Phil Goodrum: Pioneer Wildlife Biologist
The man known as Bull put federal wildlife funds to work in Texas.
By Mike Cox
Congressional passage of a landmark wildlife law in 1937 triggered an infusion of money for conservation efforts in Texas, but it took people to put the new funding source to work.
And while the old Texas Game, Fish and Oyster Commission managed the federal dollars that began flowing into the state, made possible by the Pittman-Robertson Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, one man deserves much of the credit for getting the program up and running. His name was Phil DeQuincy Goodrum Sr. Family and friends knew him simply as “Bull.”
“The Division of Wildlife Restoration of the Texas Game and Fish Commission, directed by Goodrum, compiled a record never equaled in Texas,” Goodrum’s friend, former co-worker and King Ranch wildlife manager Val Lehmann later observed. “Among the accomplishments were a statewide survey of all principal game species and extensive trapping and restoration programs involving white-tailed deer, wild turkey and antelope.”
The work Goodrum did had an impact on all of Texas, but his story started in East Texas, the part of the state where he spent most of his life.
When not behind a plow, Goodrum as a youth passed a lot of time hunting quail and squirrel on his family’s 300-acre farm located on a bend of the Trinity River. He loved the outdoors, but having a long career in wildlife conservation is not how Goodrum envisioned his future early in life.
Born Feb. 10, 1906, in the small Houston County community of Weldon, a once-thriving farming town where his dad ran a general store, Goodrum grew to a stout, barrel-chested 6-something-footer who excelled at athletics and was a three-sport collegiate standout. After attending what was then called Sam Houston State Teachers College in Huntsville, Goodrum went into public education. He coached and taught at Groveton High School, where his football players won a state championship, and later coached and taught chemistry in Pasadena.
As the Great Depression came on and quickly worsened, Goodrum lost his job. Landing on his feet in the tall pines, Goodrum got a job as a camp leader with the Civilian Conservation Corps. Running CCC tent camps in the Pineywoods, a job that involved everything from teaching workers to read to overseeing work crews to running the camp mess hall, Goodrum became increasingly interested in conservation. According to his son, he also became a heck of a cook.
In 1936, at 30, he began making weekend trips to Huntsville to visit with pioneer wildlife biologist Walter P. Taylor, who ran the Texas Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit at Texas A&M University and was doing field work in Walker County. That’s where Goodrum met Lehmann, who was helping Taylor.
Just because he found it interesting, Goodrum began volunteering his help on research the two men were doing on squirrels and other wildlife in that area of the state.
At Taylor’s urging, Goodrum decided to quit the CCC and seek a master’s degree in wildlife management (the degree from the College of Agriculture at A&M was then called master of science — wild game). He graduated with that new degree (the first ever conferred by the school) in 1938 and went to work as a state game warden.
While Goodrum was sitting in classrooms in College Station, Congress was debating the Pittman-Robertson Act. Passed at the urging of a national coalition of hunters and anglers, the new law repurposed an existing 11 percent excise tax on rifles, shotguns and ammunition and dedicated it for apportionment to each state to pay for wildlife restoration.
There was a catch, of course. States had to meet certain requirements, including a stipulation that the money that states derived from hunting license sales could be used only by their game and fish agencies. Further, states had to submit plans outlining intended uses of the federal money for approval by the secretary of the interior. Following the OK from Washington, states would be reimbursed for 75 percent of the cost of a particular wildlife restoration project. The rest of the money had to come from state funds.
Meanwhile, back in the tall timber of East Texas, Goodrum did not wear a game warden’s badge very long. When Will J. Tucker created the Wildlife Restoration Division, he selected Goodrum as division director. He moved to Austin, which is where he ultimately met Marian, his wife of 43 years.
The new federal law that stimulated wildlife restoration raised $3.25 million nationally in its first year on the books, including $46,238 that went to Texas with another $155,868 expected for 1938-39.
“The days of hit-and-miss planting of game in Texas are past, and interest is spreading like wildfire,” Goodrum told the Associated Press in March 1938.
Goodrum understood that before the department could begin its efforts to restore wildlife in Texas, it needed to know where it stood. Gearing up for that effort, he put together a staff, hiring Lehmann and another recent A&M grad named Dan Lay, among others.
“In a word,” Lehmann later wrote, “Goodrum accumulated and held the best staff of wildlife biologists ever to serve in Texas. He and his men turned out more work and more publications than any other group that has ever served in Texas, or, as a matter of fact, in any other state.”
During an era when even making a long-distance telephone call was considered too expensive for routine business, Goodrum directed the efforts of his staff primarily by mail and telegram with only periodic face-to-face meetings. Dividing the state into five wildlife regions, he oversaw the effort to establish a baseline of wildlife data for the state and planned projects based on those findings.
“He had a charismatic personality,” his youngest son, Bill Goodrum, says. “He was a detail person and very organized. He catalogued all his files and books. Growing up in the Depression, he also didn’t waste anything and kept everything ‘just in case’ you might need it.”
Clearly understanding the need to educate the public about wildlife and conservation, Goodrum was good at dealing with reporters and outdoor writers. In addition, he reached out to sportsman’s groups and civic clubs. Until wildlife could be restored, he said again and again, lower bag limits and shorter seasons were needed.
Had it not been for World War II, Goodrum and his staff might have been able to do even more for Texas wildlife. In a July 1943 letter to legendary West Texas rancher Watt Matthews, who worked closely with the department in wildlife restoration, Goodrum wrote: “The war has caused so many changes in our programs that I still do not know what can be done [in regard to stocking Rio Grande turkeys]. … Feed and labor is practically impossible to get.”
In late 1944, the prospect of a better salary and the chance to do more hands-on research in the field lured Goodrum away from the department, and he took a job as a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Georgia.
Succeeding Goodrum in Texas was Dan Lay, who spent 40 years with the department. One of the first things Lay did was see to completion of a project begun by his former boss, publication of Principal Game Birds and Animals of Texas. That document was based on the statewide wildlife survey Goodrum had undertaken. Too, less than a year after Goodrum left, the department acquired its first wildlife management area with Pittman-Robertson money, the Sierra Diablo at Van Horn.
Beyond his scientific acumen, Goodrum had developed the reputation of being a good man behind a podium. “Mr. Goodrum, a Texan, [and] a humorist, is a man whose talks appeal especially to men who like out of doors life,” one newspaper noted in advancing his presentation to a local sportsman’s club.
Transferring back home to Texas as soon as he could, Goodrum spent the rest of his federal career based in Nacogdoches. He continued with his squirrel research and also did field work involving wading birds.
As time passed, Goodrum became more and more convinced of the importance of hardwoods in the general ecological scheme of things in East Texas. Not only did squirrels need them for habitat and food, the acorns those trees produced constituted a major portion of a white-tailed deer’s diet. Federal, state and timber company-managed forestlands, on the other hand, had a common practice of girdling or killing all the hardwoods they could to make more room for commercial stands of faster-growing pine.
Needless to say, public land managers and the timber industry did not see Goodrum’s findings in the same light.
“For many years,” wrote C. Edward Carlson, then chief of the USFWS Division of Wildlife Research, “he stood almost alone demanding a measure of recognition for wildlife in the coastal plain flat woods. Eventually, the soundness and immediacy of his views began to take hold and the tide began to turn. It can truly be said that he cut a broad swath in the interests of wildlife management specifically, and for sound conservation generally.”
In 1964, Goodrum received the American Motors Award for Conservation, a prestigious national recognition the automobile manufacturer had been conferring since 1953. Specifically, the citation accompanying the plaque noted Goodrum’s efforts in bringing back white-tailed deer, turkey and antelope in Texas, his research-based publications and, finally, his “courageous efforts to point out the harmful effects on wildlife of elimination of hardwood species in southern woodlands, resulting finally in wide recognition of the soundness of his position, and of the need for full presentation of the wildlife management point of view in formulating forestry program.”
What the citation did not mention is that Goodrum invented what his son calls a “gizmo” for removing squirrels from traps so that they could be tagged and numbered without anyone getting bitten. He also developed a toenail-clipping numbering technique for squirrels.
Goodrum grudgingly retired from federal service in 1976, but only because back then 70 stood as the mandatory retirement age.
“Bull” died of cancer at 77 in Nacogdoches on Oct. 22, 1983, his youngest son’s birthday. Beyond the impact he had on forestry, Goodrum’s legacy lives on in a couple of ways.
Son Bill also became a wildlife biologist, playing a key role in establishing wildlife management and conservation programs on 2.1 million acres owned by timber company Temple-Inland. In 2001, the Department of Interior recognized that effort with its prestigious Conservation Service Award.
Also, Lehmann explains, “As a result of game trapping and redistribution, antelope were restored as a game species in Texas. Deer and wild turkey populations were increased to the point that Texas has higher populations and higher annual kills than any other state.”
Reflecting on his father, son Bill put it this way:
“From my perspective, his inner being was a love of land and wildlife. It was the fiber of his core values. He wanted to understand and know wildlife and their habitats and better manage the resource, then pass it on to others.”