Aleutian goose hero dies at 85

May 03, 2007 11:00 pm

By Hilary Corrigan

Triplicate staff writer

Paul Springer, the scientist who helped bring the back from the brink of extinction, died at St. Joseph Hospital in Eureka on Wednesday.

The 85-year-old Arcata resident suffered from pulmonary fibrosis.

Springer retired from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1984 and had served as an adjunct professor at Humboldt State University. He came to the Northcoast from the Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center in Jamestown, N.D., where he studied waterfowl.

He served as part of the recovery team that formed to rebuild the Aleutian goose population, which reached only about 800 in 1975, when he found that they stop in Del Norte County each spring during a 2,000-mile migration to the Aleutian Islands. He helped ensure that their Castle Rock roosting site off Crescent City's coast became a national wildlife refuge. He also supervised HSU students who tracked the birds' migration patterns and life cycles.

"But Paul did way more than that. He was the one who talked to land owners about the bird once he found out where they were," said Vernon Byrd, supervisory wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, who worked with Springer to save the geese.

The recovery plan called for killing foxes that preyed on the geese in their breeding grounds off Alaska's coast, and banning hunting of the geese. But Springer and others knew that they needed to set aside foraging lands in the San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys, where the geese winter, and in Del Norte County, where they stop in the spring before a non-stop flight north. Springer negotiated with landowners, farmers and government officials for the privately owned fields, where the geese prefer to eat.

"He pretty much shaped all of the wintering ground recovery," Byrd said, recalling contentious meetings when Springer remained respectful, but focused on recovering the animal. "Often, it would be Paul's last word."

Springer's work helped boost the goose population to about 100,000. They came off the Endangered Species list in 2001 and in 2002, the state allowed hunters to shoot the birds again, relaxing limits each year since to shift them from private lands. Springer has described the recovery team's work as an over-success, noting the costs that ranchers and farmers incur.

He remained involved, attending meetings or banding, observing and tracking the birds. While in his late 60s, he fell through the roof of a shed that a landowner near Lake Earl let him use for counting geese.

At each year's Aleutian Goose Festival, he presented information and toured fields with visitors. A few weeks ago, he attended a graduate student's presentation on the geese. He often called area ranchers and wildlife managers for updates and read articles from around the world.

Former students who now serve as top government wildlife managers still call him "Doc" and remember his attention to detail, including constant questions, late night phone calls seeking details on bird sightings and an editing style that left reports bleeding in red ink.

"He'd drive us hard, but he'd drive himself hard," said Dennis Woolington, a Springer student who now serves as a wildlife biologist supervisor at the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex. "He expected a lot of effort out of you, but you felt like that was the right thing to do."

Colleagues recall qualities of Springer's other than his efforts to save the geese, describing a friend who invited them to his 50th wedding anniversary, rescued a homeless dog while on a field trip, practiced his Catholic faith, held going-away parties for former students who moved and called those he taught decades ago.

"He was totally a gentleman and he treated others the way he wanted to be treated," said Byrd, who sent an e-mail to colleagues and friends to inform them of Springer's death.

"Paul will be missed by many more than those of us who worked with him on the recovery of Aleutian geese," Byrd wrote. "He was the kind of man who modeled what a teacher, a wildlife professional, and, from all accounts, a father and a husband should be."

A visitation will take place May 6 at 5 p.m. at Paul's Chapel in Arcata. A funeral will take place May 7 at 10 a.m. at St. Mary's Church in Arcata.

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