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Author’s legacy offers hope for Arizona’s native wildlife

July 29, 2010

One Arizonan who recognized the value of the Southwest’s native wildlife was Wendell Lee Minckley, an ASU emeritus professor of biology. Minckley or “Minck,” as he was known to colleagues, came to ASU in 1963.

For the next 35 years, he delved into questions affecting the fate of native fish species, including fish surveys, management and stream renovation. He also described new species and examined the effects of fish stocking. His devotion to the region’s finned resources, their adaptations to extreme temperatures and silt-laden flood waters and their preservation kept Minckley writing even as he fell victim to terminal cancer in 2001. In addition to the more than 200 journal publications, books and book chapters he left behind, were drafts of two books, “Freshwater Fishes of Mexico,” published in 2006, and “Inland Fishes of the Greater Southwest: Chronicle of a Vanishing Biota.”

Released by University of Arizona Press in 2009, “Inland Fishes” builds on Minckley’s seminal work “Fishes of Arizona,” published in 1973. Co-author and longtime scientific partner Paul Marsh, retired faculty research associate from ASU’s School of Life Sciences and director of the Native Fish Laboratory in Tempe, Ariz., carried the project forward. The result is the most comprehensive collection of information about Southwest fishes available and an examination of the concerns facing the Southwestern state management of fish species and waterways. 

“'Inland Fishes of the Greater Southwest' addresses the ecological relationships between the fishes it describes and their environments, paying particular attention to the ways in which human interactions have modified aquatic ecosystems – and to how humans might work to ensure the survival of rapidly disappearing native species,” Marsh said.

Colorful plates and insightful history make this publication more than a field guide. Rather it is “a compendium of all that is known about fishes in the ‘greater Southwest,’” noted David Brown, who reviewed the book for the Game and Fish Department. Brown, a much respected author of books about Arizona’s wildlife and retired research professor with ASU, makes special note of the book’s “provocative discussion about native fish and the impact of non-native fishes, its status report on the region’s aquatic resources, and its comparison of strategies that might save the region’s fishes without impacting sport fishing.”

Brown also alludes with particular interest to the discussions about how humans have historically impacted the region, “especially the early fishing techniques of Native Americans and the impacts wrought by engineers who created the Salton Sea and tamed the Colorado River with reservoirs.”

What made Minckley so invested in preserving Arizona’s wildlife? Professor James Collins, Minckley’s longtime friend and colleague in ASU’s School of Life Sciences in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, believes that it was because Minckley was born in the midst of the Great Depression and the Great Drought in the American Midwest (1933-1942).

“During the Dust Bowl years, prairie communities – under the pressure of agricultural practices and drought – made it clear to scientists and non-scientists alike that man could permanently alter the landscape by ignoring its major resource – in this case, soils. After moving to the Southwest, that same realization regarding the relationship of man and water informed much of Minck’s research on aquatic ecosystems and their organisms – man could permanently, and negatively, alter aquatic habitats and their organisms.”

Minckley not only left a legacy in print and policy, but also as a mentor, Collins said.

Minckley’s students have gone on to become researchers, policymakers, educators and leaders in wildlife and fish management. Minckley alumni include experts, such as James E. Johnson, former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Cooperative Unit Leader, now retired from the University of Arkansas; Rob Clarkson, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (Phoenix); and Dean Hendrickson, curator of fishes, University of Texas Memorial Museum of Science and History. Kirk L. Young, Chief of Fisheries for the Arizona Game and Fish Department, was an undergraduate in two of Minck’s classes, and went on to work for him in a staff position after he graduated, and Heidi Blasius, an award-winning fish specialist with the the Safford office of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, cut her teeth as a graduate student in his laboratory.

“Minckley taught us that native fishes were evolutionary products of Arizona’s environment – introduced fishes were not,” said Brown, a longtime colleague. “It was that simple. The recent revitalization of such places as Fossil Creek and a much more enlightened attitude toward native fishes are monuments to Minck’s legacy, as are the students who’ve followed in his footsteps.”

“Inland Fishes of the Greater Southwest” received a notable mention in the 2009 Southwest Books of the Year competition, sponsored by the Pima County Public Library. This annual competition celebrates titles published over the past year that “represent the best reading about Southwest subjects and/or those set in the Southwest.”

Two other books from ASU School of Life Sciences faculty were also on this list for 2009, “When the Rains Come: A Naturalist’s Year in the Sonoran Desert,” by John Alcock, ASU professor emeritus, also published by University of Arizona Press, and “Arizona Wildlife: The Territorial years, 1863-1912,” edited by Brown, published by Arizona Game and Fish Department. A careful look at the author listing on the cover of Brown’s book will also reveal the touch of Arizona’s grand old man of fish studies: W. L. Minckley.