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Photo by: Joe Putrock

Fighter by Nature
For more than three decades at the DEC’s Wildlife Pathology Unit, Ward Stone has raised awareness of environmental issues—not to mention the ire of a vested interest or two

By Kathy Ceceri

Ward Stone, New York state’s only wildlife pathologist, is busy trading calls with the United States Department of Agriculture. He’s trying to find out what forms he needs to fill out to get back some West Nile Virus samples he sent out for study. In between discussing the matter with his secretary Rose Diana, he stops to complain about an upcoming seminar on sexual harassment that will steal six hours from his workday.

“I’ve been charged with everything under the sun,” he says resentfully, but so far nothing that’s indicated a need for sexual-harassment training. “This pack of clowns are restricting me from what I can do, what good works I can do. I don’t have a hell of a lot of time to be the scientist I want to be.”

At 65, Stone is gray-haired and compact, a little portly, a bit hard of hearing, but far from ready to slow down.

“I’m alive and active,” he says. “I have no intention of retiring.”

In New York state, Stone is point man in charge of tracking threats to the health of everything from frogs to moose. He co-authored the first study, in 1999, linking West Nile Virus in birds with unexplained outbreaks of encephalitis in humans, just as 25 years ago he sounded one of the earliest alarms on the environmental dangers of PCBs.

In his 35 years as head of the Wildlife Pathology Unit of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, Stone has butted heads with higher-ups so often “the battles all kind of run together.” He says, “Many battles I’ve won, but I can never savor the victory for long.”

Whether he’ll remain at DEC, though, is an open question. His unit has been depleted, the entire department underfunded. In the face of increasing bureaucracy and red tape, he hints at moving elsewhere to continue his work, perhaps the federal government. But later he indicates that he plans to stand his ground: “You can go away or you can fight,” he declares. “I’m choosing to fight.”

Ironically, despite heightened concerns about West Nile, Mad Cow, foot-and-mouth disease, and the botulism killoffs of fish and birds in the Great Lakes—not to mention possible terrorist threats and garden-variety rabies—the DEC is asking Stone to cut back on his monitoring activities and forcing him to operate with fewer resources than even a few years ago.

The nondescript mid-20th-century brick building on the campus of Five Rivers Environmental Center in Delmar, which houses the Wildlife Pathology Unit, is eerily quiet. Lining the walls of every hallway and room are display cases neatly filled with specimens, arranged and labeled: examples of bird wings, deformed deer fetuses, jawbones.

But papers are piled up everywhere, in the reception office, on the conference-room table. Downstairs in the labs, a worker in blue scrubs is doing an autopsy on a handful of dead starlings from Watertown, which may have been poisoned. No one knows if this is all of them. Elsewhere in the building, thousands of toxicology specimens wait to be analyzed, while a $180,000 state-of-the-art biosafety lab completed last July often sits idle for want of personnel to use it.

Calls come in constantly from around the state. A man wants to bring in a squirrel that bit him for rabies testing. Stone would like to take a look at a horse from Greene County that may have been killed by a cougar, but there’s no one to pick it up.

“In this building, we have had 72 people,” says Stone, including in that figure DEC employees from other offices. “We’re down to six: my secretary, myself, two technicians and two biologists.”

With responsibilities that range from diagnosing the cause of sickness and death in the state’s amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals, to researching wildlife mortality factors, to providing expert testimony for DEC, the EPA and others, as well as investigating the impact of pesticides, landfills, dumps, hazardous-waste sites, industrial discharges and oil spills on wildlife, Stone and his tiny staff are stretched to the limit.

“We don’t have the people, the facilities. It’s sad to be someplace 35 years and you still don’t have the basics,” he laments.

On this day Stone is also in charge of his youngest child, Ethan Alan, who is sitting atop a bank of high file cabinets, looking at some crickets in a lizard cage.

“His mother thinks he has diarrhea,” Stone announces, his tone suggesting that this diagnosis might be up for debate. In any case, Stone has brought the kindergartener to the office so his wife can get to her teaching job. The crickets in the glass case are chirping rather loudly, perhaps a result of Stone having cranked up the heat in his secretary’s office for their comfort. Ushering the boy into the conference room, Stone begins to talk about why the word most often used to describe him is “controversial.”

His career as a troublemaker, he estimates, goes back even further than his tenure at DEC, about 57 years. Back then, he was complaining to the adults around him about the pollution from the paper-plant upstream. Jobs, the grownups answered. When Stone told his mother about finding feces and toilet paper in the creek, she suggested he fish elsewhere.

“There was a tolerance of these things,” he remembers, “but not a lot of interest.”

On the other hand, there was an appreciation of the woods that is missing today.

“A lot of wildlife species were revered in my time. Whitetail deer weren’t a nuisance: ‘rats with hooves.’ You would hear about a sighting of a doe with a fawn. You looked at deer as being beautiful, good mothers. Good to eat. Muskrats were interesting. Country boys would sell their hides. These things were done for a combination of reasons. I liked being out there, seeing the flowers and trees.”

Given the chance, Stone could probably talk forever. Even his biography goes on for more than a dozen pages. Degrees in zoology from Syracuse University; an honorary doctorate from the College of Agriculture and Technology at SUNY Cobleskill, where he’s taught the last few years. More than a hundred scientific and popular writings published. Lists and lists of honors and awards.

But there’s more. Paragraphs about the teachers who influenced him, the friends he had growing up. His experiences picking apples, landscaping, his years in a two-room schoolhouse, taking care of his younger brothers and sisters. Fishing with his grandfather at age 3.

And at the top, his family: wife, Mary Bayham, children Jonathan, 10, Jeremiah, 8, Montana, 7, and Ethan Alan, 5. A grown daughter, Denise. And baby Therese Rose, who died in 2000. According to his biography, family activities are his greatest joy.

Perhaps because of his young children, Stone is acutely aware that today’s kids often don’t have the same connection with wildlife as he had in his youth.

“When you spend your time looking at Playstation, DVDs, listening to CDs, [playing] organized sports, there’s not much time to appreciate nature,” he says. “Teachers are attempting to do something, but obviously the most important people are the parents themselves. They should not rely on teachers to show [their children] what’s important in the world. A lot has to come before they get to school.”

Unfortunately, he adds, “a lot of parents are not well-grounded in the environment themselves.”

When he was 10 or 11, Stone heard about the passenger pigeon, “how billions of birds had disappeared.” Figuring there must still be a few around, he began to keep an eye out for the birds (along with the stray Indian, overlooked by the European colonization, which he fully expected to meet down by the stream some day).

“I didn’t find any,” he says. “It was true, they were really extinct.”

Today, he says, the situation is more dire than ever before.

“Anyone with eyes can see what’s happening,” he says, a touch of anger and impatience in his voice.

What Stone sees is unused pastures filling up with developments instead of sumac and birch. He sees road salt, toxic spills and runoff destroying habitats. And, he says, he sees politicians setting aside green spaces, but only so they can surround them with more buildings.

“None of them are ‘green,’ ” he says of the current crop of political leaders, conceding only that some may be “greenish.”

Part of the reason Stone’s unit is suffering from neglect, he believes, is people with political clout who don’t want diagnoses made. These include the industries that don’t want to be held accountable for their pollutants, the academics who develop pesticides and the companies that manufacture them.

Businesses such as elk farms that market venison, he says, have a vested interest in keeping a low profile on Chronic Wasting Disease, which can strike elk and deer and may be slowly making its way toward New York from the Midwest. All these groups put pressure on his department to keep the status quo.

“People do not become high officials in government because of environmental concerns,” he says. Calls to DEC asking about cutbacks to the Wildlife Pathology Unit were not returned.

Along with his detractors, of course, over the years Stone has attracted a vast number of supporters as well. Dr. David Carpenter, director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University of Albany, and a former executive with the state Department of Health, thinks Stone’s willingness to speak out makes him unusual among state employees—and a gift to the people of New York.

Carpenter and Stone have at times been involved in the same issues, like Stone’s 1985 discovery of PCB contamination in turtles at the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation on the St. Lawrence River, which turned out to affect the people living there as well.

“The two intersect,” Carpenter says of the relationship between illness in the animal kingdom and in humans. “If you find diseases in animals, they’re going to get into people. The world is sufficiently small, and we’re enough like animals, that the health of animals should certainly be of concern to everybody.”

Ironically, Carpenter thinks what higher-ups don’t like about Stone is the fact that he refuses to be muzzled, as much or more than what he says.

“Ward has served a very important purpose,” Carpenter believes. “He’s been kind of the conscience of the agency. He’s ticked off a whole pile of people. The public owes him a great deal of thanks for not being intimidated.”

In the conference room at his father’s office, Ethan Alan Ward Stone circles the table, fidgeting with the blinds, playing with little doohickeys he finds in an open toolbox on the table, writing on the blackboard. Occasionally he curls up on his father’s lap. The elder Stone has been talking for more than an hour, and the little boy is getting restless, though his father plies him with Pop-Tarts and the promise of soup.

But Stone isn’t done yet.

Asked what message he’d like the public to remember from his work, Stone says, “I think people have to realize they’re dependent on the Earth.” Apparently thinking of the recent fascination with Mars exploration, he adds, “They’re not in control of what’s in space, or on Earth.”

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