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Bart O'Gara of Lolo, the longtime director of the Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit at the University of Montana and nationally recognized wildlife researcher, died Wednesday at Porter Residential Hospice Home in Denver.

He was 80 years old.

O'Gara became assistant leader of the Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit in 1979, and served as director until his retirement in 1992. The unit is a collaboration between UM, the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, U.S. Geological Survey and the Wildlife Management Institute - a private organization.

"Cooperative research units around the country are extremely important in developing wildlife researchers," said Dan Pletscher, director of UM's wildlife biology program and a colleague of O'Gara's.

"Bart was the adviser for - I wish I knew how many - but it must be close to 100 graduate students over the years," Pletscher said. "Now they are all over the U.S. and beyond in leadership positions today."

O'Gara would help students identify an important problem to solve in applied wildlife research and then get them started in the field, according to Pletscher.

"One of his students once said, 'You know, Bart never had any kids, but I don't know of anyone who has had more influence on young people than Bart,' " recalled Joe Ball, who followed O'Gara as director of the Wildlife Research Unit.

O'Gara was also nationally recognized for his own research work on big game and predation of livestock, according to Pletscher and Ball.

He is best known for his studies of pronghorn antelope, which made him one of the world's top authorities on the animal, they said.

"That was kind of his life's work," said Ball. "It was his Ph.D. thesis. And then over the years he worked on conservation of pronghorns and predation relative to pronghorns."

Just several months ago, Pletscher said, O'Gara finished a book on pronghorn antelope that is scheduled to be released soon.

O'Gara also was well known and respected for his groundbreaking studies of predation by golden eagles and coyotes on domestic sheep, according to Pletscher and Ball.

"Bart began working on predation and the effects of predation on livestock by various species at a time when the professional dogma was that coyotes didn't really kill livestock," said Ball. "But, in fact, he did the research and found that they did indeed kill livestock. He was very well respected and trusted by both sides (ranchers and scientists) during that controversy. It was an important chunk of work. And he became very good about determining whether animals were killed by a predator, or just died, which was a big question in those days."

His knowledge of predators made O'Gara a sought-after expert during the early days of wolf recovery in Montana and surrounding states, according to Pletscher.

"When wolves were first coming back and the Defenders of Wildlife set up their wolf predation compensation program," he said, "Bart was one of the first ones they went to help them distinguish mortality caused by wolves and other species."

O'Gara also was an ardent big-game hunter, his colleagues said.

"He hunted every chance he could get," Pletscher said. "He hunted in Asia and Africa. But his true love was Montana."

"What more could you say about a guy who shot a bull eland on his 80th birthday," added Ball.

After completing his book on pronghorns, O'Gara had recently started another book about his African hunting adventures, starting in the 1950s, according to Ball.

"The final chapter was going back after all those years and having another hunt," he said. "And he did it. And I think he had plans to go back again. He was an amazing guy."

His enthusiasm made O'Gara a pleasure to work with, Pletscher said.

"He always had a smile on his face," he said. "He was always full of energy and willing to get out in the field and get things done. He was an absolute joy to work with."

O'Gara retired from a career in the Navy before going into the wildlife research field, Pletscher said.

While serving in the Navy, he said, O'Gara "went down in several airplanes. The guy had nine lives. I was hoping he'd pull through again."

O'Gara is survived by his wife, Wilma.

Funeral arrangements are pending and will be announced by Livingston, Malletta and Geraghty Funeral Home in Missoula.

Reporter Daryl Gadbow can be reached at 523-5264 or at dgadbow@missoulian.com

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