Forestry professor dies pursuing his passion

By Alice Haymond

UK forestry professor Dave Maehr was a man of “unwavering commitment” to conserving natural environments and animals, such as the black bear. Maehr, 52, was working on a project to save a bear population in Florida when he died last week in a plane crash.

“His passion was conserving and protecting wildlife and wild places. That was his life,” said John Cox, another professor in UK’s Department of Forestry.

Maehr was flying over Highlands County in Florida on June 20, tracking bears that he was using in a research project when the single-engine plane crashed around noon, killing both Maehr and the pilot, Mason Smoak.

The plane fell near Placid Lakes Airport, where it had taken off about 30 minutes before, said Lt. Tim Lethbridge of the Highlands County Sheriff’s Office. A witness told Lethbridge that it did not look like Smoak was trying to land.

The airport was small, with one strip and no control tower, Lethbridge said. The sheriff’s office handed the case over to the Federal Aviation Administration for further investigation.

Maehr had traveled down to Florida for about a month to research why a certain population of black bears along U.S. Route 27 was dwindling, Cox said. The bears were living on private ranches, state-owned lands and other properties, but they were also crossing U.S. Route 27 and getting hit by cars.

Cox said Maehr intended to find out why they were crossing so that he could set up a plan that would maintain their existence in that area.

“There’s a sense of urgency there ( in conservation ), and that flowed through him, that you’ve got to get these projects done…come up with solutions for them,” Cox said.

Maehr boarded the airplane to use its tracking equipment and locate one of the bears in that population. Cox said Maehr was planning to return to Kentucky that evening.

Maehr began working at UK in 1997, after he received his doctorate in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation from the University of Florida. In addition to the black bear conservation in Florida, Maehr was currently working on restoring the elk and recolonizing the black bear in Eastern Kentucky.

Before Cox was a professor in UK’s Department of Forestry, he was one of Maehr’s students for four and a half years. Maehr’s humor was his trademark, Cox said.

“He had a very kind of dry wit sense of humor,” Cox said. “Just about everything you did, he would couch it in some humorous context. But there was always seriousness underlining everything, an urgency and unwavering commitment (to conservation).”

Maehr’s current students said he was as much a friend as he was a mentor and teacher. Andrew Whittle, a forestry graduate student, said Maehr would often visit students researching in Eastern Kentucky, and they would spend many nights “just sitting out talking under the stars.”

“If you ever were down, he was the guy to talk to, he always had a joke,” Whittle said. “Always in a good mood, always willing to help.”

Cox said Maehr’s legacy would live on through all the successful graduate students that he mentored at UK.

“He would champion those people, definitely a mentor, a father-figure, a grandfather-figure to a number of students,” Cox said.

Maehr is survived by his wife, Diane; two children, Erin and Clifton; his parents, Robert B. and Carol Maehr; two brothers, Robert Brandt and Ted H. Maehr; and one sister, Jennifer C. Maehr.

A memorial service will be held Sunday at 10 a.m. at “The Grange,” about 20 miles northeast of Lexington at 1366 Millersburg Road, Paris, KY 40361. For directions, please visit UK’s Department of Forestry Web site (

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Dave Maehr Memorial Fund. Checks can be made out to University of Kentucky and sent to the following address: Dave Maehr Memorial Fund, University of Kentucky Office for Advancement, College of Agriculture, E.S. Good Barn, 1451 University Drive, Lexington, KY 40546.