As a teenager in Missouri not long after the turn of the 20th century, J. Clark Salyer was frequently given permission to leave school early to run his trapline through the marshes for muskrat and in the uplands for foxes, raccoons, skunks and opossums. That earned him as much as $750 a year toward college, according to George Laycock in The Sign of the Flying Goose. Salyer never lost his love of the outdoors.
He taught science in the public schools of Parsons, Kansas, and biology at Bethel College in Newton, Kansas, before deciding to pursue a Ph.D. in biology at the University of Michigan. Jay N. “Ding” Darling, then Chief of the Bureau of Biological Survey, convinced him to take a year off to develop a nationwide waterfowl management program. Waterfowl management based on the habitat needs of migratory birds had never been tried on a national scale.
Salyer took a full time position in 1934 as Chief of the Wildlife Refuge Program. Within six weeks, he had driven 18,000 miles and drawn up plans for 600,000 acres of new refuge lands. Under his direction, the Refuge System grew from 1.5 million acres in the mid-1930s to 29 million acres in 1964, when Salyer retired as the first Chief of the Refuge System.
Laycock writes that Salyer’s pace wore out government cars at a furious pace. One refuge manager riding behind Salyer is reported to have said, “Look at those arms waving. Every time his hand goes out that window, it means spending another thousand dollars we don’t have.”
But Salyer had a reputation for getting the money, too. “You had to howl like a gut-shot panther,” he once said. “Everybody always had his hand out for a piece of the refuges. You had to know how to say ‘no.’”
By 1958, Salyer had lost his eyesight, but he could remember details of virtually every refuge he had visited. In 1962, Interior Secretary Stewart L. Udall honored him with the department’s Distinguished Service Award. Ding Darling considered him the “salvation of the duck restoration program of 1934-36. He did most of the work for which I was awarded medals.”
Not long after Salyer’s death in 1966, Lower Souris National Wildlife Refuge in North Dakota was renamed the J. Clark Salyer National Wildlife Refuge to honor his legacy.