by Gael Bissell
The birding bug clearly caught Dan Casey early in life. He was just a New Jersey grade school student when he first joined his science teacher on winter trips to the coast. Not long after this inspiring event, Dan’s mother, Peggy Casey (as some of you may remember), soon purchased him a pair of binoculars and Dan discovered his life passion. He pursued his burgeoning interest in birds through high school and into college while pursuing both his undergraduate and graduate degrees in Wildlife Biology at Colorado State University. He completed his Master’s Degree on breeding bird communities in western Pennsylvania in 1979. Dan was working his first post-graduation job at Camp, Dresser & McKee Environmental Consulting in Wheat Ridge, Colorado when he and Susannah met. Married in 1982, they became parents 2 weeks before their first anniversary in 1983 and not long after that Dan succeeded in obtaining a wildlife biologist position with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks in Kalispell – to work on the wildlife impacts of Hungry Horse dam.
Strong believers in community, Dan and Susannah were soon participating in all types of Flathead activities including business, Flathead Audubon Society and other non-profits, schools, and the local arts. As a few of you may recall, not long after arriving in the Flathead, Susannah opened “Merlin’s”, an educational/toy store located in downtown Kalispell. The store was filled with books, puzzles, games, & science oriented toys. For those of us who raised our kids here, Merlin’s was an “experience” and ahead of its time. Participating for many years in Friends of Lawrence Park holds fond memories for Susannah: fireside meetings with home-made chocolate chip cookies at Dave and Janet Downey’s, and coordinating fund-raising spaghetti feeds. Susannah also helped Citizens for a Better Flathead with their “Go Local Guide” and worked on the Somers Community planning effort.
Dan and Susannah have been stalwart supporters of Flathead Audubon. Dan led countless Flathead Audubon field trips to Owen Sowerwine, Freezout Lake, Tally Lake, and Flathead River (float trips). Dan undertook the Cut Bank Breeding Bird Survey for many of the last 30 years and continues the Kalispell BBS route after taking it on. He coordinated the Bigfork Christmas Bird Counts from the mid-1980s and served as Flathead Audubon’s Field Trip Chair, Program Chair, and long-time Board member and advisor. He taught both Beginning and Advanced Birding classes at FVCC and helped with the Beauty of Birds class for many years along with leading senior birding trips. During the same time, Susannah participated in supporting roles at meetings, helped dole out tons of sunflower seeds (sometimes in blizzards) and attempted to get creature comforts included in field trips and bird counts! It was Susannah’s idea to have a camping field trip at Tally Lake – the best way to “claim” the warbler-rich habitat – a field trip that has earned its name. “Warbler Weekend.” The banner she made for the chapter is one of her fabric projects that she is truly proud of.
On a hike in the Jewel Basin one fall, it occurred to Dan that there were a large number of accipiters passing through the area. This observation led to him establishing the annual fall “Jewel Basin Hawk Watch”, an important survey of thousands of migrating raptors – now entering its ninth year.
As most of you know, Dan birds incessantly and with some of the best birders in the country. He kept accurate lists (this was before E-bird) and became a charter member of the Montana Bird Records Committee for 20 years, and served eight of those as Chair. He also served as the Montana editor of Christmas Bird Counts for National Audubon from 1994 through 2013. As development began to threaten Montana’s incredible bird habitats, conservation organizations and agencies began to draw on Dan’s expertise to begin protecting some of these key bird habitat areas not only in the Flathead, but across all of Montana and the West.
Through his wildlife work at Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, Dan helped define Montana’s nongame and bird conservation programs. He initiated a multi-year nongame bird-monitoring program along Hungry Horse and Libby dams and then began working with the U.S. Forest Service’s new landbird monitoring program. He served as Montana Partners in Flight Coordinator from 1993-2000 and wrote the key parts of the first Montana Bird Conservation Plan completed in 2000. Dan also helped establish Montana Chapter of The Wildlife Society’s first nongame symposia and wrote the first “Nongame News” articles for Montana Outdoors.
Dan left Fish, Wildlife & Parks in January 2000 to open up the Northern Rockies Office for American Bird Conservancy in downtown Kalispell. Through this position, Dan greatly expanded bird habitat knowledge and both he and Susannah used that knowledge to increase local conservation activities. Dan served on the technical committees for three different Montana Joint Ventures: Intermountain West, Prairie Pothole, and the Northern Great Plains. (Joint Ventures are highly technical collaborations of both public and private organizations that work together to conserve important bird habitats across specific regions of the country). As part of his work with the American Bird Conservancy, Dan wrote the Landbird Implementation Plans for two Joint Ventures. He also chaired the Western States Working Group of Partners in Flight, authored and/or edited the technical questions of nine successful standard North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA) Grants in Montana (grantees included the Flathead Land Trust among many other conservation organizations and agencies).
After closing Merlin’s in 1994 and pursuing other positions, Susannah joined Dan at American Bird Conservancy as a GIS specialist, becoming an invaluable partner in the Flathead River to Lake Initiative, a collaborative of conservation organizations and agencies focused on protecting important riparian/wetland and farmlands along the Flathead River and North Shore. Susannah mapped and analyzed various wetland habitats, land ownerships, prime agricultural soils, ground water and many other attributes of the Flathead Valley to help partners obtain grants and fund the subsequent successful conservation of over 5,000 acres of riparian/wetlands and farms in the Flathead Valley (see http://www.flatheadrivertolake.org) .
Susannah retired from American Bird Conservatory in 2012, and Dan became the leader of the Northern Great Plains Joint Venture in Billings in October 2014. The Caseys now live in Billings but have kept their Somers home and still come back to the Flathead as often as possible. Our hope is that they will retire here when the time is right.
Without a doubt, Dan and Susannah have had an incredible positive influence on our quality of life in the Flathead Valley through their sense of community and commitment to education, science, volunteerism, and the arts. Dan’s pioneering work in both the early phases of the state’s nongame and avian programs helped shape the future of these programs and have led to a huge increase our bird knowledge that, in turn, has led and is still leading to greater efforts and collaborations in bird conservation. It is with great appreciation that we recognize their incredible and invaluable efforts to benefit our valley, our wildlife resources, and our state. Thank you Dan and Susannah Casey!