Sandy Interviews Wildlife Biologist Ron Joseph on his upcoming book.
I got to know Ron Joseph when he was the wildlife biologist stationed in Greenville where I have a home on Moosehead Lake. I asked Ron to review my first novel, knowing that he’d let me know if I’d strayed from accurate wildlife science or had somehow ducked the threat to Maine’s forest.
He wrote a Deadly Trespass review that still warms my heart:”…a beautiful book that brilliantly captures the battle to conserve Maine’s mythical woods…”
Now Ron’s collected essays and columns and wonderful, delightful but also poignant stories will published in December. I think he brings the “mythical woods” home to us by opening his history and his heart.
As we talked this week, there was lots of laughter as well as serious moments where he shared his concerns, especially about songbirds: his specialty and also the animals that have his heart.
You can hear Ron relate more of his life and spellbinding stories in this Maine Historical Society interview. It’s great! He’s great!
More than that, you can preorder his book now. ….. Bald Eagles, Bear Cubs, and Hermits: Memoirs of a Wildlife Biologist. It comes out in early December, and I know exactly who’s going to get one from me as a holiday gift.
I interviewed Ron on October 13th.
Many people have encouraged you to share your wildlife biologist stories. Why?
“I think there’s a growing interest in a simple life and in the natural world. And I think people want to disconnect from their devices and live that life and hear about that life as well.” Ron also thinks encounters and relationships with the natural world increase empathy for others and empathy for wildlife. (See his goose story … coming up.)
What story has most resonated with readers?
Ron says he’s had the most feedback on a story about a declining goose who approached people for companionship. After people kept telling him about the unusual goose, he traveled north to see for himself. Ron was “surprised and stunned” when the goose came to him and, with cloudy, almost-blind eyes, wanted to be close to him. She held her, felt her backbone and how desperately thin she was, and he checked her band. She was thirteen years old and had traveled from the Northwest Territories, almost 4,000 miles. Ron’s story about the goose seeking out and needing humans and his strong feelings for her resonated strongly with readers of his columns. “When I started out as a biologist, it was scientific consensus that animals didn’t have emotions like we do. Clearly, the science on that has really changed.”
What are some of the tensions wildlife biologists (everywhere) must navigate as they go about their tasks?
Ron was quick to answer. “A declining faith in science. Distrust in science.” He thinks in Maine some of this came from the coyote controversy where scientists were clear that killing coyotes would not reduce their numbers. The sporting community felt that was untrue and was very visible and loud about reducing coyotes to protect the deer herd. “However, Maine now has both more deer and more coyotes, even though we have the most liberal coyote hunting laws in the country. There’s no bag limit; hunters can take out as many as they want,” Ron said.
And speaking of deer, Ron shared that it was frustrating to have too many deer in southern Maine. Professionals recommended that the herd be reduced. “Residents who resisted the science came to realize that deer overpopulations ate their gardens and even potted plants on their porches, and they increased the spread of Lyme disease and were dangerous roadway hazards.”
What are some uniquely Maine wildlife biologist challenges?
“Maine has two forest ecosystems that exist next to each other in a transition zone.” He explained that the eastern deciduous forest lies up against the northern boreal forest that needs cold temperatures to support a mix of conifers and other species.
“With warming, the deciduous forest moves further north, displacing the boreal forest and animals that need the cold, a shorter warm season, and the trees, plants and habitat in a boreal forest. Lynx, moose, pine marten, and the rare Bicknell’s thrush and many species that live in our boreal forest face increasing stress.”
What’s the most dangerous Maine animal and why? (Are humans involved in causing this danger?)
“A cow moose with a calf. I always tell people to never try and take a picture of a moose calf. I have been charged by a mother bear with cubs, but she stopped short in a bluff charge. Mother moose don’t stop until they get you. I was out in the woods taking a breeding bird survey when a calf came out of the woods and then a female moose showed up on the other side of me. I knew I couldn’t outrun her, so I climbed up a slash pile and she tried to climb up after me, but tangled branches caught her legs and stopped her.” He chuckled. “I was so lucky to have that slash pile.”
In a recent interview you mentioned that song birds are in trouble. Why?
“Songbirds are highly migratory. They spend over half the year in South America. There’s loss of habitat there as well as here, so it’s like the candle’s being burned at both ends. I remember doing breeding bird surveys in the 80’s and 90’s and there were so many singing we couldn’t really count the birds. Twenty years later I could go out and hear and count each individual bird. That’s how many we’ve lost.”
I asked him about clear cutting. “I don’t think it’s necessarily bad. For example, after a cut, the raspberries come in thick and this early successional forest supports many birds who feed there. I don’t support using herbicides after a cut to create site conversions over to softwoods. We still need the kind of diversity that comes after a cut, but I think when biologists from all over the world look at Maine’s north woods, they think we are very lucky to have what we have.”
People love wildlife. What are some things they do right or wrong?
“People are planting more native species to feed birds and animals that depend on Maine plants. That’s good. But in general, just give wildlife room. If you find a fawn, leave it there. Give wildlife space to be.”
And Ron was clear about some people not understanding how dogs can affect even small species. When an area has dog limitations (on leash) or prohibitions, he wants people to follow the rules. “Like the sandpipers on the coast. Dogs like to chase them, but after traveling from the arctic, the birds have to double their weight to make the trip to South America. If their feeding regime get interrupted, they have to land in a place like New Jersey to bulk up and that place is like a buzzsaw of hazards for those birds.”
Folks fled to more remote, rural locations during the pandemic. What’s your take on that?
Ron shared a very large laugh. “I’d like to interview them after black fly season.” He knows many are staying and building big homes, so he’s concerned that trend will “fragment the forest.” He wants people “to build near existing towns.”
If you could wave a magic wand to benefit wildlife, what would you wish?
His answer was quick. “I want us to get greenhouse gasses to 350 parts per million. We need to avoid the huge increases that are happening now. I think we are now at 415 parts per million, way over where we need to be if we want to protect what we care about.”
(A Sandy note; Find more info on this dramatic increase here.)
In His Book, Bald Eagles, Bear Cubs, and Hermits: Memoirs of a Wildlife Biologist, Ron shares his stories of growing up in rural Maine and working as a wildlife biologist. The book includes humorous stories, such as one about the time he had to count piles of deer dung on designated mile-long lines and encountered a woman who bluntly asked, “So you went to college for that?” Other stories border on the absurd, including one of an influential legislator who pressured Ron to spray concentrated wolf urine on 30 miles of Route 201 in a harebrained waste of taxpayer money to supposedly reduce moose-vehicle collisions. Many of the book’s stories have previously been published in Down East, Maine Boats Homes and Harbors, Bangor Daily News, Moosehead Messenger, PenBay Pilot, and elsewhere.
More About Ron: Ronald Joseph was born in Waterville, Maine. Spending childhood summers on his maternal grandparents’ nearby dairy farm, he became fascinated with songbirds, often spending hours perched on stacks of hay bales in a post-and-beam barn watching swallows feed their nestlings. Ron’s mother encouraged his love of birds by giving him a copy of Peterson’s Field Guide to Eastern Birds. His first bull moose sighting would also leave a deep impression: chased by his grandparents’ dog, the moose ducked beneath a clothesline, and escaped across a hayfield with a bra attached to his antler. Birdwatching, though, became Ron’s passion, inspiring him to pursue a B.S. degree in wildlife conservation and a M.S. in zoology. In 1978, he began a 33-year career, first as a state wildlife biologist, and later as a federal biologist specializing in the restoration of eagles, peregrines, and other endangered species in Maine. Now retired, Ron volunteers for the Kennebec Land Trust, participates in the Maine Bird Atlas, a statewide citizen science project evaluating songbird population trends, and he also leads Maine birding trips.
Sandy’s debut novel, “Deadly Trespass, A Mystery in Maine” won a national Mystery Writers of America award, was a finalist in the Women’s Fiction Writers Association “Rising Star” contest, and was a finalist for a Maine Literary Award. The second Mystery in Maine, “Deadly Turn,” was published in 2021. Her third “Deadly” is due out in 2023. Find her novels at all Shermans Books (Maine) and on Amazon. Find more info on Sandy’s website.