Bruce S. Wright: Following Leopold’s Career Path from Forestry to Wildlife Management
All of the grad students who were admitted to Aldo Leopold’s department in 1945 after serving in WWII had war stories, but few could rival those told by Bruce Wright (1912-1975).
Born in Quebec, Bruce was an avid outdoorsman and naturalist. He trained as a forester at the University of New Brunswick. After graduating in 1936, he worked as a forest biologist with the Dominion Forest Service. In 1940 Wright graduated from naval officers’ training in Halifax and served in the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve. While stationed at St. John’s, Newfoundland, Wright conceived the idea of “frogmen units,” soldiers trained to use early scuba diving equipment to get close to enemy installations, especially in otherwise hard to reconnoiter situations. He communicated this proposal to the British Admiralty and Lord Louis Mountbatten, Admiral and Supreme Allied Commander of South East Asia Command. They were intrigued by the novel idea and appointed Wright as a Lieutenant Commander with orders to form the “Sea Reconnaissance Unit” and put his idea into action. Wright’s frogmen trained in California, the Bahamas, and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and saw action in Southeast Asia.
Ever the curious naturalist, Wright made numerous natural history studies at his various duty stations, including detailed underwater observations of sharks, octopi, coral reefs, and other marine life. Wright commanded his unit in Burma (now Myanmar); the events are described in his book The Frogmen of Burma (1968). It was there, at the battle of Ramree Island, that Wright’s war stories became legendary. He described Japanese soldiers being decimated not by gunfire but by saltwater crocodiles. As the Japanese soldiers waded through a vast maze of mangroves the crocodiles killed large numbers. Based on Wright’s gruesome account, the Guinness Book of Records lists the Ramree Island crocodile attacks under the heading “Worst Crocodile Disaster in the World.”
When Bruce initially corresponded with Leopold about entering the wildlife management graduate program, Leopold was intrigued by his unique experiences but reluctant to take on a student with an undergraduate degree in forestry rather than wildlife management. In response, Bruce tactfully pointed out that Leopold’s own degree was in forestry and that hadn’t hindered his wildlife career! Bruce initially floated ideas about doing his thesis on topics with which he had already accumulated much prior field experience: coral reefs in Southeast Asia, sharks and barracudas in the Bahamas, as well as mountain lions and American Woodcock. But, Leopold was most interested in his proposal for work on Black Ducks. A letter of recommendation from Albert Hochbaum, a fellow Canadian and one of Aldo’s former and most trusted grad students, praised Wright and pleaded his case: “As a duck man, naturalist, and companion in the field, I rate him as 100% A1 plus.” Given such a strong testimonial, Leopold admitted Wright to undertake a study of Black Ducks in the Canadian Maritimes. He graduated in 1947 with his master’s degree in wildlife management.
After graduation, Bruce returned to New Brunswick and became officer-in-charge of the eastern Canada waterfowl surveys for Ducks Unlimited. During his time there, the Wildlife Management Institute of Washington D.C. took over the project, forming the Northeastern Wildlife Station. In 1947, Bruce was appointed the first Director of the Station. The station was located at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton and in 1962 it became an adjunct of the Department of Biology. Now as part of the university, Bruce was Station Director and Research Associate in biology. He supervised the wildlife research program, teaching both undergraduate and graduate levels. He also conducted his personal research and directed the wildlife graduate program. In 1971, he was appointed the Adjunct Professor of Wildlife Biology.
Wright’s research reflected his eclectic interests in natural history and ecology. He continued to study waterfowl and woodcock, and when DDT was used to control a 1950s outbreak of spruce budworm in New Brunswick, he was well positioned to study the effects of the spraying on forest wildlife populations. His work on DDT’s impacts on Ruffed Grouse and woodcock provided key information that Rachel Carson used in her 1962 book, Silent Spring.
Searching for Extinct Species
The eastern panther (or mountain lion) was of special interest to Wright; he conducted numerous studies and collected hundreds of sighting reports. In 1958, he spent time studying African lions to better understand the biology of big cats. One of his quests was to find the last preserved specimen of the eastern panther, and he is widely credited as having indeed found the last specimen. Wright’s work on panthers is presented in his books The Ghost of North America (1959) and The Eastern Panther (1972). They appeared at a time when most biologists were convinced that the eastern panther was extinct, but Bruce held out hope. Its extinction was finally made official in 2015.
His eastern panther work led Bruce to investigate other wildlife species which were presumed to be extinct (including the Caribbean monk seal) in hopes of finding surviving individuals. These investigations made Wright a popular figure among cryptozoologists who try to either discover species that are alleged to exist or rediscover species that have existed in the past but are thought to be extinct.
Writing & Publications
In what became a hallmark of his distinguished career as a wildlife biologist, Bruce regularly wrote both technical papers about his research and popular accounts. Stemming from his graduate work with Leopold, his popular and now-classic books on Black Ducks were published as High Tide and an East Wind, The Story of the Black Duck (1954) and Black Duck Spring (1966). The latter book described in great detail the life of one male Black Duck and ended on an emotional note when the duck’s mate dies from DDT poisoning.
During his career, he published a total of seven popular books on wildlife as well as several magazine articles (occasionally using pseudonyms) and over 100 technical papers. Bruce was a leading voice for wildlife conservation in New Brunswick and the Maritime region, and he communicated his passion for conservation not only through his writings but also through radio, television, and public lectures. He also published an autobiographical account of his wildlife adventures called Wildlife Sketches, Near and Far (1962), a book I received as a Christmas present that year.
In 1971 Bruce received the John Pearce Memorial Award from the Northeast Section of The Wildlife Society for his many contributions in the area of wildlife administration, research, and public education in eastern Canada. Soon after, in 1974, Bruce’s declining health forced his retirement. He served for 27 years as the first and only Director of the Northeastern Wildlife Station. Bruce died in the spring of 1975. He was survived by his wife, Marjorie, son, Victor, and daughter, Barbara.
Feature image, top, courtesy of Archives & Special Collections, University of New Brunswick Libraries.
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