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Exploring the Legacy of Leopold’s Students: Jim Hale

James B. Hale: A wildlife conservation leader in Wisconsin

Jim Hale

Photo of Jim Hale in 1996 courtesy of UW Arboretum.

James B. Hale (1923-2007) was from Stoughton, Wisconsin, not far from the University of Wisconsin campus, where his path would cross Aldo Leopold’s quite accidentally while Jim was an undergraduate struggling to find a major and career goal that stimulated his interest. Although he was a keen naturalist, bird watcher and trout fisher, Jim was unaware at the time that one could earn a graduate degree in wildlife management. By chance a hometown friend and fellow UW student was taking Leopold’s introductory course, Wildlife Management 118, in spring 1942. On a whim, Jim accompanied his friend on a 118 field trip to Faville Grove, at the time a field research site used by Leopold and his students. As was the case with several of Leopold’s future graduate students, Jim’s first encounter with Leopold that day proved to be a turning point in his life.

He was so impressed with Leopold that he promptly decided in his junior year to pursue a career in conservation. Upon Leopold’s advice, he finally declared his undergraduate major in botany with the hope that he could finally get his academic act together and eventually pursue graduate study in wildlife management. His initial conversations with Leopold were very encouraging. They discovered they were both bird watchers and shared a mutual interest in phenology, a topic on which Aldo was at the time preparing a major paper that would become a milestone publication on the ecological significance of phenological records. Leopold even incorporated some of Jim’s observations into that important 1947 publication “A Phenological Record for Sauk and Dane Counties, Wisconsin, 1935-1945.” On a much more personal level, Jim revealed in passing conversation that his mother suffered with trigeminal neuralgia (or tic douloureux), a debilitating chronic pain condition that affects the trigeminal nerve, which carries sensation from the face to the brain. Aldo Leopold also suffered terribly with this rare and painful affliction. At the time of his meetings with Jim, the excruciating pain was taking a heavy toll on Leopold.

Jim Hale

Jim pictured (2nd from right) helping AL with an experimental prairie burn at the UW Arboretum in 1947.

After taking Wildlife Management 118 and further impressing Leopold, Jim was accepted into the masters degree program in wildlife management in 1945. There were few other wildlife students on campus when Jim entered the program; most were still serving in the military. That gave Jim an unusual opportunity to have frequent one-on-one conversations with his mentor. Jim’s thesis work was on cottontail rabbits at the UW Arboretum, another of Leopold’s long-term study sites. Along with the other wildlife students working at the Arboretum, Jim had opportunities to participate in several of Leopold’s projects that were not part of their thesis work, including pioneering work on ecological restoration, such as early experiments on the role of fire in maintaining prairie ecosystems. He also helped out with yearly counts of American woodcock at “the Arb,” a project that continues today.

Upon completing his thesis work on aging cottontail rabbits by bone growth, Jim graduated in 1947 and took a job with the Wisconsin Conservation Department, working under the supervision of another Leopold graduate student, Irv Buss. His first assignment was a study of ruffed grouse. One product was a 1954 publication on sex and age criteria for ruffed grouse. Jim’s research work as a wildlife biologist resulted in a large bibliography. One of his publications “Seasonal movement, winter habitat use, and population distribution of an east central Wisconsin pheasant population” (1974) won The Wildlife Society’s prestigious Wildlife Publication Award in 1976. Among his other important publications were “A profile of Wisconsin hunters” (1972) and “Management of nongame wildlife in the Midwest: A developing art” (1985). Reminiscent of his early experiences counting woodcock with Leopold at the Arb, he co-authored an important 1977 paper on woodcock habitat that was published in The Auk, the top ornithological journal in North America.

Jim Hale

Jim Hale doing research on cottontail rabbits.

Jim spent his entire 35-year career in the Wisconsin Conservation Department (later the Department of Natural Resources) and demonstrated his versatility by playing key roles in several department programs. He served as the longtime (1961-1978) Section Chief of the Department’s Wildlife Research program, and he made an early mark as the editor of all research publications. In 1978 he was tapped to head the newly created Office of Endangered and Nongame Species. Until his retirement in 1983 Jim expanded the fledgling program to include programs such as the network of State Natural Areas that preserve some of the best examples of natural communities in Wisconsin. In 1982 the program Jim led was renamed the Bureau of Endangered Resources. In 1974 he was President of the Wisconsin Chapter of The Wildlife Society. He won the Chapter’s highest recognition, the Wisconsin Award, in 1992.

After his retirement, Jim continued to be actively involved in wildlife conservation. He was especially active with the UW Arboretum, the site of his graduate thesis research. Among his volunteer activities, he served on the Board of Directors of the Friends of the Arboretum. Soon after, he was asked to write a monthly newsletter column, and he followed through by writing over 200 essays on natural history for the Arb’s newsletter, NewsLeaf. A collection of his essays was printed as a 1997 book, Snow Fleas to Sunflowers: Notes from the Natural World.

Jim Hale

Jim and Pat Hale. Photo credit: The Ridges Sanctuary.

Jim married his college girlfriend, Mary Jean Patterson (“Pat”), who was from Door County, Wisconsin, where the couple had a summer cottage near Whitefish Dunes State Park. Those ties to Door County led to Jim being actively involved with The Ridges Sanctuary near Bailey’s Harbor, Wisconsin. Jim’s involvement with the Ridges included serving on the Board from 1982-91. He wrote numerous articles for the Ridges News, and led field trips at The Ridges nearly every year from 1989 to 2004. In recognition of his service, Jim was named the Ridges Volunteer of the Year in 1996.

Although recognized for his professional wildlife writing, in other circles Jim was also well known for publications resulting from his hobby of studying the history of Wisconsin’s post offices. Jim became involved with stamp collecting at age 8, and he was an active member of the Wisconsin Postal History Society, having served as vice president from 1969-73.

Among recognitions for his success as a wildlife researcher and administrator, Jim and Pat Hale have a unit of the Lake Mills Wildlife Area (Zeloski Marsh), Jefferson County, named in their honor. He received a US Fish and Wildlife Service “Silver Eagle Award” that recognizes individuals and organizations that have made impressive contributions to wildlife conservation and management in the Service’s Great Lakes-Big Rivers Region.

Jim Hale’s impressive wildlife career in Wisconsin spanned the range from studying the abundant cottontail rabbit, to heading the state’s wildlife research program, to leading programs for Wisconsin’s endangered species and threatened natural areas. And it all began serendipitously with an invitation to tag along with a friend on one of Aldo Leopold’s class field trips.