Eastern Cougar Foundation

Cougar Rewilding Foundation


In Memory of Dave Maehr

Dr. David S. Maehr was a member of the Eastern Cougar Foundation’s Board of Directors since 1999.  He was a pillar of strength, freely sharing his time and knowledge with us—both in the field and by helping us with writing and editing.  His opinions, expressed in email and telephone conferences, were intelligent and well thought out.

At Friday noon, June 20, Dave was in a small airplane, over the Placid Lakes Airport in Highlands County, Florida, with the pilot, Mason Smoak, a local citrus grower.  They had gone up to monitor the local bears.  The Piper J-3 Cub apparently went into a stall and then spun into the ground.  Both men were killed.  Maehr was 52 years old.

Here is a video tribute to Dave filmed while Jay Tischendorf and Steve Ropski were banding ferruginous hawks in Montana (if you have dial-up internet connection, you may not be able to download it): http://www.straymoose.com/DavesMemorial.wmv

Todd Lester, Co-Founder and Past President of ECF, says, “When I first read the subject headline in the email, I just had a sick feeling come over me and hoped it was some kind of misprint.  My heart goes out to his family as I can only imagine the grief they are now having to deal with.

“I remember reading newspaper and magazine articles back when I was in the Air Force and stationed in Florida that highlighted Dave's work on the Florida Panther Project and I admired him and his position being able to work so closely with the Florida Panther.

“Then years later, seeing the ECF come together and having him play a big role in it was just great to see and be a part of.  I've talked with Dave mostly via emails, but I had the pleasure to meet him in person when we were putting the remote camera project together and that's now a memory I will always be proud of.

“It just reminds me, that we really don't appreciate what we have until its gone.  Dave will be missed as a friend to all of us and cougars in the East lost a big supporter.”

Helen McGinnis adds, "I met Dave only twice, once when he drove all the way from Lexington, KY to Beckley, WV to participate in our Field Advisory Committee meeting just before Todd set out the 20 cameras he’d purchased using grants from the Summerlee and Norcross Foundations.

"Most people commemorating Dave write about their times with him in the field.  I never had that opportunity.  My interactions were mainly through the Internet.  Whenever I had a question or wanted assistance with a newsletter article and Dave was in the office, he was quick to respond.  Usually his responses were brief and to the point, but often it took a long time to download them because a pdf copy of yet another of his articles was attached.  It was only after his death that I learned that as of 2005, he had published 120 articles!

"In 2002, Jim Cardoza and Susan Langlois published an article in the Wildlife Society Bulletin entitled, “The eastern cougar: a management failure?”  They pointed out the lack of evidence in the East and called for a review of the status of the cougar, preparation of a recovery plan, and investigation of the practicality of restoration.  Dave responded with another article in the same journal: “Eastern cougar recovery is linked to the Florida panther: Cardoza and Langlois revisited.”  He listed four of us ECF members as co-authors to give our organization some professional recognition even though he wrote the article.

"After Dave’s death, I read that he liked an argument for its own sake and that he had little hesitation in saying what he thought.  I wasn’t aware of that, probably because I almost always agreed with him.  I also appreciated his willingness to discuss the dreaded “R word”—reintroduction, in relation to Florida panthers.

"From time to time we talked about the need for members of our far-flung group to get together face-to-face.  Dave had offered his getaway in Kentucky.  Now it will never happen."

Dave was a author of more 120 articles and author or co-author of three books: THE FLORIDA PANTHER (1997), LARGE MAMMAL RESTORATION (2001), and FLORIDA’S BIRDS (originally published in 1990, with 12 printings, and then reissued in a revised version in 2005).

Among the many positions he held was Science Fellow in The Rewilding Institute, which like ECF, advocates the restoration of the cougar to the East.  His work and his passion for wildlife and conservation will live on in his writing, in more than two dozen graduate students, and hopefully in the successful restoration of cougars to the East. 

Here is more information on Dave:

His Death as Reported by the Herald-Leader.

Plane crash kills UK professor

Was conducting bear survey in Fla.

By Jillian Ogawa

Maehr was associate professor of wildlife and conservation. File photo by David Stephenson | Staff
Maehr was associate professor of wildlife and conservation. File photo by David Stephenson | Staff

David Maehr died Friday pursuing his professional passion: wildlife.

The University of Kentucky associate professor was killed when the single-engine Piper Cub airplane he was riding in crashed mid-day Friday near Placid Lakes Airport in central Florida. The pilot, citrus grove owner Mason Smoak, also died. Maehr was the only passenger.

Maehr, 52, was an associate professor of wildlife and conservation biology in the Department of Forestry. He is known for his work reintroducing elk to Eastern Kentucky and his research on the black bear population in Appalachia. He also spent time protecting Florida's endangered panther population while previously working for the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission.

"He was very passionate about protecting Florida's large carnivores, the panther and the black bear," said colleague Tom Hoctor, a research associate at the University of Florida's GeoPlan Center. "It's devastating for us. ... It's hard to find folks who have the intelligence and passion to become the expert in his field and make the difference he was making."

Smoak and Maehr were conducting aerial surveys of Highlands County black bears as part of a multi-year project when they crashed, according to the Archbold Biological Station in Lake Placid, where Maehr was a visiting scientist while on sabbatical from the university.

"The plane came out of the sky and went straight into the earth," Capt. Paul Blackman of the Highlands County Sheriff's Office said witnesses told him. "It apparently stalled, did a 360 and went straight down."

The Federal Aviation Administration is investigating the crash.

In a statement, his family described Maehr as "always generous and giving of his time, energy, and devotion.

"David's professional legacy will live on through the over two dozen graduate students he mentored at UK, most of whom are now successfully employed throughout the country," said the statement. "He will be greatly missed."

Maehr has been a faculty member at UK since 1997.

"His dedication and commitment has been passed on to uncountable students, colleagues and lovers of wildlife," said College of Agriculture Dean M. Scott Smith in a statement.

Jeff Larkin was a graduate student under Maehr and now is an assistant professor of conservation biology at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

"It's more than just losing a mentor," Larkin said. "For me, he was much more than that, he was a father figure and a grandfather figure to my kids."

Colleagues said Maehr had a humorous personality. John Cox, an adjunct assistant professor of conservation biology at UK, said Maehr enjoyed scuba diving, playing the trumpet and caving.

Maehr is survived by his wife, Diane, and his two children, Erin Maehr of New York City and Clifton Maehr of Lexington, parents, brothers, and sister. Funeral arrangements are pending.

An Article from the University of KY Odyssey, 2005


UK Odyssey

From Here to Kingdom Come

Wildlife biologist wants bear and elk research to reach wide audience

by David Wheeler

Talking to Dave Maehr, you get the impression that he's always on the job. There was the time not too long ago, for example, when the wildlife biologist and UK associate professor of forestry was in bed recovering from hip surgery, taking strong pain medication. But he had also just begun a study on black bear recolonization in Eastern Kentucky and wanted updates from the field. Mike Orlando, a graduate student at the time, obliged. He took time to call Maehr in between tranquilizing bears and putting radio collars on them to track their movement.

Photo of mother bear with radio collar comforting her cubBlack bears left Kentucky in the 1800s due to hunting and deforestation, but they began to resurface a few years ago in Kingdom Come State Park in Eastern Kentucky. By putting radio collars on the bears, Maehr and his team are determining the size of the bear population, the area of their habitat, and the landscape features they seek out.

Photo credit: Dave Maehr

"One morning around 7:30, the phone rang, I reached over in my drug-induced stupor, picked up the phone, and heard blow-by-blow details of the bears they had caught," Maehr says.

He sits back in his swivel chair and continues. "Mike was whispering, 'Now Dave, there's a big male bear, looks like about 400 pounds, walking down the hill right now. We've got the dart rifle ready; we're going to go in; we're going to shoot him. Wait … wait … quiet ….'"


"There's a lot of rustling around, and then, 'We got him. Dave, I gotta go now.'"

Not long after that conversation, Maehr was back in the field.

He is not only dedicated to his work; he is also successful at it. Under his leadership, researchers are helping two species of large mammals flourish in a state where they had been extinct for more than a century. And according to Maehr, helping the animals means helping ourselves.

A bear of a project

Black bears left Kentucky in the 1800s due to hunting and deforestation, but they began to resurface a few years ago in Kingdom Come State Park in Eastern Kentucky. They have now been sighted in at least 20 Kentucky counties.

Black bears nearly overrun Maehr's office—photographs of them, anyway. But Maehr doesn't need the photos to visualize them; when he talks about the bears, you can tell by the look in his eyes that he is picturing them perfectly.

"The bear recolonization happened under the radar," Maehr says. "It began with males that trickled into Kentucky. It took an occasional female to make it over and meet up with a male or two in the Pine Mountain area close to Cumberland, and actually start producing cubs, before the population started to take off. That happened seemingly without anyone knowing about it. We can’t pinpoint a year where suddenly females were producing cubs and remaining in Kentucky their entire lives. It may have been anywhere from the early to late 1980s."

Maehr says the growing bear population is definitely a good thing. "What is so obvious to those of us who are in this field is that a healthy environment and all the attributes that go with it—the species, the processes, the competitive interactions that are out there—make for stable, healthy ecosystems. Those are very important to us, because that's where we came from. We evolved as a species in competition with lions and bears and hyenas and diseases and parasites. But I think technology has really separated us from that, and as a result of that separation we have allowed ourselves to become so much less appreciative of the environment that we easily degrade it. And that's problematic for our future as a species."

For conservationists, the bears' return is a positive development, indicating that Kentuckians have made their forests hospitable to the animals again. For tourists, the bears are an exciting reason to visit the Cumberland area.

Others, however, fear that bears pose a danger to residents. A June 2004 article in the Louisville Courier-Journal sums up the tension with its headline, The bears are back: Animals are an attraction, but can pose problems, too. "Just as bears can potentially hurt humans, the opposite is also true: Humans can hurt the bear population, out of fear or ignorance," says Maehr. Keeping both the bears and the people happy and safe is where his research comes in.

Photo of Dave MaehrMaehr was one of 20 academic environmental scientists in the United States selected to be Aldo Leopold Fellows. Recipients are chosen based on scientific qualifications, leadership ability, and an interest in communicating environmental science to a wide audience.

"Some people who live in areas where bears roam fear the animals because these people think bears will get into their garbage, scare their kids, or cause other kinds of damage. While this does happen occasionally, I think these fears are largely overblown."

Such a problem illuminates the scientist's true task, Maehr says. "I think that our ultimate challenge here is not so much to write papers and go to conferences, but to actually make conservation actions work on the ground."

Maehr launched a formal study of the bear population in 2002 with funding from the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife. By putting radio collars on the bears, Maehr and his team are determining the size of the bear population, the area of their habitat, and the landscape features they seek out.

One of Maehr's first findings was that, contrary to the perception of some residents, the bear population was not in the hundreds. "Within a week of capturing these first few animals, we started recapturing them. And it became increasingly clear that just a handful of animals was being seen in a lot of different places, giving the impression that there were a lot of bears." Over time, Maehr will be able to develop a more accurate estimate of the black bear population. For now, he hesitates to give a number.

In the future, Maehr hopes to acquire funding for Global Positioning System (GPS) technology for the bear study. He has already used such technology to study bears in Florida, and he is currently using it to study elk in Kentucky. GPS collars provide detailed profiles of movement, revealing how animals cross highways, move around human habitations, and negotiate topographical features like rivers, mountain peaks and mining areas.

"The kind of data we can get from these collars will be anywhere from two or three locations a day to as many as one location every 15 minutes for an individual animal, and that kind of data can help develop some pretty intricate movement profiles," Maehr says.

Welcoming the elk

In December of 1997, Maehr stood on a hillside in Eastern Kentucky near Robinson Forest and watched elk return to a place they had not inhabited in 150 years.

"I remember it like it was yesterday," Maehr says, "standing there on the hillside with 3,000 people who had been bused in from all over, watching the door open up from the trailer and seven elk running out. This very enthusiastic but subdued cheer went out, as if everyone knew if they made too much noise it would scare the animals. They ran up a hillside together in a loose herd, stopped, turned back and looked at everybody, and then they just disappeared into the woods."

The event heralded not only the reintroduction of elk into Kentucky, but also an unprecedented research opportunity. As the principal investigator of the elk restoration project, Maehr organized a symposium and edited a book based on the project, Large Mammal Restoration. He says the large mammal work in Kentucky revolves around two questions: How capable is the landscape in supporting permanent populations, and what is the likelihood that these populations will continue to grow?

So far, the growth of the elk population has been impressive: now, an estimated 4,500 elk roam a 16-county area in Kentucky, thanks in part to elk brought in from other states. Because elk are usually the dominant species in a given area, some people were initially concerned that the animals might heft too much muscle and begin to reduce the deer population.

Photo of a group of elk runningIn December of 1997, seven elk were released from a trailer in Eastern Kentucky near Robinson Forest. The growth of the elk population has been impressive: an estimated 4,500 elk now roam a 16-county area in Kentucky.

Photo credit: Dave Maehr

One of Maehr's graduate students studied this problem and came to a surprising conclusion. "The deer had a secret weapon in defending themselves against elk," says Maehr. "This is the brain worm—the more technical term is the meningeal worm—which is a native parasite in this part of the world. The brain worm doesn't affect deer; they're more or less immune. They've developed a resistance over hundreds of thousands or millions of years. But it's rather novel to elk, and it kills them."

Despite the parasite, the elk population is expected to reach 6,000 by summer 2005. Showing confidence in a stable elk population, the state issued 41 elk-hunting permits this year. Permission to hunt not only signifies a healthy population, but also reduces the likelihood that elk will damage crops and become a nuisance to farmers.

Hopes are high that the bear population will grow in a similar way. If the bear population shows stability, the state may one day issue bear-hunting licenses again. "The best measure of successful management of the bear population will be when it, too, is able to be hunted—when Kentucky once again restores the tradition of bear hunting that preceded their disappearance back in the 1800s," says Maehr.

Projects like the elk and bear studies are particularly important because large mammals require great amounts of space, draw public interest, and act as "conservation umbrellas," Maehr says. In other words, success in protecting the large mammals in a particular area translates as success in protecting everything else in that forested system.

The environment, apple pie and motherhood

Whatever he's studying, Maehr's research has one central goal: to protect nature. "No matter what one's politics are, everyone should agree on protecting the environment," Maehr says. "The environment should be the most non-partisan, 'apple-pie and motherhood' type of issue that we have in this country."

Through his research, Maehr wants people to realize that all the components of the natural landscape are essential to the survival of humanity. Though scientists are sometimes unsuccessful in communicating their environmental vision beyond academic audiences, Maehr won a prestigious fellowship for his ability to reach the lay person: In March 2004, he was one of 20 academic environmental scientists in the United States selected to be Aldo Leopold Fellows. Recipients are chosen based on scientific qualifications, leadership ability, and an interest in communicating environmental science to a wide audience.

"Scientists are pretty good about communicating with each other, but when it comes time to influence policy, you've got to be able to deal with a legislator or an administrator, and make them understand the issues," Maehr says. "You have to take a very straightforward and understandable approach."

For a wildlife biologist like Maehr, understanding people is as important as understanding animals: "I learned that wildlife management is 90 percent people management, and that is certainly true. Everything that we do here, whether it's on black bears or elk, is ultimately linked to people, and the values they have. Education is what it's all about. We’re doing this work so that we can apply what we learn to improve our lives."




Remembering the Florida panther's champion

June 29, 2008


The last time I heard from Dr. David Maehr, about three weeks ago, he invited me to go bear-tracking.

Dave was a gung-ho wildlife biologist, and he was always tracking something. I'd met him more than 20 years earlier, when he was catching panthers in the Everglades and collaring them with radio transmitters.

Now Dave was doing the same thing with Florida black bears, mapping their movements with the goal of protecting the species by preserving its native territory.

He'd bait the traps with doughnuts, which bears evidently cannot resist. He e-mailed photos of a young male that had figured out how to pilfer the pastries without tripping the trap. Dave admired the animal's ingenuity, but he was determined to outwit him.

I couldn't join Dave on that trip, so I didn't get a chance to speak with him again. He died on June 20 in a plane crash near Lake Placid. He was only 52.

Dave and a friend, grove owner Mason Smoak, had been tracking bears from the air, following signals transmitted from the collars. The accident wasn't a major news story outside of Lake Placid and Lexington, Ky., where Dave was a professor of conservation biology at the University of Kentucky.

Still, everyone who loves Florida should know about him. This is especially true in the celebratory afterglow of last week's startling announcement that the state intends to buy out U.S. Sugar and reclaim more than 100,000 acres of cane fields for Everglades restoration.

No one did more than Dave Maehr to save the the Everglades' most iconic inhabitant, the panther.

For 14 years he was employed by what was then called the Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission. He laid eyes on his first panther in January 1986 -- at the time, no more than 30 were thought to be alive.

Little was known about the remaining cats, and many experts believed that the species would be extinct before the turn of the century. Dave was determined to prove them wrong.

''The animal is not a biological lost cause,'' he later wrote.

Dave believed that habitat loss was the prime threat, and he began working closely with ranchers and farmers on whose lands the panthers often roamed.

He and his recovery team tracked and collared more big cats than anyone knew existed, over at least three generations. The radio telemetry and capture data provided important and surprising clues about the panther's vast range, its breeding habits, diet, mortality and adaptation to human encroachment.

Importing cougars

Gradually, a rich and detailed picture emerged of a creature so elusive and enigmatic that very few Floridians have ever seen one in the wild. I saw my first with Dave Maehr at my side.

Over time, he became the preeminent authority on panthers, writing or co-writing more than 20 scientific papers and a book that's still considered the definitive text: The Florida Panther: Life and Death of a Vanishing Carnivore.

He also ticked off some people. When reporters asked a question, he'd answer bluntly and with little regard for what his bosses might think. He was perpetually exasperated by the lead-footed bureaucracy of wildlife management, and he'd say so.

Dave didn't care about diplomacy. He cared only about saving the panther.

When Texas cougars were imported to breed with their Florida cousins, Dave wasn't shy about stating his misgivings. Such outspokenness didn't endear him to his superiors, and he eventually left the game commission.

(Introducing the cougars has reduced inbreeding and appears to have enhanced the survival rate of panther kittens, though the program remains controversial.)

For a short time Dave worked as a private environmental consultant and got slammed by former colleagues when he supported a development proposal near Naples. He was stung by the reaction to his findings and to the end insisted that his science had been sound, that the project wouldn't have harmed the panther population.

Dave returned to the academic world, got his doctorate and settled at the University of Kentucky. (The school has set up a David S. Maehr Memorial Fund, at www.cauky.edu/forestry/. All donations will go toward wildlife conservation projects).

Over the past year I'd been researching a children's novel set in the Big Cypress, and bugging Dave with questions about tracking panthers. He was patient, helpful and droll as always.

''I know this is going to sound strange,'' I said during one conversation, ``but what does panther poop look like?''

He gave me a clinical yet vivid description, adding that the odor was spectacularly vile. ''Be sure to put that in your book,'' he told me.

Dave leaves behind his wife, Diane; two grown children, Erin and Clifton; his parents, a sister and two brothers, along with scores of admiring colleagues and grad students.

He also leaves behind 80 to 100 wild Florida panthers, possibly more. The cats are still seriously endangered, but they're hanging on longer and in larger numbers than anyone had foreseen 20 years ago.

Who knows how few -- if any -- would still be left, if not for the extraordinary efforts of Dave Maehr and those who've followed him on the trails.


His Life and Family as Reported by LEX18, Lexington, KY

LEX18, Lexington, KY

Plane Crash Victim; Mother & Daughter Talk

The family of a U.K. professor who was killed when his small plane crashed in Florida says David Maehr died doing what he loved.

Sitting side by side Sunday, Maehr's wife and daughter told LEX 18 the man they loved made the world a better place. "I really looked up to him. He was a hero for me. I try to be like him, model my life after his, be as successful as he is. He was well liked," said daughter Erin Maehr.

The 52 year old Assistant Professor Of Conservation Biology was in Lake Placid Florida while on sabbatical from the University Of Kentucky. He and his pilot were surveying black bears from the window of a single engine Piper when the plane went down nose first just after noon Friday.

David Maehr was a published author and an accomplished artist. His wife Diane says David's passion for the world around him was simply contagious. "Work was a big part of his life. He died doing something he loved, which is some consolation. I wish we could all go that way, doing what we love," said Diane.

David's family plans to travel to Florida to visit the accident scene and tie up loose ends, however David will be laid to rest in Kentucky. "It's a celebration of his life. He'll live on forever in us. We may not see him physically but he's still here," said Diane

St. Petersburg Times

Bears and panthers will miss Dave Maehr

By Jeff Klinkenberg, Times Staff Writer
In print: Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Dave Maehr once caught a bear using a stale doughnut he bought at a Publix.
Dave Maehr once caught a bear using a stale doughnut he bought at a Publix.
[Carlton Ward Jr.]

Bear droppings excited Dave Maehr. "Today, I hope to share with you the elation of finding bear scat," he told me once during a trip to the Big Cypress. Bear scat meant bears were near.

He collected scat in plastic bags. He liked figuring out what bears had been eating. He'd find seeds, plants, garbage, bits of bone. From time to time he'd bait a trap and try to catch a live bear for study. One time we pulled his truck next to a trap, and when I stepped out of the truck I couldn't stop gagging.

He was using a long-dead bobcat for bait.

"No need to change the bait yet," he said, hunkered joyously next to the decaying cat. "Bears like rotten stuff."

Maehr knew bears and Florida panthers better than anyone I ever knew. He studied them for the Florida Wildlife and Conservation Commission and later the University of Kentucky.

I have never known a scientist who so enjoyed getting dirty. We'd travel first by pickup truck or swamp buggy and finally on foot. Then we'd wade through the mud. I was with him when he caught panthers. I was with him a year ago when he caught a fine bear that had been fooled by a stale doughnut he had bought at Publix.

I never flew with him on one of his aerial surveys. I get nauseous in small planes. He did, too, though that never kept him on the ground. He'd fly low over the Big Cypress and the Lakes Wales Ridge and look for his study animals.

He was killed in a plane crash on Friday. He and pilot Mason Smoak were looking for bears near the little Central Florida town of Lake Placid when the engine stalled. I'll miss him. So will the bears and panthers.

Maehr, 52, was a complicated man, fiercely competitive, arrogant, passionate, funny, human. Ask a question, and he'd never weasel. He would answer candidly, bureaucrats be damned. He was always getting in hot water with bosses at the wildlife commission.

He was the guy interviewed by the New York Times and National Public Radio, the scientist featured in National Geographic documentaries. If he thought something was stupid, he'd say, "That's stupid." He irked the hell out of some people.

He was a prolific writer. Florida's Birds, a guide he co-wrote with his mentor, the late Florida Audubon ornithologist Herb Kale, is carried by thousands of Floridians during outdoor jaunts. He literally wrote the book on our state's cats, The Florida Panther: Life and Death of a Vanishing Carnivore. It has been in print more than a decade.

He wore out his welcome at the commission, got a doctorate at the University of Florida and became, briefly, a wildlife consultant in Southwest Florida. He angered environmentalists when he produced science that favored a developer; his science was attacked, and he was, too.

Last time we spoke, Maehr was still bitter about his treatment. He sent me a thick envelope full of studies he insisted proved his case.

The man liked to argue, and the subject seldom mattered. We argued about writing, sports, music and politics. Whatever your opinion, he tended to take the opposite side. I enjoyed our tete–a–tetes, but I'm not sure everyone did.

At the University of Kentucky, where he taught biology, he loved working with young scientists. Many are now working as wildlife biologists in Florida.

He also relished sparring with anti-evolution students required to take at least one science class. "What kind of a world are we living in?" he e-mailed me last year. "Sometimes I think we're headed back to the dark ages."

When his plane went down, he was working on a new book that he hoped would shed light on the plight of bears in Florida. Sadly, we will never get a chance to read it.


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