Valerius Geist was a Titan of North American Conservation
Professor Valerius Geist of Canada didn’t need his green-trimmed suitcoat to stand apart from crowds, no matter their size or stations in life.
The man just looked famous, even to those who didn’t recognize his face or name. For instance, he had an engaging presence while silently navigating a commuter propjet’s narrow aisle, and when eagerly eavesdropping on deer biologists riding a shuttle to the local hotel convention center.
I know all that because I noticed but didn’t recognize Geist on a cramped flight from Detroit to Charlottesville, Virginia, in February 1994. After the plane landed, I ended up across from him on the hotel shuttle to the annual Southeast Deer Study Group meeting, which began the next day.
One night later, I wasn’t surprised to see him seated on the banquet room’s dais. He looked like he belonged. I glanced at the agenda. Clearly, this was Val Geist, the famous zoologist and professor of environmental science at the University of Calgary, and the conference’s keynote speaker.
After his introduction, Geist told roughly 400 deer biologists, deer geeks and agency policymakers what they should already know, but likely didn’t, about the conservation model that made their pursuits possible. One minute he shamed them into stunned silence, and the next minute roused them into loud laughter, never letting them predict his next comment.
I recorded Geist’s 30-minute speech that night on an old microcassette tape recorder. That recording is the only one in a shoebox of cassette and microcassette tapes that I’ve saved digitally.
I listened to it again after learning that Geist died July 6 at age 83. Though the audio is poor, the recording let me admire once more his wisdom and Germanic accent. As his obituary notes, Geist had relentless courage, a limitless personality and endless perseverance. Those adjectives aren’t superfluous. He was an intense, passionate man with a big heart and massive intellect.
Geist was born in 1938 in Ukraine, and his family became World War II refugees who fled Russia to Germany in 1943 after his father died in battle. He was a sickly boy, and never forgot the kind U.S. soldiers who took over his village in 1945. He and his mother immigrated to Canada in 1953, and he later earned a doctoral degree in zoology at the University of British Columbia by studying the behavior and evolution of American mountain sheep.
Geist was a widely published researcher, but also wrote over a dozen books on human evolution and North American big game such as elk, sheep, moose, buffalo, mule deer, whitetails and pronghorn. He also wrote often about wolves, and believed the best way to ensure the species’ long-term survival is to instill and reinforce their fear of humans.
Anthropologists and biologists will long debate and sometimes dismiss Geist’s many theories and predictions about animal behavior and evolution, but most admire him. Jim Heffelfinger is a distinguished UW-Stevens Point alumnus, a researcher at the University of Arizona, and the wildlife science coordinator for Arizona’s Game and Fish Department. Heffelfinger considers Geist a giant in “ecology and beyond.”
Heffelfinger wrote: “Geist was a visionary who brilliantly sorted through ecological relationships to form theories about how things came to be and how they worked. Not all of his theories were supported by data, but they all made us think deeply. When a theory was later disproved, Val was gracious and accepting, and genuinely excited that we had more information about that topic to know his theory wasn’t valid.”
Geist’s colleagues also agree he will forever be known as the person most responsible for recognizing and defining North America’s unique system of private and public collaboration that saved many vulnerable wildlife species during the early 1900s.
John McDonald, a wildlife professor at Westfield State University in Massachusetts, credits Geist for being the first to define and list the principles now called the “North American Model of Wildlife Conservation.” When the Wildlife Society and Boone and Crockett Club published a 60-page technical report in 2012 (https://wildlife.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/North-American-model-of-Wildlife-Conservation.pdf) on “The Model,” its authors noted that Geist refined it to seven key principles by 1995 after exploring and developing them through articles and speeches the previous decade.
Geist’s seven principles are that wildlife is an international resource, its meat cannot be sold, it’s allocated by law, it can only be killed for legitimate purposes, its management is dictated by science, it’s publicly owned and managed through citizen-paid taxes, and hunting rights are determined democratically.
“It was likely inevitable that the model needed an immigrant to North America to have the perspective to recognize and articulate what was unique about wildlife conservation here,” McDonald said. “Geist contrasted it with the undemocratic, ownership-based European system. I expect ‘the model,’ as Geist described it, will be cited much the way political historians and pundits cite de Tocqueville's ‘Democracy in America’ to better understand what’s unique about our system of government; especially issues that involve privatization of wildlife and access to wildlife.”
Even in February 1994, however, Geist chided North America’s wildlife biologists for not being bigger champions of the model. He opened his Charlottesville talk by describing his suitcoat and its significance:
“Ladies and gentlemen, I stand in front of you in a somewhat unusual dress that I wear in Europe on some occasions. It is trimmed in green, and it tells everybody that I’m a hunter. It represents not only the traditions of wildlife husbandry and forestry, but the traditions of foresters and hunters who were the elite residents of Europe, beginning with insights into how to use these resources. …
“How many of you attend formal occasions in dress that proclaims you’re a hunter? Why not? Why are you ashamed? Of the many people in this room, you have earned more than anyone the right to be truly proud of this continent’s achievements in wildlife conservation, beginning about (1925) after the great decimation of wildlife. Your predecessors generated a system of wildlife conservation that is the sheer envy of civilized people elsewhere. This model returned the continent’s wildlife to the point where it generates problems of overabundance. Ladies and gentlemen, I’d much rather deal with problems of success than problems of failure.”
Despite Geist’s voluminous scientific theories and artistic, thought-provoking writings, his family said he saved his deepest exchanges for his wife, Renate, a bacteriologist and professional translator who died of breast cancer in 2014. Geist’s children said he knew the true value of love, great food, good company, challenging hunts and thoughtful conversation.
Fortunately for us, Geist shared his work widely before taking his leave.
Calgary’s Valerius Geist left an enduring conservation legacy by working tirelessly for over 60 years. — Patrick Durkin photo