Have you ever gone out of your way to study a dead fish floating in one of Minnesota’s 10,000-plus lakes?
Have you ever thought about how a well-manicured lawn could affect water quality and game and fish populations?
Have you ever considered the relative benefits of moose drool? (We’re not talking about the popular brand of beer.)
If such intellectual curiosities rarely, if ever, cross your mind, fear not. Robert Zink has you covered.
Zink is a conservation biologist in the School of Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and has a new book out: “The Three-Minute Outdoorsman Returns: From Mammoth on the Menu to the Benefits of Moose Drool.”
Zink’s name should resonate locally. He is a Minneapolis native and was a longtime professor at the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities.
The book includes more than 70 essays — each readable in three minutes — in which Zink distills the latest scientific research and provides readers useful, entertaining and offbeat information about the natural world. A large section covers deer-related topics, including chronic wasting disease (CWD), birth control, genetics and supplemental feeding. Other essays examine fisheries science and management, aquatic animals and our relationship with nature. This is Zink’s second book of essays.
“I read a lot of scientific journals, and I wanted to write about these amazing discoveries for a broader audience outside of the academic world,” said Zink, 66, who is a regular contributor to Minnesota Outdoor News.
After all, scientific journals aren’t exactly breezy novels meant for pleasure reading. The language can be purposefully dry and, Zink admits, painful to read — especially for nonscientists.
“Nature amazes,” said Zink, who estimates he’s written roughly 200 research papers over the years. “Consequently there’s plenty to write about. It’s something I enjoy doing.”
Though he grew up fishing and didn’t start hunting until age 40 (he’s now an avid outdoorsman, he said, often fishing for walleyes in Minnesota and hunting grouse, turkeys, deer, waterfowl in Nebraska and elsewhere), Zink’s fascination with nature began in sixth grade. One of his teachers introduced him to bird-watching.
“My parents had split up and I didn’t have a male figure in my life, and my teacher sort of filled that void,” said Zink. “I fell in love with birds, then studying them scientifically.”
Zink started college as a pre-med major but quickly pivoted into natural resources at the University of Minnesota. He has a doctorate in zoology from the University of California-Berkeley, and has taught at Louisiana State University. He also worked for a time at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City
Zink held the prestigious Breckenridge Chair of Ornithology at the University of Minnesota’s Bell Museum from 1993 to 2015. As a student and an academic, Zink has conducted bird research from Mexico to Antarctica. In Lincoln, Zink teaches courses in everything from evolution to ornithology. Here are edited excerpts from a recent conservation through e-mail:
On publishing a book of essay
I wanted to write short essays that make one or two major points and that are informative and fun to read. Everyone is busy, so my books are not designed in any way — that is, you can read the essays in random order and not lose anything.
On scientific language and essay-writing
I think that science is a language, and if you don’t speak it, it’s hard to understand. I read a lot of scientific papers, and some of them I know would be of interest to my hunting and fishing friends, but they wouldn’t know about them. Not because they are unintelligent, but because they don’t speak the language. So, when I read something I know they’d like to learn about, I translate it to lay language — which is not the same as dumbing it down. It’s translating. Bringing what I learn to others that are not in the field.
On science and critical thinking
We have a strong anti-science movement right now, especially in politics. This is very bad — look at what science has done for us. Nearly everything! Are scientists always right? Of course not, but science is the way we learn things, and we continually refine that knowledge. Sometimes we completely change our minds; other times we say, “Yup, we were right the first time.” But what is most lacking, is that we are not teaching students critical-thinking skills. There is too much tendency to read something and assume it’s true. We need to be better skeptics.
On what he hopes to achieve with his essays
In terms of the outdoors, keeping people informed about new findings, instilling a wonder for the natural world, as well as an appreciation for the amazing landscapes and how fragile they are.
On what issues will affect hunting and fishing the most over the next 10 to 20 years
Habitat loss and fragmentation. Diseases. Loss of hunters, especially in waterfowl hunting. Lack of access is a huge issue for many hunters. [In Nebraska] only 3 percent of the land is open to public hunting. The recognition in general about what hunters and anglers do for conservation is something I fear will be lost, too.
On his enjoyment of hunting and eating what he kills
I enjoy hunting and fishing — and I’m constantly planning my next trip. Does this make me a mad killer? No, but I am thrilled when I make a good shot on a passing goose, or a perfect arrow on a deer. I feel a sense of great accomplishment, as both took time and a lot of practice. Plus, I only hunt things I will eat, and I eat a lot of game. I’m not a trophy hunter. That doesn’t interest me at all.
On what he’s studying now
We’re studying the genetics of CWD in Nebraska deer, specifically looking at the variances in the gene for the prion protein that makes a deer more resistant to CWD. It turns out the resistant gene is widespread in Nebraska, but in very low frequency. We are also determining whether the subspecies of wild turkey (eastern, Merriam’s, Rio Grande, ocellated, Gould’s) are genetically defined, or “ends of a continuum.” There have been so many introductions, including captive stocks, that we think most turkeys are hybrids between the original subspecies. We’re also trying to determine if there are genetic differences between pheasants in South Dakota and Nebraska, where they differ a lot in abundance.
On how climate change may impact hunting and fishing in Minnesota
At the current rate, environments in Minnesota will shift northward as far as suitable soils will allow. So, the Boundary Waters might be more of a savanna. Some species will adapt, others not so much. However, remember that animals alive today “just” went through a massive change in environments when the last glacier started to recede 21,000 years ago. So animals today are survivors of major global climate change. The issue is whether this bout of climate change is so fast that many animals will not be able to adapt before going extinct.
Tori J. McCormick is a freelance outdoors writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org