Cy Kabat with his daughter, Cynthia
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Exploring the Legacy of Leopold’s Students: Cyril Kabat

Cy Kabat: Conserving Land as a Whole

Aldo Leopold used the term “land” to encompass the “soils, waters, plants and animals” that together comprise an ecosystem. He was a champion for the conservation of each element of the land, as well as the land as a whole. During his distinguished career, Cyril Kabat (1915-2010) closely followed Leopold’s approach, using his professional influence to address important conservation issues dealing with soils, waters, plants, and animals, as well as ecosystems as a whole. Few of Leopold’s other students made contributions to such a wide array of conservation issues as Cy did.

Graduate Studies

In 1941 Cy, a Milwaukee native, was an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin majoring in Agronomy when he first encountered Aldo Leopold. For a course assignment in Agricultural Journalism, he interviewed Leopold about the work he and his students were doing at Faville Grove. Cy must have made a good impression because Leopold invited him to attend his weekly seminars on wildlife management. In 1942 Cy heard Leopold talk about Bobwhite Quail research at Prairie du Sac that had been initiated by Paul Errington in 1929 and was continued by several of Leopold’s students. Leopold asked if Cy would be interested in working on the project, and in 1942 he began fieldwork on quail and was accepted into Leopold’s graduate program in 1943. At the time, Cy was Leopold’s only student in residence, as the rest were on leave from their studies to serve in World War II. That led Cy to another project covering for Leopold’s absent graduate students who had been studying Ring-necked Pheasants at the University of Wisconsin Arboretum. While the plan was for Cy to focus on analyzing the Prairie du Sac quail data for his thesis, an unexpected hurdle emerged. Leopold and Errington had a major falling out over the analysis and write up of the quail work on which they had collaborated. The data Cy would need for his thesis became an issue. Leopold would eventually resolve the disagreement through a forceful series of letters to Errington defending Cy, but Kabat would eventually write his thesis on the pheasant research instead.

Kabat's U.S. Navy portrait.

Kabat entered the U.S. Navy in 1944 to serve during WWII.

Just as it had for the students he had covered for, World War II interrupted Cy’s graduate studies when he entered the Navy in 1944. After two years of service, he returned to grad school and continued his work on quail and pheasants, and he received his Master’s degree in 1947.

Cy was away interviewing for a position at Auburn University when Aldo died in April of 1948, and he didn’t learn of his mentor’s death until his wife, Helen, broke the sad news upon his return to Madison. He turned down the Auburn position and elected to stay in Wisconsin and began a 36-year career working for the Wisconsin Conservation Department (later the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources).

Early Career & Publications

Cy began his professional career as a Research Biologist, but he was quickly promoted just one year later to become the Chief of Wildlife Research when another Leopold student, Irv Buss, stepped down. He spent the rest of his career in positions administering the Department’s research programs, eventually becoming Director of the Bureau of Research. Under his guidance, the Department’s research programs flourished. He hired very competent researchers, adequately funded their projects, and facilitated the publication of results.

Kabat, center, with colleagues at the Wisconsin Conservation Department

Kabat, center, discusses a long-range plan he helped prepare for the Wisconsin Conservation Department (now the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources).

Cy himself authored or coauthored over 150 publications. Reflecting Leopold’s influence, Cy noted that “No less than 50 publications on wildlife research evolved from the efforts of [Leopold’s] students in the Wisconsin Conservation Department and its successor, the Department of Natural Resources. Six of these earned The Wildlife Society’s Outstanding Publication Award.” All were under the direction of Kabat, and two were awarded to Kabat himself: one for the 34 years of research on the quail at Prairie du Sac he began as an undergraduate and the other for his pheasant work.

Picking Up Where Leopold Left Off

It was during his career that his attention to “land” and its components became prominent, and he was widely recognized for the diversity of conservation projects in which he was engaged. Like his mentor, Kabat was intensely engaged in issues involving soil and water conservation where he effectively linked his training in agronomy and ecology. He was a longtime member of the Wisconsin Chapter of the Soil Conservation Society of America and twice served as its Director. He received one of the Society’s highest awards and was elected a Fellow in 1963. He chaired the Society’s important Wetland Classification Committee. His work on water conservation was also recognized by a prestigious award from the Izaak Walton League of America, an organization he directed from 1958-72.

Just as Aldo Leopold had a lifelong interest in phenology, Cy caught the same bug when Leopold required his students to keep phenological records for their study sites and provided an enthusiastic role model. Cy noted that Leopold “didn’t resort to dramatics in his lectures, but on occasions, outside the classroom, his intrigue with a natural event inspired a spontaneous show of delight from him.” Cy went on to serve as a Director of the Wisconsin Phenological Society from 1959-75.

Naturally, Cy was also a leader in the wildlife field. While Aldo Leopold played a crucial role in crafting the first North American Game Policy, as an active member of The Wildlife Society, Cy worked on an update of the policy in 1972. He worked on farmland wildlife management with the Future Farmers of America, and the group made him an “Honorary Farmer” in recognition of his outreach efforts to young farmers. He also served on the Mississippi Flyway Council that makes important decisions about migratory game bird management.

Kabat recieving award from Wisconsin Natural Resources Foundation

Cy, holding the large plaque, received a commendation from the Wisconsin Natural Resources Foundation. Fellow Leopold student Bob Ellarson is on his left.

But, it was in the broader context of conservation of land as a whole that Cy made some of his most important contributions. Cy chaired a committee of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters on Maintenance of Roadside Cover and Scenic Beauty that ignited interest in converting roadsides in Wisconsin to prairies and reducing the use of herbicides for brush control. He organized and coauthored an influential publication on the topic as well. A novel idea at the time, but one Leopold had been an early proponent of, managing roadside vegetation is now becoming increasingly important in the recovery of several declining species such as monarch butterflies. Cy also served the Wisconsin Academy as Vice President and received its highest award for Distinguished Service.

Kabat had an even bigger impact through his work on preserving key natural areas as part of regional planning exercises. Cy was on the council of the Association of Wisconsin Planners where he championed the preservation of wildlife habitat. He served as Secretary and Administrative Officer of the Wisconsin Scientific Areas Preservation Council that established a statewide system of natural areas. Aldo Leopold had been one of the driving forces behind the creation of this program (now called the State Natural Areas program).

Kabat examines invasive blackberry

Kabat examining invasive Himalayan blackberry in the Pacific Northwest.

A Devoted Conservationist

One can’t escape recognizing that Cy was intensely devoted to his diverse conservation efforts which consumed much of his time. But he was also a father to four children (Brian, Anita, Diana [pictured with Cy in the top photo], and Cynthia) who tell stories about Cy “bringing his work home,” as happened most memorably when he brought home two orphaned black bear cubs the family helped foster until they could be resettled.

Throughout his life and career, Cy Kabat devoted himself to the challenge of conserving “land as a whole.” Leopold wrote about two types of conservationists: “One kind feels a primary interest in some one aspect of land (such as soil, forests, game or fish) with an incidental interest in the land as a whole. The other feels a primary interest in the land as a whole, with incidental interest in its component resources.” It’s safe to say, Leopold would have been pleased to include Cy as one of the latter.


All photos were provided courtesy of the Kabat family.


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