Tribute: Gary L. Larson, Limnologist

By Sam Brenkman1, Bob Hoffman2, retired, Bob Hughes3, Barbara Samora1, and Angela Strecker4

1 National Park Service
2 US Geological Survey
3 Amnis Opes Institute
4 Portland State University

Gary L. Larson
Gary L. Larson

Courtesy of Maria Larson Marx

Dr. Gary Larson died suddently on 3 October 2017 of cardiac arrest. This came as a shock to all of us who knew Gary as a big guy with a big smile and laugh, who was also an especially enthusiastic walker. Gary received his BSc in Fisheries (1966) and MSc in Limnology (1969) from the University of Washington, and his PhD in Zoology (1972) from the University of British Columbia. His research passion beginning in those years was montane limnology, particularly zooplankton ecology and the behavioral ecology of freshwater fish and amphibians. Gary began his postgraduate career as a research professor at Oregon State University (OSU) focusing on the toxicology of chloramines on crayfish. He then worked for the National Park Service in Great Smoky Mountains National Park (1977–1981) as an aquatic ecologist, and in the Midwest Regional Office (1981–1984) as regional chief scientist. During and following that period, Gary published several insightful articles documenting the displacement of native brook trout by nonnative rainbow trout in small Appalachian streams. In recognition of his contributions, he received an Honor Award for Superior Service from the US Department of the Interior in 1981. But Gary’s love of the Pacific Northwest brought him back to Oregon, where he was a research aquatic ecologist in the NPS Cooperative Park Studies Unit at OSU (1984–1993) and the US Geological Survey (USGS) Forest and Rangeland Ecosystem Science Center (FRESC; 1993–1996) in Corvallis, Oregon. From 1997 until his government retirement in 2006, Gary was a FRESC research manager, and also a FRESC acting codirector in 2003. He was a USGS scientist emeritus until 2016.

While in Oregon, Gary led two groundbreaking research programs. The first was the long-term monitoring and assessment of the water quality and ecology of Crater Lake (Crater Lake National Park; 1982–2007), which led to the publication of two special journal issues: Lake and Reservoir Management (1996) and Hydrobiologia (2007), in which Gary was senior or junior author of 16 articles covering topics ranging from water quality to fish ecology. Those studies documented the results of 10 and 20 years, respectively, of monitoring Crater Lake natural processes and effects on lake water clarity. Those long-term studies resulted from Gary’s impressive knack for leveraging limited funds and others’ scientific curiosity into a major systematic investigation. In recognition of his many contributions, Gary received the Pacific Northwest Regional Office Appreciation Award for Outstanding Assistance to Crater Lake National Park in 1987, the Research Scientist of the Year Award from the National Park Service in 1995, and the Superior Service Award from the National Park Service in 2006. He also received Star Monetary Awards from the USGS in 2003, 2004, and 2005.

The second research program centered on the ecological effects of introduced trout in national park lakes. That research incorporated a program review by independent scientists and generated 11 journal publications documenting the multiple negative effects of nonnative trout on lake food webs and amphibian behaviors. At Mount Rainier National Park, Gary worked with park staff for more than two decades to collect the first data set describing basic ecological conditions of park lakes that serve as an important benchmark for tracking long-term change in the park. Through these studies he also assisted the park in developing specific management actions to restore natural lake conditions. Gary was also involved in proposing and motivating aquatic research in North Cascades National Park, and worked closely with the staff of the National Park Service’s North Coast and Cascades Inventory and Monitoring Network and Klamath Network in supporting and participating in the development of their montane lake inventory and monitoring protocols and programs.

From the 1980s to 2000s, Gary provided key research and management contributions to the fisheries and aquatic programs at Olympic National Park. In 1987, Gary led some of the first limnological studies of mountain lakes in the park. In 1996, he assembled a scientific panel and coauthored a comprehensive report that was a catalyst for additional monitoring and management of Lake Ozette sockeye salmon. His efforts ultimately contributed key information to the federal listing of Ozette sockeye as a threatened species. In 2002, Gary assembled and chaired a panel of experts to address the status of Lake Crescent trout populations. The recommendations from the expert panel to the park superintendent led to key changes in fisheries management of the lake and generated future monitoring and research. Gary also worked with park staff to coauthor a journal article on federally threatened Lake Cushman bull trout.

As indicated by his publication productivity and awards, Gary was one of the few scientists who could both serve as an upper-level manager in a federal science center and publish consistently. As a thoughtful research manager, Gary helped guide FRESC through some difficult times and make the science center one of the most productive in the USGS. Gary was a caring, supportive, and enthusiastic mentor to many graduate students and young professionals who went on to develop successful research and management careers in natural resources science at local, regional, and national levels. In the context of these accomplishments, Gary’s focus was always to better understand and protect the natural world and the resources he deeply cherished.

After retiring from FRESC, Gary was keen to stay active in the field of limnology. Gary served on the board of directors of the Oregon Lakes Association and the advisory board of the Center for Lakes and Reservoirs at Portland State University. Ever the researcher, one of his retirement projects was compiling a large database of zooplankton assemblage compositions in mountain lakes of the USA and Canada, largely from unpublished paper reports. Ultimately, with Gary’s persistence and infectious love of limnology, the database grew to include over 1,200 lakes that covered almost 30 degrees of latitude. A collaborative publication that employed this important data set is currently in revision.

But Gary was much more than a highly productive scientist; his greatest love was reserved for his wife Ingrid, his two daughters and sons-in law Andrea (Jon) and Maria (Chris), and his four grandchildren, Torbin, Tobias, Solveig, and Rasmus. Gary also enjoyed music and folk dancing, the warm camaraderie of friends and colleagues, the conviviality of sharing good food and good wine (especially Ingrid’s home-cooked meals), enthusiastic and meaningful conversation, good jokes and laughter, and sharing in the adventures of the people who populated the landscape of his life. In addition to the challenges of limnological research, Gary delighted in self-remodeling his home and restoring a Model-A Ford. No matter what Gary did, he always did it with generosity and great enthusiasm. His journey was one of awareness and understanding of the natural world that he explored and studied, and of the people who traveled with him on his path of discovery.

Crater Lake National Park, Grand Teton National Park, Olympic National Park

Last updated: March 31, 2022