‘There’s so much worth saving’

Oregon biologist Pepper Trail weighs on in our response to climate change

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For a long time, climate change was largely perceived as a distant threat.

But Oregon biologist Pepper Trail, 70, who often writes for the opinion service Writers on the Range, said he and other close observers have noticed climate shifts for decades.

He’s seen it in the premature blossoming of flowers, the diminishing snow caps on mountains, and, most strikingly, the increasing frequency of wildfires scorching the landscapes around him.

“I’m a naturalist,” Trail said, “and like many who have been sounding the alarm for years, I’m increasingly frustrated and struggling to avoid pessimism.”

Trail has also investigated wildlife crime. Before retiring in 2021, he served as a senior forensic scientist in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Forensics Laboratory in Oregon, investigating about 100 crimes a year, usually involving bird smuggling.

From an early age, Trail said he had an affinity for birds and knew he wanted to pursue ornithology — once he learned that was a “thing.” His studies in animal behavior and evolution led to field research in South America. Later, chance placed him in Oregon with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Forensics Laboratory.

“I’m proud of the work I did in my career,” he said, “but the problem with anything in conservation is that there are no permanent victories. We may save a place, or we may solve a crime, but there’s always tomorrow and new challenges.”

One major win during his career was exposing an illegal trade in which dead hummingbirds were marketed as charms believed to attract love. This illicit practice, which posed a significant threat to hummingbird populations, was prevalent in Mexico and was spreading in the United States.

“It was really something not known at all before, so we raised a lot of people’s awareness of that issue,” he said.

One major source of frustration to this day, however, was a failed attempt to secure protections in Africa for hornbills, a tropical bird whose skulls, called casques, are collected for traditional medicine and as decorative items.

“Although we documented that the trade of these skulls was threatening the survival of that species, that was an example where I wasn’t able to do what I wanted to do,” Trail said.

In light of the ongoing and escalating threats to nature, Trail said he is no Jane Goodall, the ecologist who is “seemingly able to maintain a bottomless source of optimism and share that with people.” Yet he finds ways to hold onto hope himself.

“Where I find solace is my personal connections with the natural world, and how much beauty and diversity remains,” he said. “That’s why I travel, to confirm to myself there are still so many places worth saving; so many places of incredible beauty and natural vitality.”

Jonathan Romeo is a Western news reporter for Writers on the Range ( He lives in Durango, Colorado.