Life isn’t fair.
Otherwise, as you read this column, Mark Fowden would be maneuvering through the Caribbean aboard Island Lady, a new sailboat, with his marvelous first mate-wife Vanita at his side.
Instead, on Saturday the Cheyenne Hills Church hosted a celebration of life for Wilbur Mark Madison Fowden III, 64. And all living members of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, his family and hundreds of others wept.
Mark retired in early January from a 39-year career with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. He headed the Fisheries Division for the final five years of that illustrious run. Upon his Jan. 3, 2017, retirement the agency produced a comprehensive article detailing numerous Fowden accomplishments, complete with generous remarks from Game and Fish Director Scott Talbot.
A week later Mark was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
Complications with this dooming disease soon struck as Mark and Vanita were preparing the sailboat for a March departure.
It would be easy to reiterate a litany of Mark’s professional fisheries accomplishments from previous press information that I’ve saved. But that barely scratches the surface of this extraordinary person.
So I’ll try to explain things my way.
A long time ago, if you consider the late 1980s a while back, Jackson fisheries honchos John Kiefling and Jon Erickson invited Jay Buchner and me to join an energetic project that included catching smallmouth bass from Flaming Gorge Reservoir and transplanting them upstream on the Green River in Fontanelle Reservoir.
Results of the gathering were engrossing and allowed me to capture a wealth of informative stories, but not much else due to my not being crankbait-proficient in the ways of Flaming Gorge smallmouth.
Mark Fowden was creator and organizer of this scheme. At first glance the blue jeans-clad Green River regional fisheries supervisor was the personification of a great story-telling biologist totally disguised as a compact rodeo rider. His abundant enthusiasm and leadership were immediately noteworthy.
As with all University of Wyoming biology and fisheries graduates of earlier eras, it was inevitable that campfire tales would be told about amusing professors they had shared. In my recollection there were prominent biology department gents possibly named Dr. George Baxter and Dr. Allen Binns, who were both featured Laramie attractions. After Fowden regaled us of a field trip experience with one of these professors, during which he was given detailed instructions to examine a specific area, I had trouble sleeping for an extensive period.
Mark explained that he walked into the throat of a large draw and soon noticed that the surrounding ground was moving — literally. Only then did he recognize that the narrowing sagebrush surroundings were completely alive with lively, wriggling rattlesnakes!
This gentle trick was reserved for only the sturdiest of grad students.
Apparently this same professor’s passion for hiding numerous live specimens around his office was subtly ignored or unrecognized by the university’s insurers. His practical joke recipes for grad students grew into legends.
Mark was particularly well situated in Green River throughout the 1980s and well into the ’90s as the Flaming Gorge Reservoir fishery achieved international recognition for world-record rainbow and brown trout. Riding herd on this large and diverse water body involving two state lines (Wyoming and Utah) and being under the Colorado River Compact Act added to the Green River management challenge.
Federal reservoir-building reclamation demanded extensive rainbow trout stocking from the Jones Hole hatchery, which acted as a training table, force-feeding instrument that led to outlandishly sized trout. The reservoir population was further bolstered by the creation of an energetic Kokanee salmon influence from actual in-lake spawning and Fontanelle/Green River enhancement via the Game and Fish Flume Creek project.
Final maraschino cherries on the situation were the eventual emergence of a trophy lake trout fishery along with a shockingly good smallmouth bass population inspired by a supply of surplus crawfish.
During our mining of Flaming Gorge for transplantable smallmouth bass, it was widely mentioned both seriously and in jest that Fowden was a champion of the flannel mouth sucker, about which I recall his graduate degree papers touted. But my ears really perked up when he admitted his thorough appreciation of the Bar BC-Snake River subspecies of cutthroat trout popularized by energetic brood stock from native Jackson rancher Mary Mead’s spring creeks adjacent to the Gros Ventre River. Mary’s son, Matt, is the governor of Wyoming.
That was at the time when this particular cutthroat trout had replaced “domesticated” Snake River cutthroats in the Jackson Hole Federal Hatchery. When this supercharged trout transplant was traded to North Dakota, Missouri and Arkansas and also selectively stocked in Wyoming, its aggressive behavior and resiliency made biologists’ eyeballs pop out.
“I’ll take all the Bar-BC cutthroat I can get!” Mark said with a big grin.
I knew I really liked this guy.
After the Green River work and his migration up the fisheries department ladder I lost touch with the Fowden career. We became reacquainted during my personal pursuit of encouraging (with major help of Jackson’s then-Wyoming Senate President Grant Larson) the development of aquatic invasive species defenses. The usually unsupportive Cheyenne electeds even stepped up and funded the effort to control this life-altering threat to the Equality State. That general fund support was just another testament to Fowden’s resourcefulness.
Mark and Vanita’s children live in the Jackson area, and when I learned the fisheries chief planned an October 2013 visit it seemed logical to share a day on the Snake. Mark needed a break and wanted to try out some of his new fly tackle. A late-season float on the lower river allowed the fisheries chief to float dry flies and swing a few favorite wets while sharing the latest fisheries management schemes. The cutthroat responded favorably.
It was again easy to recognize how Mark carefully integrated ways to propel his staff’s expertise with his special abilities to envision the possible and lead the way. I found him especially adept at overseeing a program, for instance the challenge of dealing with live bait sales, that could eventually solve itself.
Being around Mark Fowden was always encouraging. It is satisfying to know the state of Wyoming benefitted from such a talented gentleman’s feathering the delicate reins of its wildlife and fisheries.
The mark of a noteworthy man is when he leaves a situation better than they found it. This is Mark Fowden’s legacy.
So long, Mark. Wyoming residents, visitors and natural resources will always be better off thanks to your careful wisdom, work and stewardship. During October there will always be a Carey Special, a fresh cigar and a seat in the bow in your memory.