Gus Smith was walking his German shorthair not far from his Moose home one Saturday in late May when euphoria flew by in a flock.
Fellow birders would best appreciate his experience.
Out on foot near the Chapel of Transfiguration, Smith suddenly found himself engulfed by black rosy finches. That’s an alpine species of songbird that’s normally found only above treeline, yet there he was, at below 6,500 feet, surrounded by perhaps 300 to 350 of them.
“They’re just doing that cloud thing,” Smith recounts. “They were right there — they go right through us.”
Even retelling the tale, he was exuberant.
“This was literally the highlight of my whole year,” Smith said. “It was the coolest thing I’ve seen in this whole park. And I’ve seen grizzly bears and I’ve seen a mountain lion and blah, blah, blah. But that was so incredible.”
Smith, 58, came on to the Grand Teton National Park staff this winter as the chief of science and natural resources, replacing Sue Consolo-Murphy, who retired. His career trajectory to the upper echelon of decision-making at one of the National Park Service’s flagship properties was unconventional, having included a good span of years teaching college students.
Rewind back to Smith’s youth, and his family was regularly on the go. His dad worked a corporate job for Eastman Kodak, which demanded a number of moves. The Smiths weren’t particularly into nature, but the parents did take the family on some classic western American roadtrips. On one of them, while passing through Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah, Smith looked up and saw one bird smash into another midair.
“It just turned into like a pillow explosion,” Smith said. “Coolest thing in the world for a 12-year-old to see.”
A nearby ranger explained that he had just seen a prairie falcon kill a dove.
Smith was intrigued enough that he looked up “bird scientist” in a reference book, learned what it was and set his sights on becoming an ornithologist.
Smith’s college years were logged at Northland College in northern Wisconsin. His first research job was as an intern at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, where he worked at a bird-banding station off the south shore of Lake Superior. The rarest raptor captured? A prairie falcon — the same species whose hunt inspired him during childhood — which was well to the east of its normal range.
After college Smith made a pit stop with Outward Bound in North Carolina and also with the YMCA, where he led outdoor trips to places like the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness and Canada’s Northwest Territories. He saved up enough money to go back to school for a master’s degree, and he enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, where he researched avian use of beaver ponds. Sticking around academia, he went onto the University of New Hampshire for a Ph.D., studying differences in foraging strategies between two rabbit species: New England and Eastern cottontails.
“I’m serious,” Smith said. “Somebody’s got to do it.”
The take home: Eastern cottontails, which were nonnative to the area, thrived in more open environments because they ate fast and furiously, while New England cottontails struggled because they were hyper-vigilant, having evolved in more tightly treed habitat.
The following year he worked as an adjunct at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, then stepped into a tenure-track position at Northland College, teaching science at his alma mater. With his wife, Joy Meeker, he taught and lived in a timber-framed, off-the-grid home on 40 acres of Wisconsin woods.
Then, in 2008, at age 46, Smith took a left turn in life and accepted a job as a fire ecologist at Yosemite National Park, where 7 million annual visitors suddenly surrounded him.
“It was different,” he said. “But I loved the job.”
There were some fireworks, too. In 2009 an 89-acre prescribed fire got out of the box and grew to 9,000 acres.
“It cost $14 million,” Smith said. “Super scary.”
He stuck around long enough to work through the 400-square-mile Rim Fire of 2013, at the time the third largest wildfire in California history. Over his career he has seen wildfires blow up to previously inconceivable proportions, killing scores of people, forcing precautionary power shutoffs and nearly bankrupting large utility companies such as Pacific Gas and Electric.
“Looking at that, at least for me, it’s like, ‘So, what do you not believe about climate change?’” Smith said.
In 2015 Smith shifted agencies and moved into more of a managerial role as a district ranger at Superior National Forest, home to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, in northern Minnesota. Living in Ely he was at the helm amid an ongoing fight over a proposed sulfide-ore copper mine in the Kawishiwi River watershed, which drains downstream into the wilderness. He found the work to be a dream job, albeit one in the thick of a “dramatic” dispute. He wasn’t looking to move, but then a good friend from Yosemite convinced him to apply for the Grand Teton National Park gig.
“She said, ‘Gus, honestly, this is the best job in the Park Service,’” Smith said. “She said, ‘Just apply for me.’”
He did. And there came an offer. Smith overcame hesitations about moving to one of the priciest ZIP codes in the United States and about giving up his vegetable garden. But the opportunity to live and work in the wild landscape around the world’s first national park had obvious appeal. And the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem was the land of conservation biology giants like the Muries and Craigheads, who had instilled in him a sense of wonder and motivation through his youth and college days.
“The research here is what created the dreams that got me interested when I wasn’t really that great of a student,” he said. “Frank and John Craighead, in their wood-sided station wagon, trapping grizzly bears with their shirts off — who didn’t want to be them?”
There was one catch in becoming a scientist in northwestern Wyoming, he said in jest. Smith’s full name is Douglas Smith, which means he technically shares a name with Yellowstone’s senior wolf biologist, Doug Smith, an icon in the science world.
A coworker at the Superior National Forest gave him a good ribbing about it: “She was like, ‘You know, Gus, he is taller, he is better known than you, and he does have the better cowboy image.’”