Thinking Like a Mountain

wolfLeopold explores the importance of the biological food chain and the cycle of life, by using the example of deer and wolves (or any sort of animal population) on a mountain.
A diagram of a rain-shadow impact, an example of an ecological restraint on vegetation and grazers.
bird and worm

The cause and effect of predators.

The predator's habits and food sources reveal the importance of the presence of what we call top level carnivores.

The top level predator in the story are the wolves within the ecosystem of the mountain where their prey–the deer–are overpopulated. This story almost parallels the conditions of humans and nature in our world today, but it does represent the loss of predators as a means of controlling the prey population.

lynx and hare population oscillations


By killing off the mass population of wolves on the mountain, the hunters assume that it will only mean more deer to hunt.

So rather than thinking of the effects that killing all the wolves (or coyotes) would have on the entire ecosystem, a narrow–or one dimensional–approach of the hunters has serious consequences for the deer populations.

In short, the more deer there are on the mountain, the less vegetation there will be. Much like the lynx, wolves keep prey populations in check.

From the classical graph above it is easy to see that snowshoe hare populations grow vigorously when lynx populations are small, except for the anomalous period after 1885. The hares are habitual herbivores and the lynx is the carnivore in this relationship of prey and predator respectively.
Lynxes prey on the snowshoe hare and the relationship of predator species to prey species is the deeper scientific comprehension that Leopold is trying to explore in the reference to "thinking" like a mountain. The integrity of the mountain is maintained by the vegetation, the prey populations depend on the vegetation and the predators, such as wolves, coyotes, or lynx, all rely on sufficient numbers of their prey.
ecological pyramids   Trophic levels
top level predators
herbivores consumer levels
base of the food chain producer level
Energy, biomass accumulation, and populations in terms of ecological constraints are all depicted as pyramids.

Basically the deer are destroying the mountain, much like humans are destroying the world they exist in by over populating the land.


Male deer, American Museum of Natural History.

Mount Greylock, the Berkshire Mountains, western Massachusetts.

The Mountain

The mountain symbolizes and thus stands for?

A) a mountain
B) animals, specifically: deer
C) animals and plants
D) predator and prey populations
E) the ecological relationships that tend to optimize resources based on checks on prey populations.
F) All of the above but B.

Read the story

The rhetoric of the story