Lewis and Clark as Scientists

Mule deer were one of 122 animal species that Lewis and Clark described for science for the first time.

"The object of your mission is to explore the Missouri River, & such principal stream of it, as, by it's course and communication with the waters of the Pacific Ocean...Other objects worthy of notice will be the soil & face of the country, its growth & vegetable productions; especially those not of the U.S., the animals of the country generally, & especially those not known in the U.S. . . Your observations are to be taken with great pains & accuracy to be entered distinctly, & intelligibly for others as well as yourself..." Thomas Jefferson to Meriwether Lewis, 1803.

Discussion about the famed journey of Lewis and Clark (1804-06) usually revolves around their travels and the geography of the lands they explored and that was certainly their first priority. However, their contributions to science are equally grand. Over the course of two years, they described 122 mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish including such animals as sage-grouse, grizzly bears, mule deer, jackrabbits and channel catfish. They were also the first to describe 178 plant species, sending over 200 specimens home. Idaho’s contributions included the mountain goat and the camas flower.

That was quite a feat for two Army officers with no university training in the sciences. From the time President Thomas Jefferson got his plan for the expedition approved by Congress to their departure for St. Louis, Lewis in particular made up for this intellectual deficiency and was personally schooled by some of the most erudite scientists of his day. His tutors included: Dr. Benjamin Smith Barton, Andrew Ellicott, Robert Patterson, Caspar Wistar and Dr. Benjamin Rush. In his letter of introduction to Barton, Thomas Jefferson praised Lewis and his innate curiosity, “Altho' no regular botanist he possesses a remarkable store of accurate observation on all the subjects of the three kingdoms, & will therefore readily single out whatever presents itself new to him in either."

Even training couldn’t fully prepare these men though. They were headed out into true wilderness with no options for re-supply. There was no Amazon or Walmart. They would not sail into any ports where broken or lost equipment could be replaced or repaired. If they needed something, they either brought it with them, made it along the way with materials at hand, improvised by using something they did have in a new way or simply did without. And like any wilderness expedition, each scientific item had to be carefully considered as it would be carried every step of the journey.

Every specimen had to be collected, then measured in every way, skinned, pressed or preserved and crated. A detailed written account was made in a journal including behaviors and habitats. Aside from the actual travel and survival, this required most of the Corps’ time.

From their first winter’s camp in present-day North Dakota, they sent a boatload of specimens back to Jefferson. These included six live animals, of which a magpie and a prairie dog made it to Washington alive. Skins and skeletons of pronghorn antelope, mule deer, coyotes, prairie dogs, foxes and bison along with tins of insects and small mammals, ram horns, elk and mule deer antlers and Native American items also accompanied the load.

This truly was the Corps of Discovery, not just geographically, but biologically as well. Their contributions to science have never been equaled by any other single expedition in North America.

Help Idaho Wildlife

When we traveled across the state in October 2017, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates. Buying wildlife plates is a great way for non-hunters and hunters alike to support wildlife-based recreation like birding.

C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles! 

See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live. 

And tell them that you heard about it from Nature-track.com!

Wildlife License Plates

Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.

No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.

Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.

Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program.

I think it is time we let the Legislature know that Idahoan support wildlife funding and that we would like to see these generic plates come to fruition.

"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson

That is embarrassing, but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.

Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.

Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.

Readers Write:

"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman

"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.

To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version 


Copies are also available at:

Post Register

Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)

Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls

Harriman State Park, Island Park

Museum of Idaho

Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming

Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah

Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho