Feb 152012
Authors: Morgan Mayo

Ken Burnham’s cluttered office and tidy grey sweater refuse to hint at his solo excursions in the heart of the Outback or his time spent in Nairobi studying elephants.

But those close to him say that after a just a few minutes of conversation, it becomes clear that Burnham is a man passionate about the world around him, the environment and above all else, numbers.

“I’ve known Ken Burnham for decades now,” said Ken Wilson, the chair of the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Biology (FWCB) Department at CSU. “He truly is genius class. He’s just an incredible thinker.”

And recently, Burnham, a professor emeritus from FWCB, was recognized for his lifetime of contribution to the field with the Aldo Leopold Memorial Award, an award given annually by the Wildlife Society to one exemplary ecologist or wildlife biologist.

During his 40-year career as a statistician, ecologist and author, Burnham has worked with the Northern spotted owl, African elephant, the desert tortoise and numerous other species. His statistical methods in capture/re-capture, population dynamics, model selection and various other fields are used to study and preserve endangered species all over the globe.

“Toward the end of April in 2011, the Wildlife Society sent me a letter saying that I had won the Aldo Leopold Memorial Award,” Burnham said. “I was surprised. I really didn’t expect to get it at all.”
Four professors have received the Aldo Leopold Memorial Award at CSU –– more than any other university in the country.

“It’s the highest honor an ecologist can receive,” said Gary White, a professor in the FWCB department and 2000 Aldo Leopold Award recipient.

For Burnham, it was an honor long fought for. His various projects have often landed him in the midst of environmental controversy.

“My favorite single project would have to be our analysis work with the northern spotted owl,” Burnham said. “I remember stopping at a tavern in Washington in a big logging town. There was a sign on the wall that said ‘Kill An Owl. Shoot an Environmentalist.’ These people thought they were losing their jobs because of endangered owls. It was a big issue. Very political. Very heated.”

Whether it’s a public outcry over the whaling industry or a debate dealing with waterfowl hunting rights, Burnham said he can almost always be found in the midst of the fray, crunching numbers and compiling data for an issue that will affect thousands of people.

“I enjoy real data on a real issue that’s important and highly political,” he said.

Those around him say it’s impossible to truly grasp Dr. Burnham’s brilliance and dedication to the science of ecology without getting to know the man behind the numbers.

“He’s just a great guy who’s incredibly talented at conceptualizing a problem,” White said. “We’d go out to lunch at The Union, start talking about a problem and Ken would use up a whole handful of napkins working it out.”

His colleagues know him as the man who frequently spends the night in his office because he’s too engrossed in his work to go home. His friends know him for his bright blue and orange moon boots and his propensity to take off on sporadic trips across the globe.

“I like to go places I’ve never been before,” Burnham said. “I’ll get on the metro and ride it to the end of the line and just see where I end up.”

When people talk about Dr. Burnham you hear the words passionate, dedicated, wanderlust and extraordinary repeated again and again. They say his personal achievements, such as climbing Mt. St. Helens in Washington and running numerous marathons, are only outmatched by his professional ones.

“He’s brought a lot of prestige to Colorado State University,” White said. “He’s recognized worldwide. Ken absolutely deserved to get the Aldo Leopold Memorial Award.”

Although Burnham officially retired in 2009, he continues to lend his expertise and analytical eye to ecological projects across the globe. And when he’s asked if he would ever stop, he only had one response.

“Maybe when I’m 80,” he said.

Collegian Writer Morgan Mayo can be reached at news@collegian.com.

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