Richards at desk as graduate student
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Exploring the Legacy of Leopold’s Students: Stephen Richards

Stephen H. Richards: An early practitioner of disease work with wildlife populations

Among the wave of students entering Aldo Leopold’s graduate program in 1945 was Steve Richards (1918-2000). Like the rest of that large cohort, he was returning to school after serving in the US Army. While working with Leopold, he would have become aware of his mentor’s renewed focus on understanding and managing the factors that limited the growth and size of wildlife populations. Factors such as hunting, predators, starvation, accidents, food, water, cover, and diseases and parasites had each been covered in separate chapters in Leopold’s 1933 book, Game Management. The book broke new ground in our understanding of how these factors affected wildlife and how managers could manipulate them to achieve conservation goals. Although he may not have anticipated it at the time, Steve’s most significant contributions to wildlife management and conservation would eventually be with one of those factors, the then-new field of study: wildlife diseases.

Steve was born in New Jersey and later moved to New York where he attended high school. His interests in wildlife led him to earn a B.S. degree in Forestry and Wildlife Management from the University of Massachusetts in 1941. There he had the opportunity to study with Professor Reuben Trippensee, a legendary Leopold contemporary and author of the influential 1948 book Wildlife Management (Trippensee would be succeeded in 1960 by Steve’s UW classmate, Fred Greeley). That academic pedigree was undoubtedly a strong point when Steve applied to Leopold’s program.

Graduate Studies

Steve Richards

Stephen H. Richards, late in his 35-year career as a wildlife disease specialist with North Dakota Game and Fish Department. Photo courtesy of North Dakota Game & Fish.

Steve’s graduate research project focused on the two Wisconsin fox species, the red fox and the gray fox. Steve carried out extensive population surveys and den counts, and he examined hundreds of foxes that had been trapped to determine their sex, age, body condition and evidence of diseases and parasites. On the latter examinations, he was helped by Leopold’s colleague, Dr. Robert L. Rausch, a DVM parasitologist in the Veterinary Science department. As was typical of Leopold’s projects at the time, he encouraged his students to collaborate with experts around campus.

During his studies, fox populations in Wisconsin declined rapidly in what many at the time called a “die off.” Steve’s study was ideally positioned to document what might have been behind the decline. His circumstantial evidence suggested that disease and subsequent starvation were implicated. Steve also examined carcasses of foxes, skunks, mink, and opossums that had been trapped on Leopold’s Prairie du Sac quail study area, and he carried out surveys of other mammals in the area as well. His contributions were part of the larger study of quail and the entire wildlife community on that intensely studied site.

Steve’s graduate studies suffered a setback when a fire destroyed some of his data. This misfortune, coupled with what was reported by his fellow students to have been Leopold’s critical review of Steve’s draft thesis and then Leopold’s death in 1948, led to Steve abandoning his graduate studies and taking a position as a Wildlife Biologist with the Wisconsin Conservation Department (later the Department of Natural Resources) from 1947-50. There he continued his fox studies and eventually coauthored a major research report on the findings (1953. Wisconsin Fox Populations. Technical Bulletin, Wisconsin Conservation Department, Madison Wisconsin, 78 pp.).

Life and Career

In 1950 Steve married Kathryn (Kay) Pluemer (1922-2017) of Potosi, WI. She had a B.S. in Dietetics and Chemistry from the College of St. Teresa in Winona, MN, and had a career as a dietician. The couple left Wisconsin to work in Washington state and Montana, where for a time they were fire rangers in Glacier National Park. Steve and Kay had two sons and a daughter.

Stephen Richards with fox

Stephen Richards with a captive red fox used in his experiments on diseases and parasites. Photo courtesy of North Dakota Game & Fish.

In 1953, Steve took a position with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department that would eventually become considered a turning point in his professional career. His new position in North Dakota, one that he would hold for the rest of his professional career, was Wildlife Disease Research Biologist.

At the time, he was one of just a handful of specialists in this new branch of wildlife management, and he quickly became a prolific practitioner in that specialty. His office and lab were located at the Spiritwood Lake Field Station, near Jamestown, ND. There Steve undertook numerous studies of diseases and parasites in North Dakota wildlife. In addition to doing wildlife disease diagnostics, Steve did work and published papers on rabies and distemper in skunks and red foxes, leptospirosis and parasites in rodents and red foxes, and epizootic hemorrhagic disease in deer in North Dakota. His work on rabies and epizootic hemorrhagic disease took on national significance, as did his surveys of E. coli in wildlife species. In the 1960s he was also involved in toxicology studies that were prompted by growing concerns over the impacts of pesticides on wildlife. Over his 35-year career, he published over 50 papers on wildlife disease, parasitology, and toxicology.

Stephen Richards in the lab with bird specimens

Stephen Richards (known as “Dr. Death” by colleagues) examining carcasses of animals prior to conducting disease diagnostic work. Photo courtesy of North Dakota Game & Fish.

Steve retired in 1988. He was a founding member and active participant in activities of the Wildlife Disease Association, a professional organization that coalesced around the field in which Steve had been a pioneer. Steve was well liked and respected by his peers, though some of the wildlife managers in the Department jokingly called him “Dr. Death” because he was always poking around in dead bodies. And because of his frequent encounters with skunks, Steve developed a skunk spray deodorizer that was extremely effective in eliminating skunk odor. Colleagues who were unfortunate enough to need his concoction were most grateful for his contribution to their harmonious home life.

Steve was an outdoorsman, and he loved exploring the wilds of North Dakota. The Badlands, the Little Missouri River, and the North Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park were among Steve’s favorite places to spend time. Steve would have been dismayed at all the recent development that has taken place in those wild areas he loved to explore. One of his hobbies was making beautiful walking sticks out of diamond willow he collected while in the field.

In the end, although Steve’s graduate studies with Leopold didn’t end as he had hoped, the experience of working with foxes and their diseases and parasites proved to be pivotal in his eventual career path after leaving school. And, as was the case with many of Leopold’s students, Steve went on to be a pioneer in the field of wildlife conservation.

Leopold and his graduate students at the Shack.

Aldo Leopold (center) poses with students at the Shack. Stephen Richards is standing on the far right. (Others from left to right: Bruce S. Wright, Donald R. Thompson, Leopold, James R. Beer, Richards, and Clifford Bakkom.)

At top: Richards as a graduate student at his desk in Leopold’s department at University of Wisconsin – Madison, the former Dean’s residence at 424 University Farm Place. Photo courtesy of the Richards family.