Photo by: Joe Putrock
For more than three decades at the DECs Wildlife
Pathology Unit, Ward Stone has raised awareness of environmental
issuesnot to mention the ire of a vested interest
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
didn’t find any,” he says. “It was true, they were really
Today, he says, the situation is more dire than ever before.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.”