"There are some who can live without wild things and some who cannot." -- Aldo Leopold
Considered the father of wildlife management, Aldo Leopold developed an ethic in which love and respect for the land are the guiding principals in land stewardship. Aldo Leopold's definitive work, A Sand County Almanac, reveals the unexpected natural richness hidden in the sand counties of Wisconsin.
He believed that public conservation efforts had little chance of success unless private individuals felt a strong personal responsibility for the health of the land.
In 1935, driven to action by this philosophy, the Leopold family bought a sand county farm. It was worn out and then abandoned by our bigger and better society and "selected for its lack of goodness and its lack of highway." The Leopold family spent 12 years of time and effort changing their 80 acres of desolation into a showplace of native Wisconsin habitat complete with abundant wildlife and restored natural landscape. In so doing, Aldo Leopold left us an inspiring example of the land ethic in action.
Now, 75 years later, the Leopold legacy in Wisconsin still lives, carried on by a couple of dedicated bowhunters, Stan and Carolyn Godfrey. I first met the Godfreys in 2006. I had been the Pennsylvania State Chairman for the Pope and Young Club's Museum Fund Drive, and through my fundraising efforts I won a hunt that the Godfreys had donated to the Club for the event. I was thrilled to find out I would be hunting with them in Buffalo County.
Stan called in early September to remind me that Buffalo is an Earn-A-Buck county, meaning I had to shoot a doe before I could legally shoot a buck. He suggested I come out early and harvest my doe. I explained that it was a 2,200-mile round trip.
"That's a long drive just to shoot a doe," I said.
"Think about it," he said. "I'd hate to see a Booner walk under your stand and you can't take him because you haven't taken your antlerless deer."
I hung up, thought about it for 30 seconds, and called him back. "I'll be there in two days," I said.
I killed my doe the first afternoon and spent the next couple of days cruising around the farm with Stan on four-wheelers while he explained what he and Carolyn had been doing to improve the place over the past 15 years.
In 1994, while living in the southern part of the state, the Godfreys had bought a 240-acre farm in Buffalo County with the dream of improving the habitat and retiring there. Every weekend, every vacation, and every spare moment went into improving that piece of land in the Leopold tradition.
Food plots planted on a yearly basis and never harvested provide food for critters year round. Stan has also developed ATV paths to give access to the high, remote sand bluffs surrounding the property. He brought in tons of gravel to make safe travel lanes throughout the farm, providing great access for hanging stands and monitoring trail cameras. He has planted clover in every lane and trail touched by sunlight.
Through the years, Stan has planted over 2,500 trees to provide cover and food for wildlife, and he has carefully planted, fertilized, and nurtured orchards of apple, pear, plum, and high-bush cranberry. The property now abounds with healthy populations of deer, turkeys, and songbirds of all descriptions. An occasional bobcat shows up, and the sighting of bald eagles is not uncommon.
"It's a labor of love," Carolyn said about her husband's dedication to his work. "He's in his glory when he's on the tractor planting a food plot, clearing downed trees, hanging treestands, or monitoring trail cameras. It never occurs to him that it's a lot of hard work."
Although Carolyn and Stan do most of the work themselves, they get help every spring when the local high school's FFA club visits the farm to help with new plantings. "This past year the kids planted 250 oaks," Carolyn said. "Of course, I had to feed the whole bunch when they were done!"
The more time I spent with these fine people, the more their story reminded me of the Leopold legacy. The Godfreys had nurtured their land just as the Leopolds had in the 1930's.
As I said at the top of this story, Stan and Carolyn are avid bowhunters and have been for a long time. Stan has 19 P&Y trophies on the wall, and Carolyn has eight. Photos of the couple with Fred Bear, and bows signed by Bear, adorn their trophy room walls. Stan has been an official measurer for Pope and Young since 1972. He also measures trophies for Boone and Crockett and the Wisconsin Buck and Bear Club. Both Stan and Carolyn are life members of Wisconsin Bowhunters and were chosen as the 2007 Wisconsin Bowhunters of the Year.
They also donate a hunt each year to the Whitetail Unlimited Youth Hunt, which provides a first-time hunt for kids who have never hunted before. "I think we get more of a thrill out of this experience than the kids do," Stan said. "It's a very satisfying thing to see a youngster harvest his or her first big game animal."
In November 2006, I returned to the farm and had a gimme shot at a nice buck on the last day of my hunt. Out of nowhere, a branch materialized to intercept my arrow, and the buck lived to possibly break another bowhunter's heart.
In 2008, I was ready to try for a big buck once more. Stan suggested I come early again to take care of my Earn-A-Buck tag, but this time gas was over four dollars a gallon, so I told him I'd take my chances in November.
Then the price of gas dropped 50 cents.
"Let's go for a ride," I said to my wife, Kathy.
"Where?" she replied. "To town?"
"No, to Wisconsin!" I said.
It was early October and the fall foliage was just beginning to change. I killed my doe on the third day, and we spent the next couple of days relaxing with our friends and learning more about their commitment to land stewardship and management of wildlife on their farm.
During our discussion of their dedication to improving habitat, my eyes kept wandering to the trophy whitetail mounts staring down at me from the living room walls. Naturally, I had to ask Stan the big question: Why does this area produce such trophy quality whitetails?
"Well," he said, "we do have a good gene pool, we do have good minerals in the soil, and we do have good nutrition in vast fields of corn and soybeans.