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Exploring the Legacy of Leopold’s Students: Remembering Dick Taber

Aldo Leopold’s last living student, Richard D. Taber, died on January 24, 2016, in Missoula, Montana at age 95, marking the end of a generation of wildlife biologists who received their graduate degrees under the pioneer in wildlife conservation. In the wake of Dick’s passing, I will begin, with this essay, a series of occasional reviews of the lives and contributions made by some of Leopold’s 26 graduate students. They were the privileged few who had the opportunity to be mentored by Leopold during his 15 years as a professor at the University of Wisconsin. Following his example, they made significant contributions to the science and practice of wildlife management.

Dick Taber was from California, and like most of Leopold’s students had a keen interest in hunting, fishing and other outdoor activities. He got a copy of Leopold’s 1933 book Game Management when he was 14, having traded a friend a bobcat skin for the book. He earned his undergraduate degree in zoology at the University of California-Berkeley. After service in World War II Dick worked for the California Department of Fish and Game studying pheasants.

In 1946 he moved his family east to enter the University of Wisconsin under the GI Bill. According to Dick’s autobiography, Leopold was somewhat reluctant to accept him as a student because of his unimpressive undergraduate grades, but he finally relented after Dick proposed to build on his experience studying pheasants in California. Aldo assigned Dick to join other students in an ongoing pheasant study at the University of Wisconsin Arboretum. Leopold encouraged his students to engage in field investigations that were not part of their thesis work, and many did so. While studying pheasants for his thesis project, Dick undertook a side project on the Dickcissel and published one of his first scientific papers on the grassland songbird’s erratic appearances as a breeding bird in the state. Aldo Leopold died in April 1948 while Dick was writing his Master’s thesis, and Joe Hickey, Aldo’s successor in the department, advised Dick through the final stages of his graduate degree, which he completed later that year. Commenting on the impact of Leopold’s untimely death, Dick lamented “ The torch that we had chosen to guide our steps and warm our hearts was gone in a wink.”

Dick and his family wanted to return to California, and Aldo’s son, Starker Leopold, newly arrived as a faculty member at UC-Berkeley, helped that happen by offering Dick a Ph.D. position for a study of black-tailed deer. After completing his doctoral dissertation under Starker’s direction, Dick stayed on at Berkeley to teach Starker’s wildlife classes while his former major professor was on sabbatical leave for a year. Later while doing field research in Alaska, Dick was recruited to join the faculty at Montana State University (later named the University of Montana) in Missoula to teach wildlife management in the Forestry School. There he established a reputation as a top wildlife researcher. International work in Pakistan as a Fulbright Scholar further enhanced Dick’s credentials. He earned a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1965, reflecting the broad respect for his work outside the immediate wildlife field.

Taber on a field trip with students in Montana's Bitterroot Mountains in 1967. Photo courtesy David Manuwal.

Taber on a 1967 field trip with students to Montana’s Bitterroot Mountains. Photo courtesy David Manuwal.

In 1968 Dick was offered and accepted a tenured faculty position at the University of Washington in Seattle to create the school’s wildlife program. Through the 1970s and 80s Dick expanded his international conservation work in studies ranging from South America to Asia. While at the University of Washington he was a colleague of Aldo Leopold’s daughter, Estella, who was a professor of botany there. Among Dick’s legacies, the University of Washington School of Environmental and Forest Sciences presents the annual Richard D. Taber Outstanding Wildlife Conservation Student Award.


Dick Taber on an August 2013 trip to the Lubrecht Experimental Forest with his former student David Manuwal. The Richard D. Taber Outstanding Wildlife Conservation Student Award, which Manuwal created, is given each spring to an exemplary wildlife student at the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences at the University of Washington. Photo courtesy David Manuwal.

At age 65, Dick retired from academia, having mentored over 100 graduate students, and returned to Missoula, Montana. His distinguished career in wildlife conservation was recognized in 2008 when he received the Aldo Leopold Memorial Award, the highest honor bestowed by The Wildlife Society. In his autobiography, Lucky Dick: The Development of Wildlife Biology, Taber recounted his rich career in the wildlife field, including an insightful retrospective on Aldo Leopold, the mentor who had launched him on his career.