James R. Beer: Pioneering Behavioral Ecologist and Northwoods Mammalogist
Jim Beer (1918-1971) was one in the cohort of 10 students who entered Aldo Leopold’s graduate program in wildlife management at the University of Wisconsin in the aftermath of WWII. They represented almost 40% of Leopold’s 26 graduate students. Tragically though, their association with Leopold was cut short when he died in 1948 while most of them were still completing their studies. Jim Beer was awarded his Ph.D. in 1949, thus missing the opportunity for a graduation celebration with his mentor.
Early Education & Experience
Jim was born in Black Rock, Oregon, and attended Washington State University where he earned a B.S. degree in wildlife management in 1940 and then an M.S. degree in wildlife management in 1941. His was the very first M.S. degree in wildlife management ever granted by the university. His studies in Washington focused on the ecology of Blue Grouse and sex ratios in waterfowl.
After graduation, Jim worked for one year as a game biologist for the Montana Fish and Game Department. He and his fellow field biologists recalled that they “started with our backs to the North Dakota border and worked our way westward, surveying game birds and other wildlife in every county along the way.” Jim spent the next few years during the war working as the lead draftsman for Kaiser Industries, a major warship builder in Washington state. During this time, he maintained his passion for field research by assisting Leonard W. Wing. An early Leopold student, Wing wrote a letter of recommendation for Beer when he applied to work with Leopold. Such letters from his former students undoubtedly influenced Leopold’s selection of applicants.
Graduate Studies & Research
In 1945, Jim entered Aldo Leopold’s program with a dual major in wildlife management and zoology. At the time, wildlife Ph.D. students had to have a second major, which was often zoology. His zoology advisor was Professor John T. Emlen, a recently arrived faculty member who had quickly forged a strong working relationship with Leopold and his graduate students. Thus, Jim Beer was among Emlen’s first graduate students and Leopold’s last. Both of his mentors were giants in their respective fields, and studying under both men must have been an extraordinary experience.
Jim’s research projects on reproductive cycles of muskrats and behavior of Red-winged Blackbirds at the University of Wisconsin’s Arboretum might be considered pioneering studies in behavioral ecology, the study of the ecological and evolutionary basis for animal behavior. It was a field that didn’t even have a name when Jim was a student, and it didn’t become a formally recognized discipline until the 1960s. His work on muskrats involved linking physiology, behavior, and ecology, which was at the time a novel research approach.
While working at the Arboretum, Jim participated in experimental controlled burns on the restored prairies. He and Fred Greeley, another Leopold student, also conducted field research there. The two banded thousands of birds (feature photo top), and they were among the pioneers in banding bats. They banded over 1,000 little brown bats in 1947 alone! Jim’s daughter Connie recalls, “Dad brought home a cage full of bats to band. Being curious, I wanted to see them. No one realized I hadn’t put the cage lid back on tight until that evening when dozens and dozens of the bats began flying around the house. The neighbors didn’t visit for quite a while after that since it took a long time to recapture and finish banding them.” Jim would retain an interest in bats throughout his career. While a student, he was also a curator of the university’s Zoology Museum.
Life & Career
After graduating in 1949, Jim took a faculty position at the University of Minnesota as professor of wildlife management in the Division of Entomology and Economic Zoology. He would go on to spend the rest of his career there, and during that time, wildlife management, the field largely defined by Leopold, eventually supplanted economic zoology (the study of economically useful animals) in academia. He taught courses in mammalogy, field research techniques, and wildlife ecology.
Beer’s eclectic research interests involved work with bats, a wide variety of small mammal and bird populations, snakes, beaver, pocket gophers, and ectoparasites of birds and rodents. His 1956 research publication, “Minimum Space Requirements of Some Nesting Passerine Birds” and 1954 book, Small Mammal Populations on the Islands of Basswood Lake, Minnesota, were early contributions to the understanding of consequences for wildlife populations from habitat fragmentation, the reduction of large tracts of habitat into increasingly smaller and more isolated fragments.
Beer was an early adopter of the then-new technology of radio telemetry to track the movement and behavior of Spruce and Sharp-tailed Grouse for his studies in northern Minnesota. Much of Beer’s fieldwork took place in the Northwoods along the Minnesota – Canada border. He spent most of his time at the Quetico-Superior Wilderness Research Center (later renamed the Wilderness Forest Research Center) and at the University’s Cloquet Forest Center, the second oldest experimental forest operated by a U.S. university.
Beer’s research was not limited to wild lands, however. In 1961, he published a paper on the “Winter Feeding Patterns in the House Sparrow” in St. Paul, Minnesota, and his bibliography includes over 75 publications. Two highlights of his distinguished career were coauthoring the definitive 1953 book, Mammals of Minnesota, and serving as editor of the Journal of Mammalogy from 1962 to 1964.
Like many naturalists, Jim’s fondness for wildlife included bringing a variety of live and dead animals home. His family thought “it was normal.” Daughter Rosalie recalled, “Coming home with a new boyfriend and pulling into the driveway only to find a very large decapitated snapping turtle hanging from the corner of the garage. Mom asked him if he would like to stay for dinner. He declined. Mom could never understand why.” Daughter Terri also came home with a new boyfriend and noticed that a captive bullsnake had escaped its quarters and was coiled up in the kitchen. She kindly asked him to put it back while she changed clothes. Despite being terrified of snakes, he managed to overcome his fear and put the snake safely back just to impress her. It worked; she later married him!
One of the family’s favorite critters was a very gentle, smart coatimundi named YoYo. Jim rescued it after it was swept away from its mother in a flash flood in Arizona where he was doing research. YoYo regularly got into the trash and spread it around the house, but his biggest offense was grabbing the corner of the tablecloth and pulling off all of the fine crystal and china 10 minutes before Jim’s wife, Margie, was hosting a luncheon for faculty wives. YoYo was subsequently banished to Jim’s university office where he was well loved by all of Jim’s students.
In the summer of 1971, Jim suffered a massive heart attack while on a field trip at Basswood Lake in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. This was an area where he had spent many summers working at the Wilderness Forest Research Center, investigating wildlife populations. He died two months later in the prime of his career at age 53. Jim was survived his wife, Margie, and five children who spent many summer field trips with him in northern Minnesota and other wild places.
Feature photo, top, shows Jim Beer banding baby robins at the University of Wisconsin Arboretum in 1946.