Thomas J Allen - Butterfly and Wildlife Expert
Published: 03/28/2003
Page: 1D

If variety adds spice to any person's life, then Tom Allen's career would make some pretty tasty salsa.

Allen will retire from the state Division of Natural Resources at the end of the month as a wildlife biologist whose 32-year career has allowed him to work with everything from black bears to butterflies, and as an artist whose works are seen on a sizable percentage of the state's automobiles.

"Tom is one of the most multi-talented people I've ever been associated with," says Bernie Dowler, the DNR's deputy director. "He's very bright, and very capable of doing many, many things."

Curtis Taylor, chief of the agency's Wildlife Resources Section, puts it even more simply.

"We'll probably never find another biologist with his array of talents," Taylor says.

Former DNR biologist Jack Cromer spotted those talents at a wildlife conference in early 1970. Allen was getting ready to graduate from the University of Maine with an undergraduate degree in entomology and a master's in wildlife management, and Cromer apparently saw something he liked in the young Bostonian.

Allen's first assignment was to take Cromer's place as the state's principal deer biologist, a job he held for nearly 20 years. But even with the state's major game species as his primary responsibility, Allen quickly found his talents in demand for other projects.

"My first project was the introduction of wild boar into Boone and Logan counties in 1971," he recalls. "At the same time, I worked on a turkey telemetry study on the Greenbrier-Pocahontas county line."

Allen struck up a friendship with Joe Rieffenberger, the DNR's resident black-bear expert, and put in "a fair amount of time" helping to capture and tag bears in an ongoing research project. In addition, he's participated in bat studies, rattlesnake research, woodcock and wood duck surveys - all of which were squeezed in between major projects.

Toward the end of the 1970s, Allen began work on a research project to determine whether raccoon-hunting clubs' attempts to stock captive raccoons were paying off.

"By following the actions of several radio-collared raccoons, we were able to find that the clubs were only getting about a 6 percent return on their investment," Allen says.

In the mid-1980s, he began one of his most successful projects - the reintroduction of otters into West Virginia's waterways.

"We stocked 249 otters between 1984 and 1997, and they have done well," Allen says. "Right now, we're doing surveys to determine how abundant the otters have become, and whether it's time to lift the ban on hunting or trapping them."

For the past seven years, Allen has led West Virginia's portion of the eight-state Appalachian Cooperative Grouse Study, a research project to determine why grouse populations in the southern Appalachians have been declining.

Deputy director Dowler says the project might never have gotten launched without Allen's efforts.

"Tom did a masterful job with the grouse study," he says. "Tom set up the trapping and collecting procedures for the entire project, and he was the project's leader during its early stages. He organized it and he coordinated it."

Allen says a book on the study is in the works, and should be published sometime in 2005.

"Virtually nothing was known about Appalachian grouse before the project began," he says. "This book will fill in a lot of blanks."

But the grouse book's impact pales in comparison to the impact Allen made with a book he produced in his spare time. "The Butterflies of West Virginia and their Caterpillars," published in 1997, is the work the 62-year-old biologist will most be remembered for.

He researched the scientific information, he collected the specimens, and he took the close-up color photographs that grace the 388-page volume.

"In the great scheme of things, his butterfly book broke more new ground than anything else," says wildlife chief Taylor. "The subject had never been looked at, at all. I'm not sure that book has an equal anywhere in the country."

Allen says his fascination with butterfly collecting literally dates back to his toddler years.

"My mother made me a red net so she could see me above the grass in the field," he recalls. "I ended up collecting specimens from all around the world."

Allen recently donated his 25,000-specimen collection to the McGuire Center for Biodiversity and the Environment in Gainesville, Fla.

"It had gotten too big for me to keep," he says.

So, too, had Allen's collections of minerals, rocks and Indian artifacts. He's planning to donate those to Wheeling's Oglebay Park.

Important as Allen's biological contributions have been to the people of West Virginia, they'll never be as visible as his contributions as a wildlife artist. He started an art business in 1972, shortly after he moved to the Mountain State, and has kept his hand in it ever since.

"Since then, I've done about 20 paintings for limited-edition prints," he says.

His painting of a bald eagle hangs in the U.S.S. West Virginia, the state's namesake nuclear missile submarine. His paintings of a rose-breasted grosbeak and a white-tailed deer grace the state's two wildlife-themed license plates.

"Without a doubt, Tom's artistic abilities have been an asset to the agency," Taylor says. "From the artwork he's done for some of our brochures and publications, to the paintings he created for our wildlife calendar, and to the license plates, his works have helped to provide funding for the agency's Wildlife Diversity Program."

Allen says he's particularly proud of the work he's done with non-game species, and plans to continue that work after his retirement.

"I'm not planning to slow down very much," he says. "I've still got a lot of work to do."

That work will be with the aforementioned McGuire Center, as a research associate with primary emphasis on endangered or threatened butterfly species.

"I've always liked the tropics," he says. "My wife and I are buying a house in Cape Coral, Fla. We'll be closer to my mom, who's 99 and lives in Florida, and I'll be able to do a lot of butterfly work."

Part of Allen, however, will remain in West Virginia - not only his work and his art, but also a piece of his heart.

"Let's put it this way," he says. "I've enjoyed my time here."

Writer John McCoy can be reached at 736-6186 or by e-mail at