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  • Patrick Durkin

Time to Turn Great Wildlife Book into a Wisconsin Classic

Updated: May 16

Here’s a book every Wisconsin hunter, birder, trapper and all-around history-loving conservationist should own: “Wildlife in Early Wisconsin: A Collection of Works by A.W. Schorger.”


Unfortunately, scant few people possess this book, and they’re about the only ones who know it exists. In fact, they might identify their copy by its plastic-combed binding. Given such a modest cover, many copies of “Wildlife in Early Wisconsin” probably got tossed absent-mindedly into recycling bins years ago when loved ones dusted the den.


Bob Costanza, 51, of Glen Haven hopes to change that. He learned of Schorger’s book in 2010 while working with Michael Mossman, then a forest ecologist with the Department of Natural Resources’ bureau of science services.


Costanza found Schorger’s insights into Wisconsin’s wildlife history so fascinating that he wanted his own copy. Unfortunately, the 1982 book has long been out of print and unavailable, even on Amazon.com, so Costanza contacted the student chapter of The Wildlife Society at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. No one he first reached at the university knew of it, but Costanza persisted and eventually emailed a cover photo he found online.


The photo rang a bell at the UW-SP Wildlife Society, and someone found a copy of the book. Equally important, they found a student volunteer to scan the 585-page book into a PDF file and send it to Costanza.


The book was originally compiled by former UW-SP College of Natural Resources students Kay M. Brockman and Richard A. Dow Jr. from 1979 to 1982. The book features at least 25 of Schorger’s articles and published papers from scientific journals of the 1950s and ’60s.


Brockman-Mederas retired from the DNR in 2021 after nearly 31 years as a wildlife biologist. She recalls UW-SP’s Wildlife Society doing three limited printings of Schorger’s book, and thinks Professor Ray Anderson originated the idea while serving as the chapter’s faculty adviser. She said other Wisconsin professors and fabled conservationists like Walter E. Scott, Robert A. McCabe, and Frederick and Frances Hamerstrom also pushed the project enthusiastically by sending every Schorger article they could find.


“It was quite the process and undertaking,” Brockman-Mederas said. “We didn’t have computers, PDF files or laptop computers back then. We just had two scissors and a Xerox copy machine to piece everything together.”


Still, she said their work didn’t compare to what Schorger put into his research about the pre-1900s history of Wisconsin wildlife. She said his work remains relevant, and is even more important than it was 40 years ago.


Costanza hopes to find an organization to republish the book and keep it in print. He considers “Wildlife in Early Wisconsin” as valuable as Schorger’s earlier renowned books, “The Passenger Pigeon: Its Natural History and Extinction” (1955), and “The Wild Turkey: Its History and Domestication” (1966).


So, who was Arlie William “Bill” Schorger (1884-1972), who entered the Wisconsin Conservation Hall of Fame in 2018 (https://wchf.org/arlie-bill-schorger/)? Schorger hunted rabbits and squirrels, but also quail and mourning doves. He spent the first part of his career as a chemist, inventor and businessman before becoming a wildlife-management professor at UW-Madison. He also served on the state Conservation Commission, now the Natural Resources Board; and as president of the Wisconsin Academy of Science, Arts and Letters.


Schorger was a relentless researcher and fact-checker, which made him ideal for writing “Wildlife in Early Wisconsin,” a project he conceived with Aldo Leopold in 1937. In the book’s 1982 preface, McCabe wrote that Schorger based most of his insights on data he painstakingly collected from weekly newspapers published before 1900.


Initially, Leopold and Schorger assigned that task to wildlife-management students, who read weekly newspapers, county by county, writing down all reports about the state’s natural history. The UW-Madison students lost interest within two years, however, and Schorger stepped in, recording all information longhand on notecards the next 15 years.


Joseph J. Hickey — Leopold’s successor at UW-Madison after Leopold died at 61 in 1948 — wrote what became the memoriam that begins Schorger’s book. Hickey said Schorger’s typed notes from those handwritten notecards filled 796 pages. Hickey said Schorger likely started his newspaper readings in 1930, and estimated the project took nearly two decades.


After all, this was long before the internet and Newspapers.com, which offers nearly 757 million pages of historical U.S. newspaper pages for online searches. Instead, Schorger often visited the State Historical Society library daily to review “the literature” in old state newspapers.


Schorger told Hickey that an exasperated librarian at the Historical Society once told him: “I have moved more tons of papers for you than for any other 10 persons in Wisconsin.” He countered, telling her that dust on the library’s newspapers was causing excessive laundry bills.


Schorger converted all that data and findings into scientific reports during his final 20-plus years after becoming a professor of wildlife management in 1951. Hickey said Schorger cited the source of every reference throughout his career, including 2,200 references in his passenger pigeon book and 2,600 references in his turkey book.


No detail escaped Schorger’s interest. When he worked from June 1932 to March 1950 with the Burgess Cellulose Co., for example, he drove weekly to its factory in Freeport, Illinois. Those 693 trips totaled 97,020 miles, with Schorger counting 4,939 dead birds among the 64 bird species he identified. The road-killed birds included 2,784 house sparrows, 389 red-headed woodpeckers, 310 robins, 271 pheasants, 235 screech owls, and 230 flickers.


Schorger’s book includes chapters on early Wisconsin’s elk, quail, otters, crows, ravens, bison, beavers, moose, squirrels, black bears, ruffed grouse, wild turkeys, prairie chickens, trumpeter swans, passenger pigeons, white pelicans, sharp-tailed grouse and white-tailed deer. He also wrote about the history of steel traps, wolves, coyotes, ginseng, rattlesnakes, wild honeybees, and wildlife restoration.


Hickey said he knew no man more fascinated and enthusiastic about wildlife history than Schorger, writing: “(He) seemed to know Daniel Boone better than he did his own father. His lecture on ‘Wildlife in early Kentucky’ was replete with human and wildlife ecology.”


Given such endorsements, let’s hope Costanza (bobcostanza@gmail.com ) finds an organization to reprint “Wildlife in Early Wisconsin” and make it part of our permanent history. Until then, here is a link to the book, via the Wisconsin Conservation Hall of Fame: https://wchf.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/05/WildlifeInEarlyWisconsinBook-AWSchorgersm.pdf.

A Wisconsin man hopes to get “Wildlife in Early Wisconsin” back into print so more people can enjoy the insights and hard work by its author, A.W. Schorger, a member of the Wisconsin Conservation Hall of Fame. — Contributed photos


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