man's portrait

ASU remembers former Professor Robert Ohmart

By

Lisa Robbins

Robert D. Ohmart, a titan of southwestern ecology and former professor at Arizona State University, passed away at his home in Chandler, Arizona on Jan. 14. He was surrounded by his family.

Ohmart's team of field researchers conducted the seminal work that established the blueprint for habitat and wildlife needs in the Southwest.

Ohmart was born in McDonald, Texas, and chose to pursue his career in the West.

Having received his bachelor’s (1961) and master’s (1963) degrees in wildlife management and biology from the University of New Mexico, Ohmart went on to complete his doctorate in vertebrate zoology at the University of Arizona in 1968. After two years of a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of California at Davis he was hired as assistant professor in the zoology department at Arizona State University in 1970 and achieved full professor in 1981.

Ohmart was a major force in the creation of ASU's wildlife biology program, which was incorporated into the Applied Biological Sciences Program with a wildlife concentration located at the Polytechnic campus. He was also very much involved in the development of the Center for Environmental Studies, which became the current Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability. Much of Ohmart's research at that time helped build the early ecological research reputation of the center.

His long-term research in collaboration with Bertin Anderson, along the lower Colorado River from Davis Dam to the Mexican border, laid the foundation for understanding habitat requirements of the resident wildlife and restoring that habitat to historical conditions. He initiated similar studies along other southwestern rivers like the Rio Grande and Pecos, documenting habitat relationships of birds and other wildlife and pioneering habitat restitution. Much of what his efforts discovered led to restoration projects throughout the Southwest. From the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Ohmart received over $2 million in grants, which supported many students conducting field studies in Arizona during the 1970s and ‘80s.

Over the years he also received funding from U.S. Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. International Boundary and Water Commission, Arizona Game and Fish Department and Lawrence Livermore Laboratory. These studies produced over 100 publications and over 50 reports.

Ohmart loved teaching. His wildlife students, both undergraduate and graduate, received hands-on learning and many have gone on to careers at federal and state agencies. Ohmart was also very involved in the community and gave presentations to organizations, local schools and senior citizen groups.

His work in the conservation arena was tireless. He played a major role in influencing conservation for the desert nesting bald eagle and the southwestern willow flycatcher. His 1980 report, “The Bald Eagle of the Southwest with Special Emphasis on the Breeding Population of Arizona,” was the first to recognize the need to consider the unique local habitat characteristics to effectively conserve the southwestern bald eagle. 

His many riparian publications and expertise have been the basis for several successful legal petitionings of federal agencies to protect numerous declining riparian species. Ohmart was always open to educate everyone from undergraduate students to leaders of major conservation organizations, participating in many field trips to important southwestern riparian habitats. He was critically influential in the early phases of the long-running efforts to save the San Pedro and Verde rivers, Fossil Creek and other rare surviving desert streams. He was particularly devoted to stopping proposed reservoirs related to the Central Arizona Project, and to implementation of responsible livestock grazing in riparian habitats.

In 1985, Ohmart was awarded the Thomas E. McCullough Memorial Award by the Arizona Wildlife Federation, and in 2009 he was inducted into Arizona Game and Fish Department’s Outdoor Hall of Fame. He also served on the Board of Directors for the Center for Holistic Resources Management, Liberty Wildlife Rehabilitation Center and served as vice president at the Cooper Ornithological Society. He was also president of the New Mexico-Arizona Section of the Wildlife Society. Ohmart served on advisory committees for bald eagle and southwestern willow flycatcher recovery, and was the chair of the host committee for the 103rd Meeting of the American Ornithologists’ Union held at ASU.

After retiring in 2006, he focused on his love of farming. With guidance from Dan James, one of his graduate students, he shifted all energy to creating a new company called Double ”O” Enterprises. The mission was to provide a diverse blend of native Sonoran plant seed to revegetate disturbed landscapes. 

Services are to be held at 11 a.m. Jan. 27, at Sun Valley Community Church, 6101 S. River Drive in Tempe, ArizonaIn lieu of flowers, donations in his memory may be made to the Liberty Wildlife Rehabilitation Foundation, 2600 E. Elwood St., Phoenix, AZ 85040, or Hospice of the Valley, 1510 E. Flower St., Phoenix, AZ 85014.

Cindy D. Zisner and Richard L. Glinski contributed to this story.