By Koby Levin
MONETT, Mo. — Sit down with Larry Shanks, as one might be able to do tonight in Joplin, and you will certainly learn something new about the wildlife that inhabits the United States.
Turns out you have to know a lot about an animal to save it.
Over Shanks’ decades-long career with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, he headed several major efforts to preserve endangered species. He will speak about the most famous of these, the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park, tonight at the Wildcat Glades Conservation & Audubon Center.
Some of his most unusual knowledge comes from the odd task of husbanding wild animals..
If, for example, you tried to regenerate the population of black-footed ferrets in the United States by breeding them in captivity, you would learn that ferrets eat nothing but prairie dogs, and that prairie dogs begin to lose essential nutrients if they are kept frozen for more than a month.
If you tried moving wolves back to a long-lost habitat, you would learn that wolves have a powerful homing instinct and are capable of running 150 miles in a day to return home.
The successful reintroduction of wolves into habitats in the American Northwest was the highlight of Shanks’ long career. He was director of endangered species for the region at the time.
“It was a once-in-a-career opportunity, that you see the stars line up politically for something like that to happen,” he said in an interview at his home in Monett. “I was there and had the opportunity, and you go for it.”
Shanks grew up outside Monett, where, as an outdoors-obsessed child, he decided to become a wildlife biologist. He attended the University of Missouri, where he studied biology then went straight into the field, where he encountered poachers, 12-foot crocodiles and white-collar Americans.
While working as a biologist in Florida, Shanks was asked to show some visiting corporate executives around the more beautiful corners of the state. The Disney people liked one of the spots in particular, a swamp, and bought the entire thing.
Shanks continued to consult with them on environmental issues as they ironed the wrinkles out of Walt Disney World.
Along the way he met Walt Disney himself, who impressed Shanks as a man “full of ideas,” regaling him with plans to install a pneumatic system at his amusement park to whisk trash from bins and straight onto waiting trash trucks.
Shanks also remembers the largesse. Disney wanted a lake in the middle of the property to be clear, but it kept going cloudy. He explained that the wind stirred up a whitish clay at the bottom. They emptied the 20-acre lake, scraped out the clay and replaced it with sand.
This did not bother Shanks, the conservation official.
“It was their land,” he said. “They were wanting the lake to be clear.”
After all, he was the wildlife biologist for the entire state of Florida. The 39,000 acres Disney bought were small potatoes in comparison, and he passed up a job as company biologist for a position with the National Fish and Wildlife Service.
From there, he became involved in various conservation efforts, from the Mississippi Delta to parts of New Mexico that are a key habitat for the black-footed ferret.
Shanks retired in 2001 and moved back to Monett, where he bought a piece of farmland that he worked as a young man.
Want to go?
Larry Shanks will speak at 7 p.m. today at the Wildcat Glades Conservation & Audubon Center at 201 Riviera Drive in Joplin.