Cow, plow, axe, fire and gun. These five things are Aldo Leopold’s keys to conservation from his book, Game Management, published in 1933. These five keys have allowed us to manage game at desired levels for decades. Today we know that they also are key to keeping a natural mosaic of flora and fauna through the manipulation of successional stages of vegetative communities as well as altering the wildlife community.
For example, large bison herds used to roam the great plains. These marauding herds of bison were indiscriminate foragers and could clear entire swaths of landscape in days. This created a natural mosaic of successional stage plant communities across the plains, which in turn provided homes to diverse wildlife.
Without these herds and with new land ownership patterns, we must use some of the five techniques to try and replicate this former natural system. Ranchers may use high intensity short-term rotational grazing to mimic bison grazing in the past. In this case livestock are essential to managing for more natural wildlife and plant communities. This is just one example of how the 5 keys have been used over the years.
Today, we use methods that no one understood in Leopold’s day, such as creating highway overpasses for animals. These overpasses help prevent vehicle strikes and help maintain wildlife migration corridors. Overpasses, and other new methods of manipulation, are consistent with Leopold’s suggestion that man can, and should, use tools to conserve wildlife and habitat. As our understanding of the natural world and its systems continues to expand, so to do the innovative methods used to conserve our resources. Just imagine what the next generation of wildlife and land managers can do!