Heartbreaking is the only way to describe it. On the afternoon of New Year's Eve 2011-12, the American conservation community lost a young, fearless and inexhaustible advocate.
David Gaillard, 44, of Bozeman, Montana, died in an avalanche while cross-country skiing the Hayden Creek drainage, located in the Absaroka Mountains just beyond the back northeastern doorstep of Yellowstone National Park. He was with his wife Kerry Corcoran Gaillard, who was not caught in the slide. (It was initially feared that their dog, Oly, also was lost in the avalanche but the dog survived...a terrific story on Oly's homecoming can be found here
A proud graduate of the Yale School of Forestry and Williams College, Gaillard came West in 1990 seeking to groundtruth what he learned in the classroom. He worked for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Predator Conservation Alliance and, for the last five years, Defenders of Wildlife. His special interest was with carnivores, which are key indicators of ecosystem health.
Gaillard was at his most passionate in giving voice to a suite of forest and mountain dwellers many of us take for granted because they are so elusive and seldom seen. The animals on this list include the wolverine, Canada lynx, fisher, and pine marten.
"People will protect the things that are right before their eyes," he told me in 2011 as I was writing a story about wolverines, then being considered for federal protection as a result of a listing petition that Gaillard himself helped craft. "If people can't encounter these animals directly, then I at least want them to realize they are out there—and they need our help. Otherwise, they could easily disappear without anyone knowing the difference."
Gaillard, a lanky, red-headed outdoorsman, loved traversing through snow on skis and snowshoes. He wasn't the kind of conservationist who saw himself as a town crier; rather, he was a celebrator of wild places. During the course of his career, he attended countless public meetings and dared to testify before hostile audiences that automatically equated species protection with loss of jobs. He delighted most in sharing anecdotes about the life histories of wolverines and lynx, encouraging folks to learn what their tracks look like in the snow and to take up the mantle of "citizen science" by sharing information they gleaned from their own backcountry adventures.
In 2011, as the U.S. Forest Service in Wyoming deliberated over whether it will open the Hoback Basin and Wyoming Range to oil and natural gas drilling—bringing industrial strength development to an important wildlife corridor—Gaillard erected remote controlled cameras. He wanted viewers to objectively see for themselves that the areas targeted for energy production were used by a wide variety of critters, including hunters and outfitters drawn to mountains unblemished by pumpjacks and air pollution. For an example of David's handiwork, enjoy the video below (click on the lower corner of player to bring it to full screen).
Gaillard had many friends in the conservation movement. Not long ago, Defenders
magazine published a story about wolverines and global warming written by Douglas Chadwick and in it Gaillard was quoted: "Nobody can say for sure what the future may bring," he said. "But I want to be able to look my daughter in the eye and say we are doing everything we can to prepare lynx, wolverines and other wildlife that she loves for the big changes ahead."
Gaillard delivered on his promise. His daughter can always know that her Dad did everything he could to remind us that wild places matter. Condolences go out to David's family and close friends.
Here is a testimonial from Louisa Willcox
, the Bozeman environmentalist a generation older than Gaillard, who was a mentor to Gaillard and, as coincidence would have it, a graduate of Williams and the Yale School of Forestry:
"When I met David, fresh out of college, what impressed me most was his openness to life and to learning, and his interest in making the world a better place. He had a kindness and freshness about him that never eroded over time, as happens to many in his controversy-ridden line of work, that of saving endangered species. He sailed through the waters of conservation and of life with genuine compassion and curiosity for animals and people alike -- and a wry sense of humor. David was distinguished by his red hair, but more than that, a smile that displayed sweetness and a deep soul. David's sweet, joyful spirit will be missed by all those who knew him."Here is another moving tribute from Steve Gehman,
a noted Greater Yellowstone region ecologist who first cut his teeth as a grizzly bear researcher and co-founded the organization Wild Things Unlimited with wife Betsy Robinson. The couple took Gaillard under its wing and helped him perfect tracking techniques and develop the use of remote cameras. Defenders of Wildlife and Wild Things Unlimited also have been champions of forest carnivore conservation:
"Dave was my friend and colleague, and a warrior for wildlife," Gehman says. "He devoted his career to the pursuit of better policies and management decisions for wildlife, especially carnivores. While most of his work was done via the computer, the telephone and the meeting room, my most cherished memories of Dave are from our times together in the field.
"Dave worked for Wild Things Unlimited as a wildlife technician during the winter of 2005-2006, and as such he participated in snow-tracking of wolverines and lynx, and helped to document the lives and activities of these unique and rare carnivores. In the snow-covered forests of Montana, Dave was strong, competent, and truly alive. He told me numerous times after that winter that it had been his most enjouyable and fulfilling job.
"Dave was a strong believer in the power of education and the value of involving citizens in the collection of scientific information. He developed and participated in several citizen-science projects, with the goal of training and encouraging people to gather and report information related to wild carnivores. During our workshops, it was evident that Dave's fun-loving nature and serious devotion to wildlife conservation inspired others to discover and develop their own connections to wildlife."And a remembrance from Tom Skeele
, co founder with Phil Knight of the Predator Project which morphed into the Predator Conservation Alliance where David worked between his time at GYC and Defenders. Here is an excerpt...you can read Tom's full illuminating paean to David in the comment section, below.
"Sometimes it takes reflection born of loss to realize how intertwined two people have been. Such is the case for me and DG," Tom writes. "As I have been thinking about him of late, I guess I never really thought through how much our lives tracked on similar paths. In ways I’ve not likely realized the depth of before, we were brothers – of wild places, of The Wild Bunch, and of education and advocacy on their behalf.
"David and I grew up in neighboring towns in southwestern Connecticut, both more groomed by our upper middle class surroundings for success in the wilderness of NYC, than the Northern Rockies. We both headed west at about the same times in our lives, right out of college – bigger landscapes called to us. And both of us also started our careers in environmental education and wilderness adventure, before shifting to environmental conservation and advocacy."
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If you have any memories of David, you are welcome to share them in the comment section. A special page set up on Facebook by his closest friends, "Remembering Dave Gaillard", can be accessed by clicking here