Graham came to Moab for work in 1983. He had been finishing his doctorate in entomology at Utah State University in Logan, where he studied grasshoppers. When a grasshopper began eating invasive tamarisk trees in southeast Utah, the Southeast Utah Group of the National Park Service asked Graham to identify the hopper and study its activity. He visited the Moab area for a one-week research trip on the Colorado River with park resource management staff. Graham identified the grasshopper as Schistocerca shoshone, a cousin of the biblical locust, he said.
“This group [of grasshoppers] can experience big population explosions, and that’s basically what happened was the population was huge in ’82 [and] ‘83 and they were eating everything. For a while in the middle of a summer they were concentrating on tamarisk.”
After the trip, the Park Service wanted to know more about the voracious grasshopper, so they hired Graham for a seasonal position. The grasshopper’s population crashed in 1984 so Graham switched to other projects but kept working for the Park Service until 1991. He also spent time working in Colorado and doing academic research in California. He ended up back in Moab, doing ecology research for the U.S. Geological Survey.
Graham quickly picked up a variety of projects around Moab. He studied the impact of roads on insects and amphibians near Salt Creek in Canyonlands National Park. He also collected data to try to understand how spraying insecticide for Mormon crickets affects other insects living in the spray areas.
Not everyone sees why insect research matters, Graham says, but he quoted naturalist and ant expert E.O. Wilson, who said, “Insects are the little things that run the world.”
“There are a lot of people that think ... we just kill all the bugs and everything will be fine,” Graham said. “But decomposition, conversion to biomass, control of other pests, feeding the things we do like, like the pretty birds ... pollination. All of those things could go away if there’s an impact on the insects from this pesticide.”
“That’s what the ecology is all about, is how things are interrelated,” he added. “... Within those webs there are those connections and they’re often not things that you expect to see, and I like finding those and recognizing that stuff.”
Graham retired in 2009 but still does scientific research in addition to working part-time at the Grand County Public Library. He monitors tamarisk beetles once a month at 57 sites around the county and also works on alpine insect monitoring in the La Sal Mountains, “to get a baseline of what is up there,” he said, before non-native mountain goats and climate change alter the environment.
“If you don’t have a baseline then you can’t tell later on if there’s been an impact,” Graham said.
Graham became interested in biology in high school, he says. He grew up in New Mexico and studied marine biology at Evergreen State College before returning to the desert.
Around town, Graham is known for his love of insects and his distinctive personal style.
Hau Truong, site manager at The University of Utah's Bonderman Field Station at Rio Mesa, said of Graham, “He’s just an original kind of guy.”
Graham spends time at the Bonderman Field Station teaching students about ecology and entomology, Truong says.
“There’s one story that he tells a lot. ... You probably notice he wears his short shorts a lot. And he actually wore short shorts on his wedding day. He got the tuxedo then he gave the pants to his wife and had Audrey mend them so that he could stay true to form and continue wearing the short shorts,” Truong said.
“He definitely marches to his own beat but in terms of him providing a service to the community, I really appreciate his deep knowledge of ecology, his love of the outdoors, his love of learning and he’s also really deeply invested in the community, both he and his wife [Audrey], especially in the world of science and learning and discovery,” Truong added. “He is endless and his energy to stay engaged in that and really give a real seasoned view of biology ... and spreading the love of learning for us in that way. I’m really appreciative of what he helps us with.”
When he is not busy with research, Graham enjoys gardening, wood carving and soccer. He has organized pick-up soccer games in Moab since 1986 and plays twice a week.