On U-M Gateway: Historical letters in U-M zoology museum archive highlight links between specimen collection, conservation
Clark Schmutz spent more than 100 hours last semester reading and digitally scanning hundreds of letters in the correspondence files of the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology’s mammal collections, which date back to the 1800s.
The scanning project is a multiyear effort to make the museum’s correspondence files available online. For Schmutz, who graduated in December with a double major in English and ecology, evolution and biodiversity, it was also an opportunity to search for intriguing stories that illustrate the links between museum collections and conservation.
One day, inside a cardboard box he pulled from the stacks, Schmutz found a typewritten copy of a four-page study titled “Report on the qualifications and development of Isle Royale as a national park” by noted wildlife biologist and wilderness advocate Adolph Murie. It was dated June 13, 1935.
Murie received a doctorate from U-M in 1929 and soon went to work for the National Park Service, where he remained for more than 30 years. He is perhaps best known for studies of Alaskan wolves that led directly to the elimination of predator control at Mount McKinley (now Denali) National Park.
During his time at U-M, Murie conducted fieldwork on Isle Royale, a remote island in northwest Lake Superior, and he brought back more than 100 specimens—from moose jaws to deer mice to great horned owls—that remain in the Museum of Zoology collection. His book “The Moose of Isle Royale” was published by the University of Michigan Press.
“I recommend that Isle Royale be made a national park and administered as a wilderness area,” Murie wrote in his report to Park Service administrators. “Isle Royale is practically uninhabited and untouched. The element of pure wilderness which it contains is rare and worthy of the best care.
“True wilderness is more marvelous (and harder to retain) than the grandiose, spectacular features of our outstanding parks. It alone labels Isle Royale as of park calibre (sic).”
Isle Royale was formally dedicated as a national park in 1940. According to John C. Miles, author of “Wilderness in National Parks: Playground or Preserve,” the National Park Service “generally followed Murie’s advice and kept development to a minimum, resisting constant pressure to improve access and visitor accommodations.”
The park became part of the National Wilderness Preservation System in 1976 and was designated a UNESCO World Network Biosphere Reserve in 1980.
For Schmutz, who scanned the letters as part of a for-credit research project in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, the discovery of Murie’s report strengthened his resolve to pursue a career in environmental law and to be an advocate for conservation and environmental protection.
“Murie was one of the seminal figures in the early conservation movement and had spent time as a student at U-M,” Schmutz said. “Isle Royale is a place that you learn about in intro bio classes and is a place that a lot of Michiganders take pride in. Finding original correspondence of Murie advocating for the conservation of Isle Royale was just awesome.”
Schmutz’s adviser on the project was Cody Thompson, the mammal collections manager at the U-M Museum of Zoology and an assistant research scientist in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.
“The overall goal of the project is to make our paper records easily accessible by anybody across the world. This work also highlights the connection between museum collections and conservation,” Thompson said. “These letters are ripe with interesting stories and provide context to our catalogued specimens, as well as details about field expeditions.”
Read full Michigan news press release
Read a related blog post, “From Roosevelt to the UMMZ: The role of the U-M collections in modern conservation,” by Schmutz and Thompson on the EEBlog.