actions that support quail also create habitat for non-game species like reptiles and grassland songbirds.

Axe

The axe tool refers to effective brush management. As any Texas landowner who has had to contend with stubborn mesquite trees will testify, this is far from a simple task. Sculpting the land with brush management requires informed, intentional planning and a watchful eye. If too much woody cover is removed in error, it can take years to regrow those key habitat structures. Conversely, if woody plants manage to overtake a tract of land, the process of removing them becomes more complicated and expensive. The following resources were developed with the wildlife-conscious landowner in mind, highlighting the importance of brush as a habitat component and the best ways to manage it.

The axe tool includes modern machinery, such as excavators, that can accomplish many management tasks efficiently. Photo by Abigail Holmes.

Plow

You may think of the plow as a tool for agriculture rather than wildlife management, but, in essence, it is a mechanism for soil disturbance. Disturbance helps recycle nutrients in the soil and open up the landscape for lower successional vegetation, which can be an effective method of creating food plots and shelter for a variety of wildlife species. The following resources focus primarily on creating wildlife food plots, but it is also important to not overwork the land or harm native biodiversity in pursuit of agricultural abundance.

Cow

Raising cattle on a tract of land may seem antithetical to the ideals of wildlife management, but maintaining proper stocking rates and enforcing rotational grazing can allow room for both of these ideals on one property. Cattle, when managed properly, can fill the same role that buffalo used to occupy as habitat manipulators of the prairies. Preventing overgrazing allows native species to remain a healthy resource to utilize as food and habitat cover.

Maintaining proper stocking and grazing rates in one key pillar of wildlife management. Photo by Brittany Wegner.

Fire

The use of fire is a nerve-wracking prospect for many landowners, and it’s certainly a powerful tool that should be treated with respect. However, it can also be one of a land manager’s best friends as a highly efficient way of clearing land and creating a mosaic of different successional stages. Prescribed fires are closely monitored, planned events targeted at specific areas of a property to manage brush and forb growth. Safety is key when planning and executing prescribed fires, and it is important to contact the proper experts prior to any prescribed burn.

Gun

The gun tool, referring to hunting, may seem counterintuitive. How, you may ask, can hunting a species possibly aid conservation? Hunting can be used to limit the overpopulation of prolific species, reduce the impacts of overzealous predators in a local area, provide valuable information on species abundance and sex ratios, and more. Perhaps most importantly, it helps generate and sustain interest in wildlife conservation, as it is a form of recreation that depends upon viable wildlife populations. Abiding by state hunting laws and regulations prevents overharvest of sensitive species while allowing hunters to continue the practice sustainably.

An annual sunflower (Helianthus annuus). Photo by Abigail Holmes.

Conclusion

Decades after Leopold’s death, these five tools remain the basis for effective and sustainable wildlife management. Through the creative use of axe, cow, plow, fire, and gun, private land stewards can restore game and other wildlife species while increasing the productivity of their land. In A Sand County Almanac, Leopold wrote, “Like winds and sunsets, wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with them. Now we face the question whether a still higher ‘standard of living’ is worth its cost in things natural, wild and free.” Today, Leopold might argue that a higher standard of living is achieved by nurturing all things “natural, wild, and free,” rather than working against them with poor management. Leopold knew that a mindful, intentional approach to private land stewardship was the best way to benefit both people and wildlife.

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Texas A&M Natural Resources Institute

Texas A&M Natural Resources Institute

At the Texas A&M Natural Resources Institute, our work improves the conservation and management of natural resources through applied research. nri.tamu.edu