Northern Michigan University alumnus and renowned eagle researcher William Bowerman ('91 MA) was among three innovators to receive the 2023 Lowell Thomas Award from The Explorers Club, an international professional society dedicated to the advancement of field research, scientific exploration and resource conservation. The ceremony was held last weekend in Oslo, Norway. The Munising native joins an impressive list of past recipients including Carl Sagan, Sir David Attenborough, Isaac Asimov, Sir Edmund Hillary, Buzz Aldrin and Louise Leakey.
Bowerman was recognized for his groundbreaking approach and relentless dedication to preserving eagle populations around the world, and for his contribution to understanding the impacts of human activity on complex ecological systems.
“It's surreal; I don't think anything in my life has been more prestigious than winning this award [named for broadcast journalist and explorer Lowell Thomas],” said Bowerman, a 2012 recipient of NMU's Distinguished Alumni Award. “How does a kid from Munising who admired Jacques Cousteau and other great explorers end up being honored at this level? Last spring, I was in the Upper Peninsula banding eagles and someone reached out to me for information on my work so he could nominate me for this award. I sent him some material, but figured it was highly unlikely I'd get it. He later called to report that I was selected. I was genuinely shocked.”
Bowerman is a professor of wildlife ecology and toxicology and former chair of the Department of Environmental Science and Technology at the University of Maryland. Next year will mark his fourth decade studying bald eagle ecology. He began exploring the effects of environmental pollutants in the Great Lakes region in 1984, and has since become a world-renowned champion of eagle conservation through environmental monitoring programs on every continent except Antarctica.
As the leader of SEA EAGLE, Bowerman guides a consortium of scientists and other experts monitoring environmental pollution by studying indigenous eagle species in 19 countries spread across four continents. Bowerman and his colleagues have trained more than 500 individuals on his monitoring techniques, which blend toxicology sampling methods with biological measures, assessment of disease and population ecology. Passionate about sharing his expertise, he also mentors graduate and undergraduate students—including some from NMU—in many research projects.
“My current focus is on the effects of the group of manufactured ‘forever chemicals' known as PFAS,” he said during a phone interview in advance of the awards ceremony. “The first samples in the environment—outside of humans—they found PFAS in were 12 of my bald eagle plasma samples in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin in 1993. We're also looking at climate change indicators. Eagles are nesting earlier; they're also getting smaller because of heat retention. And avian influenza is another topic we're addressing because we've seen an impact on Michigan's eagle population related to that over the past few years.”
During Bowerman's undergraduate studies at Western Michigan University, where he earned a bachelor's degree in biology, an assignment to write a research proposal for an ecology class launched his career trajectory. Knowing that fish represented about 90% of eagles' diets, he proposed exploring the potential impacts of fisheries management on nesting eagles. The professor told him “someone will fund this” and encouraged Bowerman to consider grad school, directing him to NMU. Dr. Bill Robinson from Northern reviewed the proposal and said Bowerman could use it for his master's thesis. The project was funded by the Michigan DNR 18 months later.
“Throughout my collegiate education, I had the right people to guide me. Bill helped me through a difficult time financially when I was waiting tables and bartending. He nominated me for a $500 scholarship from the U.P. Waterfowl Association for my eagle research, provided gas money for conducting waterfowl surveys and helped keep me going for a semester. He would also take students to meetings in his car, let us pile into his hotel rooms with sleeping bags and share his per diem for food.
“I may have more resources at my disposal in my current position, but there's a ‘can do' spirit at Northern that, combined with its size, makes that kind of teaching and personalized attention possible. Now there's a whole new generation of great faculty who teach many skill sets. There's also a bigger emphasis on research and a really wonderful science facility. The educational experience students get at Northern is equivalent to an Ivy League school. Students in the U.P. and at Northern need to understand it's possible to go on from there to achieve amazing things.”
While completing a doctorate in fisheries and wildlife-environmental toxicology from Michigan State, Bowerman engaged in early research on endocrine-disrupting chemicals that were affecting bald eagles' reproduction. He worked with his professors and a Blue Planet award winner to establish cause-and-effect linkages related to habitat, diet and contaminants.
Bowerman was inducted in March 2019 into The Explorers Club, which was founded in 1904 in New York City. He joined a small number of Fellows that include explorer-scientists who have been the first to the North and South poles, the moon, the deepest point in the ocean, and the summit of Everest. Others with local connections include George Shiras III and NMU alumnus and global climate scientist Frederick E. Nelson. Prior to his Lowell Thomas Award, Bowerman said becoming a Fellow of the club was “the coolest thing that ever happened to me.”
In addition to being an eagle expert, he is also an Eagle Scout. Bowerman is a past recipient of the Boy Scouts of America's most significant honor, the William T. Hornaday Gold Medal, for distinguished service to natural resource conservation at a regional, national or international level over a sustained period of at least 20 years.
He was also appointed to the International Joint Commission's Great Lakes Science Advisory Board in 1996, when the late Tom Baldini—also an NMU Distinguishes Alumnus—was serving a term as lead commissioner. Bowerman later co-chaired the advisory board from 2011-2014.
Learn more about The Explorers Club Lowell Thomas Award and past recipients here.