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Ecology & Environmental Sciences - Mac’s World

As a leading conservation biologist, Malcolm Hunter acts globally and locally

by Kristen Andresen

Mac Hunter

Mac Hunter

To fully understand Malcolm “Mac” Hunter’s story, you need to know about the Richmond firehouse.

The year was 1974. That spring, Hunter earned his bachelor’s in wildlife science from the University of Maine, and a few months later, he was getting settled in at the University of Oxford where he would eventually earn a Ph.D. in zoology as a Rhodes Scholar. He had grand plans of becoming an international wildlife biologist, trotting the globe, spending a few years in Brazil, maybe a few years in Africa. He figured he’d come back to Maine eventually, when he was ready to settle down.

But he had some unfinished work to do back in his home state of Maine. Richmond, to be exact. There, he was part of a conservation project involving Merrymeeting Bay, and he flew back to attend a meeting where some critical decisions would be made.

There were 25 people in the firehouse that night.

Hunter knew almost every one of them.

Later that evening, as he drove back to his family home in Damariscotta, he had an epiphany.

“I realized I had a connectedness to Maine I would never achieve if I spent two years in Brazil, two years in East Africa, et cetera,” Hunter recalled. “That night, I changed my plan. I decided I would come back to Maine as soon as I finished at Oxford.”

He returned in 1978 and spent five years working as an assistant research professor at UMaine, scraping together just enough money to keep peanut butter on the table, biding his time until he could become a tenure-track professor.

Three decades later, Hunter is UMaine’s Libra Professor of Conservation Biology. In 1996, he was named the University of Maine Distinguished Professor. He has written the definitive textbooks on both conservation biology, and wildlife and forestry management, among others. In short, he is a giant in his field.

“The current global movement of conservation biology remains incomplete without Mac,” says Pralad Yonzon, the chair of the Resources Himalaya conservation group who earned his Ph.D. from UMaine. “He is a household name in conservation, even in India and Nepal. He believes that the global community requires regional conservation leaders and country-specific pathfinders to address biodiversity conservation.”

As it turns out, Hunter’s plans to become an international wildlife biologist and to stay in Maine weren’t mutually exclusive. His research and conservation work in 25 countries focus on biological diversity and forests, ranging from the interactions among the smallest fauna, including reptiles and amphibians in vernal pools, to the implications for large-scale phenomena, such as regional fragmentation of ecosystems. He has helped UMaine students in 11 travel-study courses to three continents discover the wonders of the natural world, and conducted groundbreaking efforts to maintain the state’s forestry industry while conserving wildlife and delicate ecosystems.

For the last 30 years, Hunter hasn’t just thought globally, he’s acted globally — and locally. Such a perspective, he says, provides a more holistic view of how to tackle larger problems.

“Ultimately,” says Hunter, “it’s all about human institutions and how one changes the world.”

Earlier this decade, he served as president of the Society for Conservation Biology and earned the international organization’s Distinguished Service Award for his leadership. But when Hunter started out, there was no such thing as the Society for Conservation Biology because the field didn’t exist.

The discipline emerged in the late 1980s, and at first, Hunter was skeptical because it seemed like an expansion of wildlife management. However, the need for an international, interdisciplinary approach to conservation soon became apparent. Today, marine scientists, social scientists, biologists, wildlife managers and others have joined the effort.

Professionally, Hunter has served on two White House task forces — one on biodiversity, the other on spotted owls. He chaired the environmental committee of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, and he serves on the board of The Nature Conservancy, among his many accomplishments that are too numerous to list. But while all of this is very impressive, his classroom work is equally important.

“My overriding goal is to convince my students that the natural world is really interesting and we should take steps to conserve it,” Hunter says.

His message is powerful and his teaching style is inimitable. As one former student says, “Mac doesn’t tolerate sloppy thinking.” He believes in the power of mentorship and considers his wife, UMaine professor of wetlands ecology Aram Calhoun, and former department chair Ray “Bucky” Owen to be great role models. Just as Hunter has been a role model to so many.

gorilla

During his travels, Malcolm Hunter has had many opportunities to get close to creatures great and small. While Hunter was taking its photograph, this gorilla had its hand on his knee. The photograph was taken in 1988 during a trip to Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo.


“Mac believes more in a large patch of growing trees rather than a few old giant trees because the future is all about growth,” Yonzon says. “He is not only my mentor but my global comrade-in-arms in conservation biology. Actually, I have become a devout believer in mentorship — what you sow is what you get.”

With this approach, it is hardly surprising that many of Hunter’s former students have gone on to become leaders in the field, both nationally and internationally. One of those students, James Gibbs, coauthored the most recent edition of Hunter’s Fundamentals of Conservation Biology.

Gibbs, now a professor of conservation biology and herpetology at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, says Hunter was a positive force during his undergraduate days, and he continues to have an influence.

“Mac invested an immense amount of time in teaching me how to write, how to be a professional and how to think,” Gibbs says. “He is so dedicated to the welfare of biological diversity you can’t help (but) get infected by his devotion.

“He also confirmed for me that it was fine to aspire to do first-rate science, get papers out in all the best journals, and learn how to do fancy stuff with computers, but also important to know your shrews, what they eat and where to find them — that is, to remain connected to field realities.”

Hunter practices what he preaches. At home, Hunter and Calhoun have turned their landscape into a sanctuary for amphibians and reptiles. He is an avid nature and wildlife photographer. He initiated efforts that will ultimately conserve more than 60,000 acres in Maine’s Penobscot Valley.

When asked about his favorite place on Earth, he speaks reverently about the Okavango Delta in northern Botswana. It is a place filled with wetlands and forested islands — a “spectacularly beautiful landscape” where he has walked among elephants and slept with lions prowling around his campsite.

“Being in a place with big, dangerous animals makes you come alive,” he says.

golden toad

Hunter photographed this golden toad in Monteverde, Coasta Rica, in the early 1980's. Several years later, the species went extinct.

Hunter has seen incredible changes in the world and acknowledges that these are challenging times. Species have disappeared. Climate change looms like a storm on the horizon. Population growth and mass consumption have both put tremendous stress on our natural resources.

His travels — particularly to developing nations and places of intense poverty — have underscored how difficult it can be to think about conservation when you can’t even put a meal on the table. Desperate situations often lead to shortsighted solutions that threaten the environment.

One of his more poignant photographs depicts the golden toad, a few years before it went extinct. But for every horror story, he has a success story, as well — like the wood duck. The species was on the verge of extinction, but once people stopped overhunting it and started providing nest boxes, things turned around. Now, it’s doing great.

In Maine, Hunter has worked with a team at the Holt Research Forest near Bath to study forest management practices to maintain biodiversity. His findings are encouraging; their implementation is not.

“The good news is that it’s clear you can cut the forest in ways that produce timber and still sustain ecological integrity,” Hunter says. “(Unfortunately,) it isn’t always done that way, especially with the movement away from long-term forest owners. With that I’ve seen a lot of less-than-ideal forest management practices, in particular cutting the forest in very short rotations.”

Still, Hunter remains optimistic, in part because of the work he and his colleagues have done to protect the environment and convince others to do the same. For inspiration, all he has to do is look out his window at home, at the thriving forest that has risen from a former industrial site.

“I see signs all around me of how resilient nature can be, given half a chance,” Hunter says. “Any number of species once on the brink of extinction are doing very well now because we figured out how to give them a chance. It does take people making the right decisions. And often not acting in our own short-term, selfish interest is required.”


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