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RMC grad uses lifetime in science leadership to preserve nature and culture
BILLINGS, May 6, 2014 – “Protect the resource.” To preserve the common heritage of U.S. citizens, Milford Fletcher (’58) has dealt with a lot. In 1976 when firefightingbulldozers were cutting line, Fletcher, then Chief Scientist for the National Park Service (NPS) Southwest Region, stood in front of the blades to preserve archeological features of Bandelier National Monument.
He coordinated NPS efforts to remove burros at Bandelier because back in the 1930s, linemen stringing telephone wire had let a few loose after the wire was in. By the 1970s, 140 feral burros were each consuming 10 pounds of vegetation daily from the sparse Upper Sonoran desert, in competition with native wildlife. “And they stood on the walls and ruins,” Fletcher said.
More rewarding for Fletcher was his role in saving a charismatic species. In the mid 1970s, approximately 500 Atlantic Ridley’s sea turtles were left on the planet, all nesting in one remote Mexican beach area 200 miles south of Padre Island National Seashore. Because the 90-pound mothers laid their eggs during the day, Fletcher helped coordinate an international multiagency project to fill styrofoam boxes with Padre Island sand, dig a hole under the females in Mexico and catch their eggs, incubate and birth the hatchlings at Padre Island, let them go so they imprinted on their new surroundings, catch them after they entered the water, then haul them back to Galveston and raise them in protection for a year before re-releasing the yearlings. His efforts created what is still in 2014 only the second nesting population of the endangered sea turtle.
Texas has an “open beach” law that allows vehicles to drive on the beaches. “We got a bunch of little old Texas ladies to volunteer, and when we’d find a turtle track [leading to a nest], these women [would] sit there all day under an umbrella. If there was anything in the world that Bubba was afraid of, it was a 65-year-old grandma,” Fletcher smiles.
This paragon of the Park Service went to high school in Three Forks, Mont., before coming to Rocky Mountain College, where he took every life science class from his favorite teacher Charles Buck.
“He had a master’s degree,” recalled Fletcher. “Bacteriology, zoology, plant taxonomy … there were twelve of us biology majors, when we got serious about it. It was quite an interesting education. He gave us the guidance and turned us loose. ‘I’m learning right alongside you,’ [Buck] said.”
“I took early Christmas vacation and spent three weeks of winter trapping around home for neighbors with beaver permits, mink, muskrat, to get enough money to go back to school. Summer I’d work for my dad – he’d loan me his tractor and baler, and I’d bale hay for neighbors,” he said. He also had a scholarship from a Three Forks church, “what they called a federated church, that threw the whole bunch in together,” just like at RMC, where he was a pole-vaulter.
Fletcher since taught 13 years of junior high, high school, and college – “I was the first biology teacher at [Billings] West High, with Bill Baker, when there wasn’t a house for miles in any direction,” he said – but like many students, he struggled to find work after college.
“What I did was chase grasshoppers for a couple summers for the Agricultural Research Service [now APHIS].” He was a seasonal for three years, only allowed 90 days of work, but “one day they looked up and found I’d worked 92 days. After that I was a permanent employee with nine months’ leave of absence.” People then still had a little bit of a sense of humor, he said.
His master’s in plant physiology explored phototropism’s relation to geotropism, plants’ push away from gravity versus their push toward illumination. He hung plant beds sideways so he eventually measured the acceleration of gravity in units of lumens of light.
His doctorate topic in animal ecology came about because he was a spraying supervisor for the ARS in Montana and Idaho. “Once I sprayed 40 acres with Bidrin and killed every living thing on it. It was Silent Spring right there,” so at Washington State University, Fletcher researched the effects of hexachlorobenzene, a fungicide “they used all through that Palouse prairie as a wheat seed treatment,” noting its accumulations in bird tissues and effects on eggshells.
When he retired from the National Park Service after working simultaneously as Chief Scientist and Chief of Natural Resource Management for the region, then creating and for six years supervising the NPS Intermountain GIS Center, Fletcher had become an expert in rock art.
In 2008, he received the Richard Bice award for “Significant Archeological Contributions” from the New Mexico Archeological Society. “That’s been a lot of fun,” he said.
In 2014, 77-year-old Fletcher is a docent at the Albuquerque BioPark Zoo, where he corrects families who suggest that zebras are just horses who’ve escaped from jail. Changing the text is still a learning opportunity.
And his stand in front of the dozers? “Since then, there hasn’t been a large fire on Federal land that hasn’t had an archeologist as part of the management team,” Fletcher said.