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Q&A | Ron Joseph: Wildlife Biologist

Updated: Oct 10, 2023

Ron Joseph seated outdoors beside river.

Ron Joseph was born in Waterville in 1952 and grew up in neighboring Oakland. He developed a love for the outdoors and wildlife on his grandparents' dairy farm in Mercer, where he spent many weekends, summers, and vacations working and exploring. He especially loved birds, a passion nurtured by his mother, and spent hours perched on stacks of hay bales watching swallows dart in and out of the barn to feed their nestlings. That fascination led him to study ornithology at the University of New Hampshire where he earned a degree in wildlife conservation. He later earned a master's degree in zoology from Brigham Young University.

In 1978, he began a career as a state and federal wildlife biologist, often with a focus on the restoration of endangered species. In 1990, Ron began working as a private lands wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, helping landowners restore hayfields and wetlands for migratory birds. He played a pivotal role in restoring Maine’s bald eagle, peregrine falcon, and Canada lynx populations. He is now retired, but continues to speak, volunteer, and lead birding trips. In this Q&A we spoke to Ron about his love for birds, his accomplishments as a conservationist, and his thoughts on the current state of wildlife preservation in Maine.

You’re a passionate birder. What is your favorite bird and why?

I don’t have one favorite bird, per se. However, Maine’s twenty-six nesting warblers are my favorite group of birds. The late Roger Tory Peterson, author of numerous birding field guides, once told me that he’s partial to warblers too because “they’re the butterflies of the bird world.” It’s an apt description because warblers, like butterflies, are very colorful and active. They’re challenging to identify by sight and song which adds an exciting element to birding. Maine’s nesting warblers are also extraordinary long-distance migrants. I marvel at the sight of nesting blackpoll warblers in Maine, knowing that each one traveled to the Pine Tree State from its wintering grounds in the Amazon Basin of Brazil.

You spent a lot of time on your grandparents farm growing up. Do you think that influenced your career choice, and how?

Absolutely. It was my first introduction to the natural world. Watching meadowlark and bobolink courtship flights over my grandparents’ hayfields formed the foundation of my love of birds. My mom was born on her parents' farm and her love of wildlife greatly influenced me as a child. She was a backyard birder, meaning she didn't travel far afield to see birds but she enjoyed watching and studying ones that visited her bird feeders and bird baths.

One of my childhood joyful bird memories came one Christmas day when central Maine's first documented northern cardinal—a handsome red male—visited our bird feeder. My mom was so thrilled she lifted me up by my waist so I could see the cardinal at her feeder just beyond the kitchen window. Her sighting of "the first cardinal in the greater Waterville area" filled our driveway with so many local birdwatchers my dad had to park on the icy road after work. He was good natured about it, although he couldn't understand the "ruckus over a red bird." My mom raved above the cardinal so much my dad jokingly accused her at the dinner table of having a new boyfriend. We all laughed when my very confused four-year-old sister asked "mommy's boyfriend is a bird?"

From those early informative childhood days my interest in songbirds grew as I spent more time with adult birdwatchers.

What inspired you to begin writing about your occupation as a wildlife biologist?

Meeting colorful Mainers in 1988 while supervising the Moosehead Lake moose hunter check station inspired me to write newspaper stories of my experiences. A comical basset hound named Watson was a daily moose check station visitor and huge favorite of hunters. Each day Watson stole discarded moose bones and organs, dragging them across the parking lot to a cache in an adjacent neighborhood. He also stole the hearts of moose watchers when the local sheriff stopped traffic to allow the hound to cross a busy street. The story of Watson and working at my first moose hunting check station was a big hit in the Moosehead Messenger, a weekly newspaper in Greenville, and the Bangor Daily News. The positive public feedback inspired me to continue writing a weekly column.

You’ve been working in the industry for thirty years. What has your greatest accomplishment been?

My greatest accomplishment was overseeing the placement of about seventeen thousand acres of wetlands and woodlands in conservation easements on farms mortgaged by the federal government. The Farm Bill, reauthorized by Congress once every five years, is designed to help farmers become more sustainable and productive, while simultaneously protecting lands and waters for the public. My task as a Maine wildlife biologist entailed overseeing the bill's conservation requirements. Historically, wetlands are widely regarded as a nuisance to farming (1960's USDA soils maps labeled wetlands "wasteland"); many were drained to create more tillable cropland or used to mix water with agricultural pesticides. I was responsible for assigning conservation easements to wetlands on federally subsidized farms to benefit dozens of species of nesting migratory birds, such as green herons, rails, egrets, marsh wrens, and black ducks.

For example, in the early 1990s, I assessed the environmental values of a four hundred-acre farm in central Maine—one that had been mortgaged by the federal government but acquired through foreclosure. A former dairy farm, the property supported outstanding wetlands and numerous declining and rare grassland birds, including sedge wrens—a state endangered species. Rather than pursue conservation easements to protect the farm's wetlands, I recommended the property be transferred to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and managed as a national wildlife refuge. The Farm Service Agency agreed and now the former farm is a refuge, open to the public, in a part of Maine with little public lands. The hayfields and wetlands will be managed in perpetuity for eastern meadowlarks, bobolinks, savannah sparrows, northern harriers, waterfowl, and other wetland and grassland species. It's a gem of a property, open to hiking, birdwatching, and deer hunting.

How has public opinion about wildlife biology changed in the last few decades?

Climate change and the precipitous decline of songbird populations has heightened the public’s interest in conserving wildlife through habitat acquisition and easements. I grew up in an era when green spaces and private forest lands were taken for granted. However, as development gobbles up farmland and woodland, there has been a corresponding public demand to add to green spaces in urban areas and to protect Maine’s forests with conservation easements. Public interest in wildlife—birds in particular—is reflected in the growing number of wildlife observers and birders in Maine and nationally. Birders now outnumber golfers by a wide margin.

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