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Don Thompson and Aldo Leopold

Exploring the Legacy of Leopold’s Students: Don Thompson

Don Thompson, one of Aldo Leopold’s wildlife ecology students

Among the crop of students applying to Aldo Leopold’s graduate program in 1945, most had just recently finished their military service and were returning to school to continue their education. One of those was Donald R. Thompson (1919-2014) who stood out from his fellow applicants for his academic background, which reflected a subtle shift in Leopold’s criteria for acceptance from a focus on wildlife management to wildlife ecology. The photo above is of Aldo and Don at the Shack.

Donald R. Thompson in 1949. Image courtesy Thompson family.

Don was a native of Illinois and attended the University of Illinois where he earned a 1942 Masters degree in ecology under the pioneering ecologist Victor E. Shelford, who was a founder of the Ecological Society of America, and became its first president in 1916. Leopold would have first taken notice of Shelford after he published a classic 1913 paper, Animal Communities in Temperate America, and their interests in the application of the science of ecology to the practice of conservation overlapped in many important ways. While Don was studying with Shelford he also took a course in wildlife conservation from S. Charles Kendeigh, another giant in the field of animal ecology and conservation. Having studied with these prestigious mentors Don was clearly better qualified as an ecologist rather than a wildlife manager. Still, when he asked David H. Thompson, a friend and naturalist with the Cook County Forest Preserve District, for career advice, he was advised to contact Aldo Leopold. Don had first encountered Leopold in 1941 at the Midwest Wildlife Conference, and although impressed he hadn’t necessarily thought about Leopold as a possible graduate advisor or wildlife management as a future career. Little did he know that his background in ecology and solid academic pedigree were just what Leopold was looking for in new students. He was accepted into the program and began his studies in September 1945.

Graduate Studies

Don Thompson with his dog Britta in 1972

Like Leopold, Don always had a faithful canine companion by his side. He is pictured here with his dog Britta in 1972. Image courtesy Thompson family.

After arriving in Madison, Don was initially assigned to assist with ongoing studies at the UW Arboretum while identifying a topic for his thesis. At the Arboretum he was immediately attracted to Leopold’s phenology studies, a natural extension of his own earlier work on seasonality of the cottontail rabbit in Illinois. Don provided evidence that plants in urban areas bloomed earlier than in the nearby rural areas, a response to the “urban heat island” effect. When Aldo returned from the 1946 North American Wildlife Conference, he was intrigued by a preliminary report on the importance of vitamin A in the nutritional ecology of Northern Bobwhite. This hypothesis and Leopold’s long-standing interest in quail research led to Don’s research project on the ecological significance of vitamin A. It took advantage of Don’s strong background in ecology and chemistry, and provided an opportunity for Leopold to build bridges to the biochemistry department on a project of mutual interest. Don’s thesis, “Levels of vitamin A storage in some game animals,” revealed that vitamin A levels in various wildlife species appeared to be adequate and that undernourished animals would likely starve to death before suffering from acute vitamin A deficiency. His field work involved sampling quail at the Prairie du Sac Quail Investigation area in south-central Wisconsin, a study initiated by Paul Errington in 1929 and continued by various Leopold students. Don spent 3 years in Leopold’s department, graduating in 1948. Like other Leopold students, Don reminisced fondly of the times spent visiting the Shack. He recalled the drives from Madison, with Leopold providing a running commentary about the passing landscape and how humans had changed it. There were also memorable evenings around the Shack’s fireplace with Leopold’s youngest daughter, Estella Jr., strumming her guitar, Aldo smoking his favorite pipe and his wife, Estella Sr., beaming approvingly.

Life and Career

Don and his wife Dee at home in 2013. Image courtesy Thompson family.

Don went on to spend his entire professional career with the Wisconsin Conservation Department, where he initially worked with Irven O. Buss and Cyril Kabat, both former Leopold students. In 1949, Don married DeLores Gunderson Lynch. They raised two children, Sher and John. Don’s first job assignment was to work on quail research at Prairie du Sac and elsewhere. His important contribution to the ongoing studies of quail and other game birds was developing census techniques that lent themselves to rigorous statistical analyses. His obvious talent in data collection and management resulted in him taking the lead in a newly created Survey Section that was responsible for coordinating wildlife surveys throughout the department. The scope of his responsibilities for handling survey data gradually expanded to include not just population estimates but also range mapping, habitat descriptions and harvest estimates. The harvest survey system Don designed used mailed questionnaires to randomly selected hunting license holders in each county. The number of questionnaires sent in each county was proportional to the number of licenses sold. Sample harvest estimates were expanded to estimate the total harvest by species. In 1959 he revamped the way Wisconsin surveyed deer populations and initiated the use of “management units” based on ecological rather than political boundaries. That logical, science-based approach was used until recently when legislative meddling resulted in abandoning nearly 60 years of accumulated experience and reverting to management units defined by county boundaries. Don fortunately did not live to see this ill-advised change. In recognition of his contributions to the field of wildlife ecology, he received the 1966 publication award from The Wildlife Society for his publication: Cyril Kabat and Donald R. Thompson. 1963. Wisconsin Quail 1834-1962, population dynamics and habitat management. Tech. Bull. No. 30, Wisc. Cons. Dept. 136 pp. His insightful 1972 evaluation of the environmental impacts of agricultural herbicides was an early analysis of the problems that have become ever more apparent as the use of herbicides has expanded.

Lessons from Leopold

Don Thompson in the Boundary Waters in 1982

Don in the Boundary Waters in 1982. Image courtesy Thompson family.

In reflecting on his career doing wildlife surveys, Don commented on how impressed he was with Leopold’s early efforts at wildlife surveys, as exemplified by his 1928-31 game surveys of the north-central states. In the face of immense challenges of doing wide scale surveys, Don recounted that Leopold “deftly accomplished this task.” He noted that “Leopold likely learned ‘correct’ survey methodology in his forestry career, and he used the label ‘index’ for many of his wildlife and habitat surveys. That method recognized that there were biases which made exact numbers suspect, but an ‘index’ still contained highly useful information.”

In 1982 at age 62, Don retired from the Wisconsin DNR as Chief for the Bureau of Research’s Technical Services Section. In retirement Don continued his lifelong passion for science. He delighted in sharing nature with his family and others, enjoying many outdoor activities including hunting, fishing, canoeing, hiking and camping, and was a veritable walking encyclopedia about natural phenomena. In 2007, Don was honored for over 20 years of service in the Dane County Retired and Senior Volunteer Program, sharing his love of nature with school children throughout the county. Don died in June 2014 at the age of 94.