Born to a blue-collar family on Evansville’s West Side, Steve Bohleber had few opportunities to travel. He didn’t mind. Armed with his grandfather’s camera and an affinity for what he calls “creepy, crawly things,” Bohleber explored his backyard, his neighborhood, and the newly developing East Side with a child’s curiosity.
A teenage Bohleber dreamed of becoming a research biologist. His career plan shifted, but Bohleber — a practicing attorney for 35 years — never lost his passion for the natural world. The citizen scientist has conducted bat research in the Amazon with a team from the Smithsonian Institution, played with pandas in China, and had a newly discovered species — Bohleber’s water bear — named after him in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. His proudest accomplishment is his role in a quest to document all forms of wildlife in the park, which straddles the border between Tennessee and North Carolina. The ongoing project will serve as a model for other scientific surveys and could lead to astounding medical breakthroughs — but it could be in danger of ending before it’s complete.
Growing up as the only child of a Faultless Caster factory worker and a stay-at-home mother, Bohleber loved the outdoors. He caught insects, frogs, snakes, and turtles and photographed plants and animals with a camera from his grandfather, an amateur photographer who taught Bohleber the basics.
When he was 8 or 9, his parents took him on vacation to the Smoky Mountains. Seeing the streams and waterfalls — plus the occasional black bear in the parking lot begging for food — “inspired me to always want to have a connection with that place,” he recalls. Later, as a Reitz High School student, he studied under biology teachers Simon Krueger and Larry Lyons (the late father of 14 WFIE chief meteorologist Jeff Lyons). Both were inspiring educators and “guys who thought outside the box,” Bohleber says; one class researched the effects of radiation and growth hormones on living organisms.
Bohleber thought he was destined for a career as a research biologist. A school counselor had other ideas. “My guidance counselor called me in after he reviewed my SAT tests and told me he didn’t think I was college material,” Bohleber says. The counselor offered another suggestion: Bohleber should consider auto mechanics. “It was the last thing on earth I wanted to do,” he says.
He enrolled as a biology student at Indiana State University – Evansville, the predecessor to the University of Southern Indiana, but struggled with the required mathematics classes. “I quickly realized I probably would be in Vietnam if I didn’t change my major,” Bohleber says, “because I absolutely flunked those classes.” Mesmerized by the political turmoil of the late ’60s — “I was a long-haired hippie” — he changed his focus to political science and history. (His law office’s “on hold” music still includes Donovan’s ’60s hit “Mellow Yellow.”)
After graduating magna cum laude, Bohleber attended Indiana University School of Law – Indianapolis and became a practicing attorney in 1975. Although his law practice requires him to clock significant time indoors, his love of the natural world continues to influence him. He decorates his fifth-floor Court Building office with dozens of framed photographs shot around the world, from polar bears in Manitoba, Canada, to pandas in China’s Szechwan province. He has volunteered as a docent at Mesker Park Zoo & Botanic Garden for more than 25 years, has served on the Board of Park Commissioners for 17 years, and sits on the zoo’s advisory board. Farther from home, he has conducted bat research in the Amazon rainforest canopy and in the caves of Kentucky, and around 20 of his nature photographs have been published in a guidebook for Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He’s owned a condo in the Smokies since 1985 and has hiked nearly half of the park’s 800-plus miles of trails.
Still, of all Bohleber’s accomplishments, he says participating in the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory (ATBI) in the Smokies has been most rewarding. The project, coordinated by the nonprofit Discover Life in America (DLIA), draws hundreds of researchers, citizen scientist volunteers, teachers, and students from around the world, all with a single mission: surveying all plant and animal life forms in the more than half a million acres of the park.
Bohleber began volunteering as a citizen scientist in 2002 after the project launched in the late 1990s, helping researchers collect species and taking photographs. He serves on the DLIA board of directors and was one of the first non-scientists asked to assume a leadership role.
As of January 2010, researchers have discovered 907 species previously unknown to science. They’ve identified 6,582 species new to the park, and one — a type of tardigrade — will be named after Bohleber. The microscopic, water-dwelling invertebrate commonly is called a water bear “because it sort of lumbers along,” he says, “and looks like a little fat, furry bear.” Once the new species is confirmed to be previously undiscovered, the Ramazzotius bohleberi will be known as “Bohleber’s water bear.” (Bohleber did not discover the species, but requested to have a new discovery named for him. Scientists agreed due to his contributions to the project.)
The ATBI has been ongoing for more than a decade, thanks to partnerships with the National Park Service, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Great Smoky Mountains Association, and other nonprofits, plus funding from nonprofit and corporate donors. But the money is dwindling, says Bohleber, due to the economic downturn. Still, even if the survey ends prematurely, it has set a precedent for more than a dozen state and national park systems — including Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park — that Bohleber says have expressed interest in conducting a similar study.
Why is such an inventory so important? “The more we learn about life on the planet,” Bohleber says, “the more we have a chance of saving ourselves. We’ve synthesized almost half our pharmaceuticals from the tropical rainforest, but we only understand a small percentage of those plants. This project could result in the discovery of a new organism that may be a cure for cancer or AIDS or other maladies of mankind. We won’t know until we find it and until people do research on it.”
Bohleber acknowledges he’d like to live closer to the Smokies — one of his favorite places since childhood — but says the area shapes his everyday life in Evansville. “I try to do things the green way, even the practice of law,” he says. While he finds the career satisfying, he also finds happiness in the activities that engrossed him as a child: exploring and photographing the natural world. “I probably spend as much time volunteering as working in my profession,” Bohleber says. “That’s just what makes life fulfilling. You always can find time for the things you love.”