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Death of a Naturalist

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 10, 2011

Anne LaBastille, the reclusive Adirondacks naturalist, has died at 77, in a New York State health care facility where she was being cared for after having developed Alzheimer’s Disease.

Her obituary in The Los Angeles Times (via The Kansas City Star) described her–incorrectly–as having both discovered a species, the giant pied-billed grebe, and lived to see it go extinct.   But she closely chronicled its extinction, which was the result of sports fishermen introducing smallmouth and largemouth bass into the lake where they lived.  These fish out-completed LaBastille’s giant pied-billed grebes for their primary food source, and the disastrous effects were compounded by the 1976 Guatamala earthquake.

Giant pied-billed grebe (Podylimbus gigas)

Her reach as an environmentalist extended to Guatemala, where she had discovered the flightless bird known as the giant pied-billed grebe at Lake Atitlan while leading nature tours in 1960.

When LaBastille returned five years later to study the rare bird, its population had declined by 50 percent. She wrote her doctoral dissertation for Cornell on the plight of the grebe, or “poc” as the bird was known locally, and spent 24 years campaigning to save it.

She persuaded the Guatemalan government to make the grebe’s habitat a wildlife refuge, launched educational programs and wrote about the doomed bird in her 1990 book “Mama Poc,” the nickname local residents gave her.

“Her work with the giant grebe was one of the few studies where someone, over a long period of time, monitored the extinction of a species,” Lassoie said. “The work was scientific but had a real personal and humanitarian part to it.”

She grew up, coincidentally, in my old home town, Montclair, NJ


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