Get to Know a Scientist Emeritus—Mike Kochert

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This is the fourth in a series of Get to Know posts highlighting and celebrating the contributions of exemplary Scientists Emeriti. Their work, experience, and contributions are essential to the mission of the USGS.

Mike Kochert has been a model Scientist Emeritus. He continues publishing peer reviewed papers that are not only important contributions to his field, they also provide useful and actionable information to our resource manager partners. He’s an excellent ambassador for USGS science, and he shares his deep knowledge of the history of the raptors and the public lands they rely on readily and graciously, mentoring young scientists, supporting new resource managers, and enriching the public.

Sue Phillips
Director, Forest and Rangeland Ecosystem Science Center

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Mike Kochert with a young golden eagle

Scientist Emeritus Mike Kochert with a young golden eagle in Denali NP, Alaska. Some technical assistance work involves assisting other agencies such as helping Carol McIntyre with the Nation Park Service fit young golden eagles with satellite and GSM transmitters in Denali National Park. Todd Katzner (USGS, FRESC) is a cooperator on the project. Photo courtesy Rick Swisher.

What attracted or brought you to work for USGS in the first place? 

Other Department of the Interior biologists and I began our progression to the USGS when former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt moved us in 1993 to the newly formed National Biological Survey (later changed to the National Biological Service — NBS). We then were moved to the newly formed Biological Resources Division of USGS in 1996. When we first came into the fold, I, like many other biologists, couldn’t wrap my head around the move to integrate us into the USGS because we were focused on the discipline. What did biological have to do with geological? I realized after I retired that someone in Congress was looking at the USGS paradigm and apparently knew what they were doing. The move to the USGS worked out extremely well for me. 

How long did you work at USGS before you retired and how long have you been an Emeritus?

I was with the USGS for 13 years and three months when I retired after 37 years and eight months of federal service. I was with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for 21 years and four months before we moved to the USGS, and I have the dubious distinction of being a charter member of one of the shortest-lived agencies in DOI; the NBS for 3 years. I have been in Boise, Idaho since I was hired by the BLM in 1972. Everything comes full circle—the field station I report to (Snake River Field Station— SRFS) is moving staff to the Idaho Water Science Center soon, which is in the same location where I started my career with the Boise District BLM nearly 50 years ago.

I signed up to be a Scientist Emeritus (SE) before I retired on Jan 1, 2010, which was a Friday, and I was in the office on that following Monday. I just celebrated my 10-year anniversary as an Emeritus.

What was your last title/position at USGS before you retired and became an Emeritus?

I was a Research Wildlife Biologist. My current status as a Scientist Emeritus is almost like being a graduate student again because I can focus on only my research. 

What Science Center do you answer to as an Emeritus?

FRESC – the Forest and Rangeland Ecosystem Science Center at SRFS in Boise, Idaho.

What are you most proud of during your career with the USGS? OR describe a highlight of your career.

My entire career has focused on the Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area (NCA), located south of Boise. I conducted my graduate work on the golden eagles nesting in that area. I was able to continue that work as well as implement ecological research of the trophic levels in the area when I was hired right out of grad school by the BLM as the first biologist in what is now the NCA. The SE program gave me an opportunity to continue this work in the NCA. I’m most proud of my work in designing and directing the research that provided the biological basis to the Secretary of the Interior for establishing the NCA and its boundary. It was during that research that USGS retiree Karen Steenhof joined the team in 1977, and she and I have been working and publishing together ever since. Results of this research survived the scrutiny of a lawsuit in the 1980s and was upheld all the way through to legislation. That was not only the highlight of my career, it was my career.

Mike Kochert with dog Lucy

Mike Kochert with his hunting buddy, Lucy, at Little City of Rocks, Idaho. Credit: Carol McIntyre. Public domain.

We provided the Secretary of the Interior the biological information for establishing the NCA in a special research report in 1979.  However, it took 14 years for the time to be right for the NCA to be established through Congressional legislation in 1993. During that time and after the legislation, I led and was involved in applied research on a myriad of management issues in the NCA. The research that we conducted over the decades addressed management and environmental change issues such as the effects of habitat alteration, power lines, fire, environmental change, and climate all relating back to golden eagles and other raptors and their prey and habitat. In addition, I worked with the management staff in developing management plans. 

One of the reasons I am still in the SE program is so I can continue long-term research and monitoring of golden eagles and other raptors in the NCA. I just completed my 51st consecutive field season studying nesting golden eagles in southwestern Idaho – the longest continuous study of nesting golden eagles in the world. I am a cooperator/partner with Boise State University (BSU), who is currently leading the program.

What led you to decide to become an Emeritus?

I think the passion I have for the NCA is clear, and there was unfinished work that needed completion when I retired. The number of publications I have authored in the 10 years since I retired is the same as the last 10 years of my career. My tenure as an Emeritus has been most productive.

My accolades go to those individuals who conceived and implemented the SE program because they saw a definite need. Much technical and cooperate knowledge can go out the door when USGS scientists retire, and the SE program captures that plus it capitalizes on all that free labor. I also reap many benefits from the program too. The persons who established the SE program had impressive insight.

What exciting research or service activities are you currently working on, and what are you planning for the near future?

I am currently engaged in two major areas of work: 1) I still work on the long-term ecological assessments of the golden eagle nesting population in southwestern Idaho as a partner with Julie Heath’s lab at BSU. The BSU team is also examining effects of disease, parasites, and climate change on these eagles in the changing habitat in the golden eagle study area that includes the NCA. I have five decades of knowledge of the eagles and the area, and I’m free labor. 2) I am working on a project with Todd Katzner (USGS, FRESC), Jim Belthoff (BSU), and Karen Steenhof on the long-term monitoring of the nesting prairie falcon population in the NCA. The NCA was established in part because of its incredible nesting prairie falcon population (an estimated 5% of the world’s population). I also have some research on Swainson’s hawks that needs to be written up. 

What do you enjoy and appreciate the most about being an Emeritus?

Again, the opportunity to continue life-long research, but also the opportunity to mentor and work with students and young biologists because of my affiliation with BSU. Working with young people is quite rewarding. I greatly appreciate the support from the FRESC and SRFS staff, particularly from Sue Phillips.

What type of mentoring or outreach activities do you currently undertake as an Emeritus?

I am an adjunct faculty member at BSU. Occasionally, I serve on graduate student committees. I also interact with students and young biologist and technicians. For example, I went into the field last month with a young technician on the prairie falcon project. We spent much of the time discussing a profusion of topics dealing with the NCA and raptor biology in the two hours we were surveying; much information exchange happens on these field trips.

Until the pandemic hit, I was involved with presentations to the public about our long-term work. For example, I gave a presentation in August 2019 on “50 years of research and monitoring of golden eagles and what have we learned” at the Draper Natural History Museum in the Buffalo Bill Center for the West in Cody, WY. People really enjoy hearing what we’ve learned in 50 years, but we still have much to learn. These presentations are quite enjoyable to do.  Also, I participated in the video developed for the Monarch of the Skies display on golden eagles at the Draper Museum, and was recently involved in the development of the BLM video, Feathers and Frontiers, that chronicles the history and conservation in the NCA. I was also involved in an oral history project that recorded the history, science, and politics behind the establishment and management of the NCA. The recordings were published as a 10-episode podcast series called Common Land in early 2020. I am pleased that they did this because some of the people who contributed have since passed away.

Other outreach/technical assistance activities include publishing, active involvement with the Raptor Research Foundation, serving as a technical reviewer for journals, conducting internal USGS reviews and collegial reviews, and assisting and advising other research projects such as the studies of golden eagles nesting in Denali and Yellowstone National Parks. 

Mike Kochert working in the field

Mike Kochert working at the Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area, Idaho. Credit: Carol McIntyre. Public domain.

Have you had any great career mentors, and if so, what made them great?

I worked for Dean Bibles, who was the Boise District BLM Manager when we were conducting the research for the Secretary of the Interior that eventually lead to the establishment of the NCA.  He went on to be the BLM State Director for AZ and OR. He had the ability to “see through the smoke” and parse out the important issues and focus on what really mattered. He and other good managers had an incredible view of what was going on and couldn’t be sidetracked.  As a side note, Dean hired Mike Collopy to form and direct the BLM research center in Corvallis, Oregon that subsequently became FRESC under Mike’s direction.

What is your best advice for early and mid-career scientists?

I tell younger people, “Fasten your seatbelt, your career will go so fast you can’t believe it,” but when you are  mid-career, it seems like it will take forever.

At the beginning of your career, do not be afraid to give it 110%. Stay with your best and do it ethically and totally with the upmost integrity. At your early to mid-career, if you don’t have the behavioral characteristics that make you a good manager, don’t start climbing that career ladder. If you are a productive Principal Investigator, don’t get sidetracked into an area that may offer you more financial rewards but may be putting you on the track for a train wreck. I have been a general manager and a project leader. Although leading the work was exciting, I enjoy conducting biological research much more. Good managers have a sensitivity for people. I’ve seen many managers come and go, but there are only two good ones (and one bad one) that stick in my mind.

Where did you travel last, domestically or internationally?

Australia and New Zealand last February, just before these countries “shut the door” because of the pandemic. The year before was South Africa and Zimbabwe. Since the pandemic started, Phyllis (my wife) and I have traveled little away from Roseberry Farms where we live.

 What’s the biggest risk you have ever taken?

Taking a big step into the big new world. I left the state of Indiana where my whole family lived and moved 2000 miles on $150 borrowed money to go to graduate school. If that wasn’t a risk, it was at least a pretty gutsy move, but it paid off.  If I hadn’t taken that risk to go to the University of Idaho, I wouldn’t have met my advisor and I wouldn’t be here today. The opportunities just opened up.

What is one characteristic that you believe every good research scientist should possess?

Keeping an open mind. Be open to new ideas AND listen to opposing views. It’s not easy. I look back on my career, and sometimes I didn’t follow this advice so closely. We have preconceived notions on the world, but keeping an open mind is one of the most challenging yet highly important in research.

What resources or advice would you give someone going into a research position for the first time?

Do your work ethically and be a positive individual. Understand what is expected of you by, not only the USGS, but by the management agencies/entities. One of the reasons our golden eagle work has persisted for a half century is because of our strong ties with the BLM and the US Fish and Wildlife Service. 

I tell young students “You’ll never know what people will see on your CV.” On mine, the item that caught my graduate advisor’s eye was that I worked as a section hand on a railroad. He thought that if I, a college kid, could work with a cross section of seasoned railroad workers and do that hard work, I’d be a good employee that did not need to be “baby-sat” in the field.     

What advice would you give someone who is contemplating retirement and the life that follows?

I have two statements about retirement: 1) It’s not overrated and 2) it’s highly recommended. The person taking my blood pressure recently guessed that I was retired because of my low numbers. Follow your passion, particularly in the SE program. There is a wealth and cadre of knowledge in the SE program in USGS. We are lucky to have this.

How are you spending your time during the pandemic? 

Phyllis and I are holed up at Roseberry Farms where we have a hay and pasture operation with wildlife food plots and a 20-acre wetland under the Wetland Reserve Program with the Natural Resources Conservation Service. The entire place is irrigated the old-fashioned way – gravity fed. We live on 100 acres by a quiet country road with Big Wood River frontage and lots of weeds (to occupy my time in the summer). I have a great farm office that overlooks the barn (and the adjacent turkey vulture roost) and the wetland where I can watch harriers, vultures, and other wildlife. This is where I do my writing, usually between 3-6 am. I am only 15 miles from the golden eagle study area which I visit often during the field season.

Wetland on Roseberry Farms

The Wetland Reserve Program wetland on Roseberry Farms is one of the projects that keeps Mike occupied. The Roseberry Farms office is where he does much of his emeritus work. Credit: Mike Kochert. Public domain.