There are over 300,000 deer in Idaho, 100,000 or more elk, thousands of wild cats and moose, and about 700 wolves.
Keeping close track of these numbers—and the humans who hunt them—is Bruce Ackerman ’75, a wildlife biologist and biometrician for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.
With each half of his job description, Ackerman follows both big game and big data from his Boise office, applying code and statistical models to keep, as he puts it, “both nature and man happy.”
Gray wolves, who were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho in 1995 based in part on Ackerman’s research, are the source of constant concern for farmers, hunters, and citizens in Idaho. “Some think reintroducing wolves was the right thing to do,” Ackerman says, “but some people may never get over it.”
Ackerman’s 1990 study, entitled “The potential impact of a reintroduced wolf population on the northern Yellowstone elk herd,” assured a wary public in Idaho and leaders at Congressional panels in Washington that wolves would not run rampant if reintroduced, but instead restore balance to the food chain.
“Twenty years later, most of what we said would happen did happen,” says Ackerman.
Ackerman credits his skills in programming learned at MIT with helping him produce such forecasts. “I learned Fortran at MIT, writing programs on cards, carrying the cards around…you couldn’t keep anything on a hard drive. It was awful! But I learned it pretty well.”
After grad school, Ackerman took a job with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in 1988, at a time when manatee numbers were dangerously low. “We got a lot more protection for manatees and their population increased. It’s such a unique animal…there’s only four similar species to it in the world. And there aren’t many endangered species where people can go see them every day, even swim up next to them.”
Access and R have replaced Fortran and Pascal on Ackerman’s desktop as he manages millions of records about both people and animals.
There’s plenty to do about bird species, too, a double concern for Ackerman who also sits on the board of the Golden Eagle Audubon Society of Idaho. The sage grouse, a popular bird for hunters, has made headlines out west this year.
“It’s falling in numbers and it’s being considered for the endangered species list,” says Ackerman. “They eat sagebrush and that’s being damaged by fires, ranching, cattle grazing, and energy development.”
Ackerman’s expertise in all things game has kept his schedule busy. Last week, he returned to Washington to help coordinate the National Survey on Fishing and Hunting and Wildlife Associated Recreation Survey. “It’s a five-year survey of who spends how much on fishing and hunting nationwide. It’s hard to believe, but these people spend an estimated $145 billion per year on these sports, which is more than on all professional sports combined,” he says.