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Exploring the Legacy of Leopold’s Students: Remembering Bob Ellarson

Bob Ellarson, Leopold’s Last Student And Pioneering Wildlife Extension Specialist

Last month I launched a new series of short essays about the lives of Aldo Leopold’s 26 graduate students. I began with the late Dick Taber, who until his recent death was the last of Leopold’s surviving students. Now, I will continue writing about his other students in reverse chronological order based on the year they began their studies with Leopold. By that criterion, Leopold’s last student was Robert S. Ellarson (1916-1993), who began his Ph.D. studies with Leopold in 1947, less than a year before Leopold’s untimely death set back Bob’s plans for grad school. After graduating in 1956, Bob remained in Leopold’s department where he became a much beloved public figure as a faculty member and pioneering wildlife extension specialist.

Ellarson portrait

Image courtesy of the University Archives at the University of Wisconsin.

Bob Ellarson was born and raised in Milwaukee. After graduating from high school during the Great Depression and not finding work, he and his father joined an uncle who was working a gold mining claim in Idaho. He soon abandoned hope of striking it rich and returned home to enter the University of Wisconsin. In 1946 he earned a B.S. degree in agriculture, specializing in soil conservation. During his undergraduate studies, a friend invited him to sit in on Aldo Leopold’s introductory course, Wildlife Management 118 (Principles of Wildlife Ecology), which rekindled Bob’s interest in nature and love of hunting and fishing. That classroom experience and his great admiration for Leopold inspired him to take all three of Leopold’s wildlife courses. After doing a one-on-one reading course in which he met with Leopold weekly to discuss classic books in wildlife ecology, Bob was invited to join Leopold’s graduate students in the department’s wildlife seminars.

Ellarson birding

Ellarson was an avid birdwatcher. Image courtesy of the University Archives at the University of Wisconsin- Madison.

With Leopold’s encouragement he continued his studies at UW, and influenced by his mother’s love of plants and his newfound interest in ecology, he pursued a master’s degree in botany, graduating in spring 1947. His thesis work produced an influential reconstructed map of the vegetation of pre-European settlement Dane County, Wisconsin, based on early land-survey records from the 1830s. It was a cutting edge effort to understand the ecological history of a landscape that had been so extensively altered by development that some of the dominant natural ecosystems, like oak savannas, had all but disappeared. His master’s work launched a life-long interest in applying his botanical and ecological interests to ecological restoration, a field that Leopold and UW botanists had pioneered at the UW Arboretum.

In the summer of 1947 he sought Leopold’s counsel on his future. He recalled Leopold’s advice that “there was a great need for those specifically trained to do what is essentially wildlife extension work, namely to inform the public of advances in the field of wildlife management.” In September 1947 he began a Ph.D. in wildlife management with Leopold. Then, Bob’s life was turned upside down by Aldo’s death in April 1948. He recounted that “it deprived me of an opportunity to work closely with a person I deeply admired.”

After Leopold’s death, Joe Hickey and Bob McCabe took over advising Bob. He studied the ecology of Long-tailed Ducks wintering on Lake Michigan, and earned his Ph.D. in 1956. While a graduate student, Bob so impressed Hickey and McCabe with his skills as an instructor that they immediately hired him to join them as a faculty member in Leopold’s department. And his faculty position was defined as wildlife extension specialist, the niche that Leopold had advised him to pursue a decade earlier.

Ellarson ducks

Bob (as a grad student) with his thesis advisor Joe Hickey examining Long-tailed Ducks killed in gill nets on Lake Michigan. Image courtesy the University Archives at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

As a well-rounded, outgoing naturalist, Bob was perfect for this job, and he quickly made a name for himself in Wisconsin and nationally as a leader in the new field of wildlife extension. Among his resounding successes in public outreach were his radio and television shows. He had a deep “radio voice” that over 23 years became familiar to many thousands of Wisconsin school children and adults through his weekly broadcast of “The Wonderful World of Nature” as part of the Wisconsin School of the Air program. Tens of thousands of school children listened each week.  Bob noted, “That’s a lot of young people, but what’s astounding is the number of adults who listen to the program all over the state. And they are fans—regular listeners.”

Ellarson radio

Bob at the WHA microphone doing his weekly radio show. Listen below to the first episode of “The Wonderful World of Nature” by Bob Ellarson. His engaging style reached out to children across the state to teach about plants, animals, and the environment. Audio file and image courtesy of the University Archives at the University of Wisconsin.

 

He later added “Outdoor World” to the line-up on Wisconsin Public Television. Bob was also a key player in 4-H conservation camps at UW-Extension’s Upham Woods Outdoor Learning Center. Reconnecting with the Leopold legacy, he twice led groups of distinguished advisors who helped chart the future of research and management on the Leopold Memorial Reserve.

His fame as a wildlife extension specialist garnered Bob many awards from groups including the National Wildlife Federation, The Wildlife Society and the Soil Conservation Society. He retired from the University of Wisconsin in 1978 and spent his retirement years with his wife Jean on their rural property where he continued to garden and improve the health of the land. In 1996 he joined his mentor Aldo Leopold in the Wisconsin Conservation Hall of Fame.