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Ranger Steve Mueller answers the call

Ranger Steve Mueller answers the call

By Judy Reed

Ranger Steve Mueller, local naturalist and columnist for the Post, passed away Thursday, June 16.

On Thursday, June 16, Steven Joel Mueller, 72, a local naturalist better known to readers as Ranger Steve, completed his circle of life and said goodbye to the earth he had so fondly nurtured and cared for.

Ranger Steve was a longtime contributor to the Post with his Nature Niche columns, opening the eyes of his readers to the wonders of nature and challenging us all to be better stewards of God’s creation.


Steve’s fascination with nature began at an early age. In his column, The Making of a Naturalist, he revealed the beginnings of his interactions with wildlife.

“Before I was five, we found a turtle and placed it in a confined pen in the backyard. Maybe we were going to keep it as a pet. My mother discovered it missing and learned I released it. It wandered off to live free and happy. I do not recall if that was my intent or if I got it out of the pen and it escaped. We had a chameleon and a goldfish that died because they received inadequate care. Those were difficult lessons that were hardest on the animals. Proper care for life was developing…A squirrel entered and left a tree cavity. I climbed the tree and felt babies in the hollow. I dropped naked blind squirrels to my friend Jimmy who caught them. I planned to raise them but mom said no and to put them back in the nest. We did and hopefully the mother reared them. I was learning how to live with nature.”

He said that scientific inquiry began before age five. “I can recall the timeline because we moved to a new home after ours burned. I pushed a metal paper clip into an electric wall socket in our first house. I got a U-shaped burn on my thumb and it burned a paperclip shape into the wood floor. It was the first time I thought I died.”

Mueller grew up in Saginaw, and graduated from Arthur Hill High School. He was active in cub and boy scouts. Through Camp Rotary, he was exposed to nature and developed naturalist skills.  In 1958, his family took a trip out west to national parks. It was life changing for Steve. “We experienced bears in parks and fed deer salt from our hands…I was greatly impressed when I met a park ranger at Glacier National Park. It was then I decided I wanted to become a ranger,” he said.


This moth species, “Brilliant Virgin Tiger Moth,” or Grammia brillians, was discovered in Southern Utah by Ranger Steve Mueller. Courtesy photo.

Mueller held several different jobs related to the nature field over the years. He was a high school science teacher in Alpena, Michigan, Dry Ridge, Kentucky, and Kenosha, Wisconsin; and while teaching in Manistique in the 1980s, Mueller discovered a breeding colony of butterflies previously unknown in Michigan called the Northern Blue. He was also an urban forester for Dow Chemical in Midland; a state park ranger in Traverse City; a ranger/naturalist at Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah, the same place he later iscovered a new species of moth—the Brilliant Virgin Tiger Moth; a teacher at Jordan College in Cedar Springs; and did some adjunct college teaching at Grand Rapids Community College and Grand Valley State University.

Many know him best as the director of Howard Christiansen Nature Center for over 20 years. When that temporarily closed in 2005, Lowell Schools hired him to direct the program at the Wittenbach/Wege Agri-Science Environmental Center. He retired from there in 2008 due to bone cancer. Besides those programs, Mueller has been President of the Grand Rapids Audubon Club, President for the Michigan Alliance for Environmental and Outdoor Education, West Michigan Butterfly Association, and Grand Rapids Camera Club.

Ranger Steve won the Thomas Say Naturalist Award in 2015. Courtesy photo.

He has won many awards, including the prestigious Thomas Say Naturalist Award for Excellence in 2015. “It is a tremendous honor to be recognized by colleagues,” Mueller told the Post at the time. “Colleagues throughout my career mentored me and made it possible for me to excel. I have worked diligently to become competent in a broad spectrum of natural history subjects and to hone interpretive skills.”


Mueller met his future wife, Karen, at Bemidji University, when she was an undergraduate and he was a grad student. They spent time together while working in the Lutheran Campus Ministry there.

“Karen and I spoke personal wedding vows on Aug. 10, 1977 by Water Canyon Falls (in Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah) and our official wedding was on Sept. 10, 1977,” wrote Mueller. “Twenty-three years later I discovered the new species at the site in August 2005. A Lepidopterists said I am likely the only person on Earth to discover a new species at the site where I previously spoke wedding vows.”

The couple had two children, Jenny Jo and Julianne. I asked them what it was like growing up with a naturalist for a dad. Karen laughed and said that by two-years old, Jenny Jo had learned 200 animal cards. “You could ask her to find a certain animal and she’d pull it out.”

The girls had this to say: “Growing up with a naturalist for a dad meant that our phone was always ringing with questions about our natural world, while we spent many days as a family hiking, camping, and enjoying Creation. He taught us young to love all creatures, that none were lesser or greater than others.  Whether plant or animal, all are ‘people.’  He taught us to think critically about the world.  And he taught us love.”

I also asked what he was most proud of. Jenny Jo and Karen told me about an international conference he went to, where they had trivia over dinner, mostly about butterflies. And the question came up, “Who is Steve Mueller?”

“There were many experts there, but he is the only one they singled out to recognize,” said Jenni Jo.

“He had a significant impact,” said Karen. “They might not know who Steve Mueller is, but they know who Ranger Steve is.”

They said he was once recognized by someone in Costa Rica. “It was just a random chance,” they said.

Ranger Steve leading a group at Howard Christensen Nature Center. Courtesy photo.

Surrounding his home, he established Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, a nature preserve for enhancing biodiversity and cultivating native species. The site is a hotspot for birds and butterflies. Rare federally threatened American Chestnut trees live in the sanctuary, including the largest one most people have seen. With the support of the Land Conservancy of West Michigan, the sanctuary has recently acquired a conservation easement ensuring that the land cannot be developed.

Ranger Steve welcomed visitors who valued and respected the needs of plants and animals. Many local nature groups made regular field trips to the sanctuary, and college interns gained work experience under his guidance. The sanctuary not only provided purpose for his life but was essential medicine while combating Multiple Myeloma, as important as his chemotherapy treatments and bone marrow transplants.

People are still welcome to come to visit the sanctuary, as long as Karen is home. Just park in the driveway at 13010 Northland Drive and call 616-696-1753.

Ranger Steve had been battling multiple myeloma, for 25 years, and fought it bravely. He created a bucket list while on hospice and managed to complete each task. I asked if there was anything he had  wanted to accomplish, but didn’t get a chance to. What was his heart’s desire?

“His parting thought was that 1,000 lifetimes are inadequate to provide service for the benefit of others or for project completion, so carry on his efforts to ensure future generations inherit a sustainable planet. Make your actions for ‘we’ and not ‘me’ and you will enjoy a prosperous purpose and meaning for your life.”

Godspeed Ranger Steve. You were a great example of how to be a good steward of God’s creation..

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