Q & A with DU Chief Scientist Tom Moorman, Ph.D.

Moorman discusses habitat conservation, issues facing waterfowl populations, and much more

Dr. Tom Moorman and Pek.

© John Hoffman, DU

Dr. Tom Moorman and Pek.

Dr. Tom Moorman leads Ducks Unlimited’s science team across all spectrums of the organization’s mission to conserve, restore, and manage wetlands and associated habitats for waterfowl, wildlife, and people. After nearly 30 years of working in conservation, Moorman is a walking encyclopedia of waterfowl and wetlands knowledge. His office is filled with whitepapers, waterfowl taxidermy, and, recently, a dog kennel, where his new black Labrador retriever puppy, Pek, sleeps as Moorman works. On any given day Moorman can be seen throughout DU’s national headquarters attending meetings, answering questions, or taking his pup for a bathroom break outside, where he throws in brief obedience lessons for the young hunter-to-be.

Ducks Unlimited magazine’s associate digital media editor, Mallori Murphey, caught up with Moorman to get his thoughts on duck hunting, the ever-changing science of conservation, and a few other odds and ends.

[Murphey] How did your professional path lead you to the position of Ducks Unlimited chief scientist?

[Moorman] As a child, I always had a keen interest in natural history, and especially fish and wildlife. I loved to hunt, fish, and trap. I decided to pursue an undergraduate degree in zoology. I had been to DU events but had no idea that that choice of career path would lead me to DU, nor really any idea of how DU delivered its conservation work. My interest in birds started early, in the backyard of my childhood home in Ohio, and then later in the form of waterfowl hunting, which became a true passion. During my undergraduate studies at Ohio University, I had an adviser who helped me understand graduate school possibilities in waterfowl ecology. I ended up at Auburn University for my Master of Science degree working with nesting wood ducks. My master’s adviser, Dr. Guy Baldassarre, also had students working with waterfowl at Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge in coastal Louisiana. Upon completion of my master’s degree, I opted to begin a PhD research project on mottled ducks at Rockefeller. I spent two years living in Grand Chenier and became good friends with the staff, including Tom Hess and David Richard. This was from 1987–1989. Then moved to Syracuse, New York to finish my PhD through the State University of New York–College of Environmental Science and Forestry and began searching for jobs, mostly in academia. I got a call one day from David, who told me that DU had asked if he knew anyone that would be a good candidate for a regional biologist at DU’s newly opened Southern Regional Office. He put me in contact with Don Thompson, I flew down to Jackson for an interview, and I got that job. As they say, the rest is history. Twenty-seven years later, after holding down just about every job a biologist could do for DU, I had the opportunity to apply for the chief scientist position. I wanted to do so mainly because I wanted to move my career away from the administrative work I had been doing and toward more waterfowl, wetland, and other science. Fortunately, I was hired, and while I have enjoyed each job I have done for DU over the years, I am enjoying this one the most by far!

Do your family and friends understand the complexities of what you do for a living?

Yes, to varying degrees I believe most of them do understand that we at DU are working to conserve wetlands on behalf of waterfowl. When I am in discussions with people I don’t know well, I always try to tell them what DU does, and if that leads to a discussion I sometimes convey the role of science as our foundation, and the role of science staff in keeping that foundation of our work strong and based on the most current science.

What is the top conservation focus for Ducks Unlimited today?

We work across North America, so it’s hard to pick a top conservation focus. However, purely from a biological perspective, the most important place we work to sustain waterfowl populations remains the Prairie Pothole Region. It has the highest densities of nesting waterfowl in North America, actually in the world, and for various reasons also faces some of the highest risk for habitat loss. There is not another place in North America that is as important for waterfowl, though we understand that these birds require habitat across the continent to fulfill their needs throughout their annual cycle.

What are some of the modern challenges that waterfowl and habitat conservation faces today?

Ultimately, nearly all the challenges faced by waterfowl are the result of competition with humans for habitat on key waterfowl landscapes. Native prairie grassland and wetland complexes remain under pressure from agricultural expansion. In many important migration and wintering areas competition for water between urban populations, agriculture, and wildlife is fierce—and wildlife and waterfowl often lose. Finally, a warming climate introduces uncertainty and threat to most landscapes important to waterfowl, so trying to understand the effects of a changing climate on waterfowl and their habitats is a huge and important challenge over the longer term. This is why we have to work with agriculture. Ultimately, sustainable agricultural practices can help us conserve waterfowl while helping producers conserve their land and increase their profit margins. These large-scale issues are also why it is important to engage in areas of public policy—because ducks cannot speak or vote—so DU seeks to further policies that are favorable to our mission.

What are the greatest threats to waterfowl populations in the 21st century?

Indifference of people to the plight of natural resources and their management. People conserve only what they value. If people lose their connection to waterfowl, wildlife, and wild places, they will also no longer value those things. If that happens we lose support for conservation broadly, and that has serious implications for waterfowl, wildlife, and people.

How has habitat conservation and research changed in the past two decades since you joined Ducks Unlimited?

It’s changed in many ways. Our ability to assess and model landscape change is dramatically more powerful than it was in 1991, which is an important tool for our conservation staff. I think the rigor of the scientific process, while it has not changed broadly, has been embraced and more robustly applied to waterfowl and wetland science. We have new techniques to mark and follow birds to gain insight on important life-history events. However, despite all those things, there is still much to learn.

Is there a certain species of waterfowl that intrigues you the most?

That’s kind of like asking a kid in a candy store what his favorite candy is, and I really find almost all waterfowl (and wild birds generally) extremely fascinating. If I had to pick a few species, I think snow geese, blue-winged teal, American wigeon, and mottled ducks would be at the top of the list—but it’s a long list.

We have heard some great stories from DU biologists, but what is the oddest waterfowl experience you have encountered during your tenure at Ducks Unlimited?

Over nearly 35 years as a waterfowl biologist I’ve seen and experienced lots of interesting things. While hunting on the shore of Lake Ontario as a grad student, I saw a bufflehead flying low over the choppy water totally wipe out when a wave popped up in front of him. Didn’t hurt him. He got up and flew away from the scene of the crash. While checking wood duck boxes in Alabama, I stepped on a submerged alligator. It startled us both equally, but I suspect it took my heart rate a lot longer to slow down to normal. I probably hold the distinction of falling in wetlands on the most landscapes across North America—I’ve taken the plunge from Canada to Mexico!

As the chief scientist for Ducks Unlimited and an avid waterfowl hunter, how do you balance work and play?

Not very well. As a DU biologist (and this is true for other DU positions, too), our work has never been an 8–5 proposition; there is just a lot of work to do. Whether it’s grant writing, working with volunteers, or helping out professional colleagues, there just happen to be lots of evenings and weekends. I try to block some time in December and January, and more recently a week in October to hunt in Canada. I’ve just never been one to stop working when there is work to be done, but I think most DU folks are that way because we believe in our mission!

If you were addressing the average waterfowl hunter, how would you explain Ducks Unlimited’s continental landscape habitat conservation focus?

Wherever you live in North America, if you hunt ducks, remember that most of these birds are highly migratory and they must have places to feed and rest across this continent. It starts, of course, with the most important landscapes in term of sustaining populations—breeding areas, especially the Prairie Pothole Region. However, these birds, depending on the species, must have habitat from the Arctic well into Mexico, and for a few, like blue-winged teal, as far south as Colombia. So we have to work everywhere the birds need habitat, and we have to be creative in how we fund that work since dollars are the limitation as far as how much we can do and how fast we can do it.

Does your background in waterfowl habitat and behavior benefit you as a waterfowl hunter? Any hints you can give readers?

I think so. Understanding basic food habitats, preferred water depth, and waterfowl behavior can be an advantage. Hunters that learn the life history and habits of their quarry are always the most successful.

What advice would you give to someone thinking about a career as a wildlife biologist?

Do it! It’s not a career that will make you independently wealthy. However, it is one where you will meet and work with the most dedicated, passionate people who really care about natural resources and leaving those resources in good shape for future generations. It’s also a career that can allow you to live in many beautiful places, or at least experience and work in many beautiful places. This profession is loaded with great people. And wildlife, waterfowl, and all natural resources are better off because of their passion and dedication.

Last question, but I have to ask: Where did you come up with your dog’s name?

“Pek” is Mayan for dog. His full registered name is Legend of Loco Pek. In Mexico, the Loco Pek is the name of a legendary monster called the Chupacabra. At least we think it is legend…I have not personally seen one yet!

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