Benjamin Tuggle on horseback in the Guadalupe Mountains, which straddle the border of Texas and New Mexico.
Benjamin Tuggle on horseback in the Guadalupe Mountains, which straddle the border of Texas and New Mexico. Credit: Courtesy / Benjamin Tuggle

Benjamin Tuggle vividly recalls an episode that illustrates the lack of ethnic diversity in conservation science.

He had just stepped off a plane in Elko, Nevada. A wildlife disease expert for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and one of the few Black people in the field, he was there to investigate a bird die-off at a nearby refuge.

Waiting inside the terminal, he saw a couple of Fish and Wildlife staffers with whom he had spoken by telephone before his arrival. They had never seen his face before. “Maybe he didn’t make the plane,” he heard one of them say to the other. Tuggle walked over and asked if they were waiting on someone.

“I never will forget the look on his face,” Tuggle recalled. “He was so dismissive. He kind of looked off and he said, ‘Yeah, we’re waiting for Dr. Tuggle.’ I smiled and I said, ‘Well, I’m Dr. Tuggle.’ You could have knocked him over with a feather.”

Tuggle shared his experiences with the Rivard Report in an interview last month, as the University of Texas at San Antonio named its environmental science mentorship program after him. The Tuggle Scholars Program pairs UTSA graduate students with scientist mentors, including Tuggle, to help the students find their “science identity,” said Janis Bush, a professor who chairs the university’s environmental science department.

“Science identity is where a student or individual finally feels like they are a scientist,” Bush said. “It’s a lot more difficult for underrepresented minorities, women, and people of color.”

Tuggle is excited about the program. For 11 years, he ran the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) office in Albuquerque, covering territory that includes Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas. Twice a year, he visits UTSA, speaking one-on-one with students about how to find a path in conservation science, traditionally a white-dominated field.

Tuggle, 66, said he had other moments during his career similar to the Elko encounter. He doesn’t seem to take them personally.

“If it’s something where I’m catching them off guard, and they didn’t know who I was, and this person comes in a different package than they expected, I usually give them a little bit more leeway,” Tuggle said. “In the conservation community, there aren’t a whole lot of African Americans or people who have diverse backgrounds. … My job is to help them understand that there is no exclusivity in terms of conservation. There’s biodiversity.”

A self-described “Army brat,” Tuggle grew up traveling around the world, though he traces his original love for nature back to his grandparents’ farm in Georgia. It had “a creek and lots of places to run around in the woods.”

In college, he discovered his love of science, obtaining a master’s degree and doctorate in wildlife disease biology from Ohio State University. In 1979, he entered the FWS to study wildlife diseases. Only six years earlier, Congress had passed, and President Richard Nixon had signed, the Endangered Species Act, a bold law that would go on to play a huge role in Tuggle’s career.

Studying wildlife maladies such as avian cholera, lead poisoning from ammunition, and parasites that affect birds, he wasn’t confined to a single wildlife refuge. He traveled the country working on various federal lands.

Around 1985, Tuggle traveled to eastern Wisconsin to help with a parasite problem that was killing ducks on Lake Winnebago. The way the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was managing the lake allowed the ducks to eat diving snails loaded with parasites that would kill them in as little as three or four days. Tuggle realized that if Corps officials left water levels higher just a little longer, the ice wouldn’t thaw quickly enough in spring for the ducks to access the snails.

He presented his findings to Corps officials, who listened intently.

“They said, ‘Wow, that’s really something. Good job,’” Tuggle recalled. “I said, ‘So that means you’re going to implement this strategy to keep from killing these ducks?’ They said no.”

One of them brought Tuggle over to a map of the lake, where he pointed out the homes of an influential mayor and the leader of the Wisconsin legislature, along with a handful of other local leaders.

“He said, ‘If I do what you’re asking me to do, the ice will be on the lake longer and it will start to tear up their docks and their landscape closer to their house,’” Tuggle said. “He said, ‘I can’t do that.’”

That’s when Tuggle decided that maybe he should be in a leadership role.

“The generation of science is only as good as those individuals who are willing to take it and use it,” said Tuggle, who retired after serving as the FWS’s director of science applications from 2017 to 2019.

The lesson stayed with him throughout his career, especially when he became director of the FWS’ Southwest region in 2006, serving there until 2017. Factors such as water scarcity and endangered species living on the same lands used by ranchers and oil and gas drillers meant he often needed to balance conservation science with the needs of people on a working landscape.

For Tuggle, perhaps the most controversial example of that balance was the reintroduction of Mexican wolves, an FWS initiative in Arizona and New Mexico. He occasionally found himself face-to-face with ranchers upset about the prospect of wolves killing their cattle and sheep. He worked with them to set up a payment program where ranchers would receive payments for any livestock killed by reintroduced wolves.

Tuggle said he enjoyed his work negotiating with farmers, ranchers, drillers, and growing cities seeking more water in arid climates. “It kept me looking at diverse things,” he said. “But more importantly it kept me working with people and trying to form partnerships to solve conservation issues.”

Forming partnerships was key in reaching compromises over managing the Edwards Aquifer in the San Antonio area. The aquifer is the main water supply for the region, but 11 different rare species – three types of salamanders, two fish species, five invertebrates, and a species of wild rice – also depend on springs where water flows up from the aquifer.

The Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone in Shavano Park.
The Edwards Aquifer recharge zone in Shavano Park. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

In 2015, after about two decades of lawsuits, compromises, negotiations, and legislative actions involving cities, agriculturalists, environmentalists, and downstream water users, the FWS issued a crucial incidental take permit to ensure that the way Texas manages the aquifer won’t lead to a federal crackdown if those species are incidentally harmed.

“Texans are funny,” Tuggle said. “Texans are different people. They are fervent in terms of what they think and what they feel. But when they get together, there’s nothing that they can’t do. And I think the Edwards Aquifer is reflective of that.”

Despite his love of compromise and cooperation, Tuggle readily acknowledges that the Trump administration has worked to undo many of the environmental protections that have defined his career. Among many examples is the administration’s recent weakening of bird protections under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, a law originally passed more than a century ago to stop the mass killing of birds.

“They’ve erased just about all the progress we’ve made it the last 10 to 15 years via executive orders,” Tuggle said. “My humble opinion is there is going to be a knee-jerk reaction when this administration is gone and it will go further to the left to correct what’s been happening by the right. And I think it’s shortsighted.”

Regardless of current public policy decisions, Tuggle’s focus is on future generations. He wants to ensure that the granddaughter he’s expecting soon will be able to hear the birds sing and see the fish jump in a flowing desert creek. For him, protecting those public resources means recruiting diligent scientists from diverse backgrounds. That’s where UTSA comes in.

“UTSA is uniquely poised to be able to fulfill that with the focus and the engagement of the faculty and the sharpness of their students,” Tuggle said. “Their students are good. I mean, they’re really good. They just need to be mentored and have the ability to demonstrate how bright and capable they are.”

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Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.