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ASU life sciences professor wins national conservation award

President's Professor Andrew Smith

President's Professor Andrew Smith (right) with a Tibetan pastoralist whom Smith encountered regularly on his visits to China's Qinghai Province from 1990-2013.
Photo by: Maxwell Wilson

July 17, 2015

For his lasting contribution to the conservation of mammals and their habitats, the American Society of Mammalogists has given the Aldo Leopold Award to Arizona State University professor Andrew Smith. The Aldo Leopold Award is named after an American scientist who is considered to be the “father” of wildlife ecology and management.

“I am deeply honored to receive the Leopold Conservation Award from the American Society of Mammalogists,” said Smith, a President’s and Parents Association Professor with the School of Life Sciences. “Aldo Leopold was a giant and everyone working in conservation today stands on his shoulders.”

Smith received the award for his decades of research in the behavioral ecology of mammals and the effects of habitat fragmentation and ecosystem services provided by small mammals. One of his more recent projects highlighted the importance of China’s Tibetan Plateau pika. He is also known for creating the School of Life Science’s Conservation Biology degree program, which is one of the first formal programs of its kind in the nation.

Found in parts of Asia, a pika is a small, rabbit-like mammal with short limbs, rounded ears and no external tail. According to Smith, the Chinese government has viewed the species as pests — frequently poisoning the population in hopes of extermination.

However, Smith’s research found that the pika is a keystone species in the area. Smith said their burrows lessen erosion and runoff created during summer monsoons. Areas where the pikas were poisoned saw much greater levels of damage related to flooding.

“In my teaching at ASU and in my research, I stress the importance of ‘getting it right’ — not letting preconceptions cloud one’s perspectives or the outcomes of conservation interventions,” Smith said. “I am proud of our work on the Tibetan plateau, where many of the management decisions made by higher authorities have been made in a vacuum, without the benefit of data or analyses of potential outcomes. And many of the resulting outcomes are proving to jeopardize not only the plateau’s unique biodiversity, but also the sustainability and livelihood of the people who have called the plateau home for thousands of years.”

Once Smith’s research papers circulated throughout China, his colleagues in the area helped educate the government about the importance of the pika. Smith said initial efforts to stop the poisoning campaigns have been effective.

Coincidentally, Smith is connected to Aldo Leopold through more than conservation biology. Aldo Leopold’s first son, A. Starker Leopold, taught Smith’s wildlife conservation class at the University of California. Smith even wrote his first research paper on the pika as a part of his class.

As part of winning this award, Smith will give the keynote speech during the 2016 American Society of Mammalogists’ annual meeting, where he also will be officially recognized for his accomplishments.