THE FIRST TIME I interviewed Sam Wasser was in 1997.
The Northwest timber wars were still flaring, though the epic battle over the region’s remaining old-growth forests had already tilted in favor of environmentalists. Logging communities were seething as they watched their livelihoods disappear.
Into this pressure cooker walked Wasser, with a technique to measure the stress levels of northern spotted owls by analyzing their poop. The old-growth-dwelling birds, listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, were the flashpoint in a debate often reduced to “owls versus jobs.” In the early ’90s, someone nailed a dead owl to a sign in Olympic National Park with a threatening note.
Many loggers insisted that roaring chainsaws and toppling trees didn’t bother the owls, who often would perch near timber operations. But Wasser found much higher levels of stress hormones in owls near logging sites.
I wrote a breezy story for The News Tribune of Tacoma, where I worked at the time, and dubbed Wasser the “guru of doo-doo” — a nickname that has followed him ever since.
The fallout was fast and furious — long before the era of Twitter and Facebook.
Timber groups issued scathing statements, wondering why no one was measuring the stress levels of unemployed loggers. One industry representative suggested that Wasser take two aspirin and some Preparation H and go back to the Smithsonian Institution, where he had previously worked. Radio host Paul Harvey — best-known for his “The Rest of the Story” pieces — said Wasser deserved a Golden Fleece Award for squandering public research money on owl poop.
“I was so devastated, because I loved Paul Harvey,” Wasser told me during one of our interviews for this week’s story.
It was his first taste of the passions that can ignite when economic interests and wildlife conservation collide.
Today, Wasser’s focus has shifted to elephants, ivory and wildlife trafficking, where the conflicts often turn deadly. At least 63 African rangers died in the line of duty in 2017, many of them killed by poachers.
Among the dead was Wasser’s friend and fellow conservationist Wayne Lotter, founder of the PAMS Foundation, which works with local communities to fight poaching. Lotter was gunned down in a taxi on his way from the airport to his hotel in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
The stakes are higher now than being bad-mouthed on the radio, but Wasser doesn’t let that stop him from traveling to Africa. He just keeps a low profile when he’s there — and doesn’t set up meetings very far in advance.