Top 7 Messages from The Land Ethic Reclaimed MOOC

Perhaps as I did, you might ask, “what is a MOOC?”  According to Oxford Dictionaries [1]:

Pronunciation: /mook/
Definition of MOOC in English:NOUN
A course of study made available over the Internet without charge to a very large number of people:  ‘anyone who decides to take a MOOC simply logs on to the website and signs up‘ORIGIN
early 21st century: from massive open online course, probably influenced by MMOG and MMORPG.

My homepage in the Coursera iPad app

I believe I owe a debt of gratitude to Mary C., and the Van-Kal Permaculture Facebook page, for the lead to this treasure trove.  I am sure there are other sources, but this particular course was offered through Coursera, so I signed up on-line and also downloaded the app for my iPad.   There are many course offerings from a large number of prestigious institutions, accessible by browsing or searching the course catalog.

As you can see on my Coursera homepage, since completing the Land Ethic course, I have signed up for three others:
The Coursera course catalog and search tool

— Changing Weather and Climate in the Great Lakes Region, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, Wisconsin, USA

— Forests and Humans: From the Midwest to Madagascar, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, Wisconsin, USA
— Chicken Behaviour and Welfare, The University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, United Kingdom
It seems like there is something available for everyone, and it is all free!
Now then, let us get back to a discussion of the Land Ethic course in particular, and the Top 7 Messages that I took from the course.  The curriculum spanned 4 weeks, new topics starting on successive Mondays.  Each week included several short videos in the 2 to 15 minute range, a few selected texts from 2 to 27 pages in length, “Hands-On Learning” and “On Your Own” activities, and, if you signed up to receive a “Statement of Accomplishment,” which I did, a short Quiz (mulitple choice and true/false) of 7 or 8 questions.  There was also a “Discussion Forum” available for making comments and asking questions of fellow students.  I watched all of the videos, read all of the texts, and successfully completed all of the quizzes; I was less diligent in completing all of the Hands On and On Your Own activities, though I got better at that as the course progressed.  I would estimate that the course required of me two hours per week, on average.
Top 7 Messages
1  Who was Aldo Leopold?  From the opening two paragraphs of the Aldo Leopold wikipedia entry[2]:
“Aldo Leopold (January 11, 1887 – April 21, 1948) was an American author, scientist, ecologist, forester, conservationist, and environmentalist. He was a professor at the University of Wisconsin and is best known for his book A Sand County Almanac
(1949), which has sold more than two million copies.
Leopold was influential in the development of modern environmental ethics and in the movement for wilderness conservation. His ethics of nature and wildlife preservation had a profound impact on the environmental movement, with his ecocentric or holistic ethics regarding land.  He emphasized biodiversity and ecology and was a founder of the science of wildlife management.”
2  What is the “Land Ethic?”  According to Leopold in “The Land Ethic,” from A Sand County Almanac[3]: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”  There was discussion in the assigned media that perhaps the phrase “integrity, stability and beauty” could be replaced by the word “diversity” alone, though I think that is a bit of a stretch.  The word “stability” could perhaps be replaced by “resilience,” as it seems all too often conservationists have done more harm than good in their attempts to stabilize natural environments, the control of forest fires in the mountain west comes to mind.  Still, I think Leopold put it quite well, and there really is little need to modify his wording.
3  What is the “North American Model” of conservation?  According to the instructional materials, Week 1 Take Aways, “There are seven principal characteristics that together define the way that public wildlife conservation occurs under North American democratic governance. These are:
  • Wildlife Resources Are a Public Trust
  • Markets for Game Are Eliminated
  • Allocation of Wildlife Is by Law
  • Wildlife Can Be Killed Only for a Legitimate Purpose
  • Wildlife Is Considered an International Resource
  • Science Is the Proper Tool to Discharge Wildlife Policy
  • Democracy of Hunting Is Standard”
Again according to the instructional materials, this “sets Canada and the U.S. apart from many other nations where the opportunity to hunt is restricted to those who have special status, such as land ownership, wealth, or other privileges.”
4  Hunting is now necessary for management of herbivory, which is to say that hunting is necessary to manage the impact of large herbivores, like White-Tailed Deer and Elk, on ecosystems.  In Wisconsin in the first half of the 19th century, large predators including the Wolf, Wolverine, and Cougar, together with Indians, helped to control the populations of Elk, Woodland Caribou and White-Tailed Deer.  At that time, the population density of White-Tailed Deer is estimated to have been 5-10 animals/sq. mile.  Logging, clear-cutting in particular after European settlement, opened up vast tracks of land to regrowth and formed edge habitat, favoring deer, while at the same time predators were largely extirpated, and hunting seasons were shortened to as little as 9 days in this example, Wisconsin.  Deer population densities rose to as high as 40-50 animals/sq. mile, and they became so-called “keystone herbivores.”  The impact of high deer densities on plant diversity has been shown to persist for a half century or more.  Data exist from the 1940’s and 50’s that allowed researchers to measurably establish the impact of deer on plant diversity between then and the first decade of the 2000’s:  On hunted lands in studied areas 10% of plant diversity was lost over the next half century, while on unhunted lands a 30% reduction was measured, and in state parks 50% of plant diversity was lost.  Conversely, on Indian reservations plant diversity slightly increased during the same time frame.  More generally there has been a change in the landscape of at least 40% since the 1950’s, and by studying tree seedling numbers, islands with and without deer, fenced “exclosures,” and 50-year changes, the researchers have concluded that substantially all of the change was due to deer over-abundance.
5  Deer management is problematic.  While the science of managing the size of a deer population seems to me to be pretty well defined, it is counter-intuitive to some I can imagine, and with others it may not even be agreed upon in the scientific sense.  In the case of a conversation between hunters and managers what we seem to have here is at best merely a failure to communicate, effectively, as conflict arises regarding the desired size of the herd, the size of the hunt, the consist of the hunt (buck and/or doe numbers), etc.  No doubt there could be an argument as to the “carrying capacity” of the land in question, which if established then according to the science sets the population level (1/2 carrying capacity) at which maximum herd growth rate occurs, which would also be the herd size resulting in the maximum sustainable harvest.  Oh, and lets not forget the real and perceived impact of re-introducing native non-human predators to the mix.  Worse yet, in a conversation including anti-hunters, there is I suppose a problem of convincing them that the impact of over-abundant deer is a problem in the first place, or that there is such a thing as an “over-abundance of deer,” not to mention a problem of convincing them that hunting is a part of the solution to a problem that they may or may not agree exists!  Sprinkle some politics and a little money on top for good measure and there is likely a level of “excitement” in the management process that I would not personally be willing to tolerate.
6  Private lands and farmers are key to wildlife conservation.  Take “deer management is problematic” and put it on steroids; there you have it.  Private lands and the potential for attendant hunting restrictions disabling herd management; the intersection of wildlife as a “public trust” and private property rights in general; the possibility of private landowners legally limiting access to public property that is isolated/surrounded by private property; offsite/remote, disinterested, willfully ignorant, or simply ignorant though well-intentioned landowners, etc.  What could go wrong?  In  the face of all that, and more, Leopold conducted the successful experiment that was the “Riley Game Cooperative,” with farmers and fellow sportsmen.  The course used Montana as another example, and the challenges of managing the Elk heard that migrates from within Yellowstone National Park, to large swaths of privately held land outside the park.  It is necessary for effective wildlife management that private landowners and farmers are positively engaged in the process, especially so in the eastern 2/3rds of the country it seems to me, where privately held lands dominate the landscape.
7  Among hunters, the divide between the traditional hunters and the so-called “green hunters” must be bridged, and bridging the gap presents a huge opportunity.  Hunting is seen by some in the green camp as an ethical alternative to the industrial food systems, specifically in view of the lack ethical treatment of animals in the industrial systems.  And, perhaps concern about their personal health has led them to a strong desire for lean and clean meats.  Also, hunting could be seen as an extension of the “locavore” movement; some have come to think that if they are going to eat meat, and they want to know where their food comes from, then it is logical to conclude that they should kill their own meat, taking ownership of that process.

From the green end of the hunter spectrum, the other end is sometimes seen as the tobacca’ chewin’ animal abusin’ red neck end of the spectrum.  In my experience that is a ill-fitting stereotype, a stereotype though that will only be broken when the two ends of the spectrum are brought into close relationship with each other.  (It comes to my mind that the same is true of our polarized politics, at least at a national level.)  The onus is on the community of traditional hunters in my opinion, to engage the “green hunting” element, to share with them, to give them the benefit of their experience, and to help them to scale the many, potentially time-consuming, and sometimes expensive, barriers to entry into the firmament of successful hunters.  I find myself somewhere near the center of the spectrum, having been absent from the hunting scene for over 20 years, and having been brought back to it through a strong desire to be more self-reliant, and healthier, sustainably.  And fortunately, I have had the benefit of the time and experience of long-time traditional hunters in my reintroduction.In summary, management of wildlife is clearly much more difficult than I had assumed.  Of course it make sense now that I have been exposed to at least some of the factors in play, but it is disappointing that even though I recognize that I know a lot less than I do not know, I still walk around inside my life with massive blind spots.  It is humbling to say the least.

The course was a great introduction into MOOCs, to which I had had no exposure, and it was a great overview of wildlife management in North America.  I highly recommend the course.  Coursera too, seemed to be a great provider of the service; their iPad app worked flawlessly.

By way of furthering my education on this subject, I added to my reading list a couple of books that were cited in the course:

White-Tailed Deer: Ecology and Management, by Lowell K. HallsThank you for reading and commenting on the blog.  Your comments and criticisms, your inputs and acknowledgements, are welcomed, and will help me to improve my posts.  I am learning, too.

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— John, 24 February 2015


University of Wisconsin-Madison MOOCs:
The Land Ethic Reclaimed MOOC:

[1] MOOC. Oxford Dictionaries. Oxford University Press. (accessed February 23, 2015).
[2] “Aldo Leopold.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 24 January 2014. Web. 23 February 2015. <>
[3] A Sand County Almanac (Outdoor Essays & Reflections), by Aldo Leopold (1989) “The Land
Ethic” pp. 201-226. Copyright 1989 Oxford University Press.