A damnable problem regarding Mount McKinley in the 1930s was that wolves were blamed for the decline of its Dall sheep population. Alaskans were at war with wolves, direct competitors for suppertime meat, and therefore hunted them relentlessly. Wolf dens were destroyed like rats’ nests—best to kill the whole goddamn litter. Some grown wolves weighed as much as a 175 pounds and could run twenty-five miles an hour when chasing prey. They could eat a huge amount of meat—around 20 percent of their gross body weight. A wolf pack could devour a full-grown moose every two or three days. The “big bad wolf”—the term used in Walt Disney’s 1933 animation The Three Little Pigs—was considered vermin, a wanton killer, best eradicated. Wolves were also villains in children’s tales such as “Little Red Riding Hood” and Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. “They’re all dirty killers,” was a popular remark.1 When a wolf appeared around a bend of the Yukon River or in the Gates of the Arctic, an Alaskan instinctually reached for a rifle.
In April 1939, the unassuming but revolutionary wildlife biologist Adolph Murie appeared on the scene in Alaska. He had recently published a landmark study, Ecology of the Coyote in Yellowstone, in which he argued that predator species such as coyotes and wolves were beneficial, not detrimental, helping to maintain healthy populations of other species. As one of the first biologists in the National Park Service, Murie moved to Mount McKinley to study the relationship between Dall sheep and gray wolves; in truth, he was working in the historic shadow of Charles Sheldon and was hoping to protect the threatened species.2 Living in a hidden meadow and sometimes spending time in Sheldon’s old lean-to cabin along the Toklat River, Murie wanted to change the “shoot at sight” mentality of most Alaskans with regard to wolves. Murie discovered that Alaska’s wolves, for the most part, subsisted on old, injured, and diseased animals. Seldom would a pack or a loner raid a ranch; for one thing, there wasn’t much livestock in Alaska.
When Adolph Murie was watching wolves in interior Alaska, sometimes in the biting cold, he must have been quite a sight: he often wore Indian snowshoes or knee-length leather boots, and he carried a week’s worth of provisions in his backpack. He didn’t have to hear a howl to intuit when a wolf was nearby. Like all good animal trackers and saddle tramps, he looked for obvious clues: paw prints, specks of blood, dung, broken branches, and decayed animal carcasses. He had developed a sixth sense for Canis lupus.Although Murie knew he was unlikely to be attacked by a wolf, he nevertheless carried a loaded automatic pistol in a holster as a precaution.
Murie also carefully analyzed many wolf-dog hybrids, of the kind Jack London described in The Call of the Wild. Alaskans had marvelous sled dogs that were a quarter-breed wolf; Murie could spot them easily because their muscular legs were longer than those of a typical sled dog. What worried Murie was that many wolves and mush dogs had body scabs—a sign of mange. He also worried about rabies and distemper; both viruses affect motor functioning. The decreasing number of wolves at Mount McKinley was also due to aggressive hunting and poisoning of them all around the perimeter of this national park. Because wolves in the Alaska Range were struggling to survive, Murie was overjoyed whenever he discovered a healthy den. “Wolves vary much in color, size, contour, and action,” he wrote. “No doubt there is also much variation in temperament. Many are so distinctively colored or patterned that they can be identified from afar. I found the grey ones easier to identify since there is more individual variation in color pattern among them than in black wolves.”3
Wolves were already considered predators of livestock throughout America, from the Rio Grande to the Beaufort Sea, and a sizable bounty was offered for wolf pelts, so Murie had his work cut out for him. To Alaskans, it seemed, killing wolves wasn’t a sport but an imperative. Fur trappers, bounty hunters, and cattle barons all abided by the “culture code of the pioneer,” which was to “kill what couldn’t be dominated.”4 In the vernacular of the territory it was called “getting your meat.”5 The Denali wilderness, Murie would write, had a wildlife population almost as diverse as Yellowstone’s; he was grieved by Alaskans’ reckless attitude toward predators. It was Murie’s mission to make sure that Mount McKinley maintained its original wolf population.6
The counterforce to Adolph Murie in Alaska was Frank Glaser (also known as the “Wolf Man”). Never before or since has Alaska produced such an efficient exterminator of wolves as Glaser. From 1915 to 1966 Glaser killed wolves. It didn’t matter to Glaser whether a client was an Eskimo enclave wanting to save caribou from wolf packs or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wanting to contain the spread of rabies; he would kill wolves for cash. His weapon of choice was his “coyote getter,” a set device that fired cyanide if triggered by a coyote. But he had other tools of the trade as well. He could kill wolves with strychnine bait, a rifle, snares, and traps. “Frank was like an Indian at picking up a wolf sign that was all but invisible to me,” Charles Gray, an Alaskan game warden, recalled. “He knew which clump of grass they urinated on and which little ridge they preferred to travel on. I was always in awe of his knowledge of wolves, for he was almost always right.”7 Glaser’s motto, “The only good wolf is a dead wolf,” summarized his hatred of predators.
Wilderness surveyors like Charles Sheldon also saw wolves as a menace to big game, “the chief enemy of the caribou,” always “hovering about the feeding herd and following them around as they roamed, usually in a fairly well-defined circuit.”8 Hikers in the uninhabited Yukon Flats told of wolf packs shadowing them for days, seemingly looking for an opportunity to kill.9 The Biological Survey itself turned against wolves throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Influenced by Vernon Bailey’s booklet Wolves in Relation to Stock, Game, and the National Forest Reserves (1907), Merriam considered all predators lesser species than big game. Bailey, who married Merriam’s sister Florence, wanted Alaskan wolves exterminated wherever they encroached on civilization.10 “The fierce destructiveness of large wolves and of mountain lions,” the 1924 Annual Report of the Biological Survey read, “both to domestic animals and game, is so great that it becomes a necessity to eliminate them from certain areas.”11
Only a few weeks after Franklin D. Roosevelt moved into the White House in March 1933, Aldo Leopold published Game Management with Charles Scribner’s Sons. In 481 pages, Leopold created the discipline of modern wildlife management. Pioneering in the burgeoning fields of systems ecology and genetics, he supported protecting wolves in ecosystems (albeit managed). A lifelong hunter, Leopold explained exactly why big game such as moose, Dall sheep, deer, antelope, and elk needed large habitats to survive properly. Filled with scientific charts and survey studies, interspersed with ideas espoused by Darwin and Malthus, Game Management introduced Leopold to the general public as the most distinguished conservationist of the New Deal years. He argued that predators such as wolves and coyotes were an essential component in any healthy ecosystem. To Leopold, the environment wasn’t a marketplace commodity. It was a biotic community in which all living creatures belonged. “How shall we conserve wildlife,” he asked, “without evicting ourselves?”12
Adolph Murie was thrilled to read about Leopold’s philosophy of game management in his articles and surveys during the early 1930s. Murie had rarely, if ever, encountered such sound ecology expressed in such lean, elegant prose. Analytically Leopold’s works mirrored his own thinking inEcology of the Coyote in Yellowstone. Leopold’s chapter “Predator Control,” from Murie’s perspective, was a weapon in the new effort to save wolves, cougars, coyotes, and bears from systematic extermination. What made Leopold such an important conservationist was his sense of judicial fairness, even though he was dubious about technological advancements that ate away at wild lands. Regularly Leopold, as if taking a poll, asked fellow wildlife biologists about wolf populations in various ecosys- tems.
“I do not find the coyote a bad fellow at all,” Murie wrote to Leopold from Wyoming. “As far as the elk are concerned he is not nearly as big a factor as several other things. I will not go into detail here, but would point out that a considerable number of people enjoy the coyote in the hills, he is part of the environment, and his entire removal would make elk hunting less attractive to some people. I feel that if sportsmen and non-shooting conservationists could get together, progress would be so much more rapid. If sport could be placed on a higher plane, and some recent plans might work in that direction, nature lovers in general would be likely to help in game matters. We all have the same interests and must work together to accomplish anything.”13
In 1897, Frederic Remington painted Moonlight Wolf, an eerie, frightening scene of a lone Great Plains wolf (Canis lupus nubilus) creeping around a corral in a blue winter snow. It is one of Remington’s best works. In the dead of an Alaskan winter not much moved. But Remington’s wolf doesn’t hibernate—it hunts in the dark. What we don’t see in this painting is the wolf being shot by the rancher or pulling down livestock. What happens is up to the viewer’s imagination. Unfortunately, the Great Plains wolf that Remington painted had nearly gone extinct by the time Murie arrived at Mount McKinley in the 1920s. “Alaska is the last North American stronghold of the wolf,” Barry Lopez wrote in Of Wolves and Men, “with Eskimos and Indians here, with field biologists working on wolf studies, with a suburban population in Fairbanks wary of wolves on winter nights, with environmentalists pushing for protection, there is a great mix of opinion. The astonishing thing is that, in large part, it is only opinion.” Even biologists acknowledge, Lopez noted, that there are some things about wolves’ behavior that you just have to guess at.14
Given the hatred for wolves in Alaska, protecting them was going to be a tall order. But Adolph Murie was up to the task. Much like his older brother Olaus Murie, Adolph (nicknamed Ade) had become well known in wildlife protection circles by the 1930s. He was raised along the Red River of the North, and his résumé revealed a man who couldn’t sit still. After earning a BS degree in biology at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, Murie became a ranger at Glacier National Park.15 His hope was to write a series of definitive scholarly papers on various North American mammals. In 1926 happenstance helped him pursue this goal. Professor Lee R. Dice, a pioneer in animal ecology, offered Murie a PhD fellowship at the University of Michigan–Ann Arbor. Murie decided to become an expert on the common deer mouse (Peromyscus), prey extremely important to understanding predators. There was one main advantage of starting this low on the food chain: nobody had done it before. Professor Dice—a mammalogist by training—was not only a pioneering American ecologist but also a geneticist.16
By the time Dice took Adolph Murie under his wing, he had made the University of Michigan a leading opponent of predator-control practices such as steel traps and meat laced with strychnine. The Bureau of Biological Survey had become the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but eradicating predators—wolves, coyotes, and cougars—remained the policy of the federal government. As a U.S. government report (as mentioned above) declared in 1924, “The fierce destructiveness of large wolves and of mountain lions, both to domestic animals and game, is so great that it becomes a necessity to eliminate them from certain areas.”17 Such policies infuriated Dice. A bioprospector ahead of his time, Dice shamed the government’s scientists for being more concerned about protecting livestock than wildlife.
Adolph Murie became a favorite student of Dice’s. Not only did Murie complete his dissertation, in 1929—“The Ecological Relationship of Two Subspecies of Peromyscus in the Glacier Park Region”—but he was hired to revamp the University of Michigan’s Museum of Zoology to reflect the ecological revolution.18 Perhaps to demonstrate his adeptness at both extremes of the wildlife kingdom, he went from spying on field mice to assessing herds of the lordly moose. Slipping away from Ann Arbor during the summers of 1929 and 1930, Murie ventured north to Isle Royale (a thickly wooded island in Lake Superior teeming with unmolested wildlife). The moose population Murie encountered at Isle Royale was thriving. There were 300 moose on the island during the Great War—and by the time of the Great Depression the number had risen to 3,000.19 Murie helped bring their population back.
During the late 1930s, Adolph Murie bounced around a lot outside Michigan. He collected 700 mammals in British Honduras (now Belize), emphasizing gophers and bats.20 He spent time in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, with his brother Olaus and Olaus’s wife, Mardy, watching moose herds browsing in the fields. He wrote the still widely influential book Ecology of the Coyote (1940). On a visit to Twisp, Washington, he fell in love with Louise Gillette (Mardy’s stepsister); they married in Wyoming. Fox species—red, gray (Urocyon cinereoargenteus), and arctic—grabbed Murie’s professional attention. Filling burlap bags with fresh fox scat, he analyzed its composition under a microscope back in Ann Arbor. In his 1936 study Following Fox Trails, Murie documented how red foxes would often kill shrews merely for fun, not to eat. This finding reinforced Murie’s belief that backyard mesopredators—medium-size predators such as coyotes and skunks—were an essential part of any healthy ecosystem. Without them, garden pests such as shrews would become menaces. But he also promoted the aesthetic notion that foxes were charming creatures to watch up close. “The feeling of a woods is much improved by the presence of fox,” he wrote. “It is good to know that the fox is present in a region for it adds a touch of wickedness to it, gives tone to a tame country.”21
After nine years at the University of Michigan, and backed by the powerful sponsorship of Dice, Murie made a career change. Frustrated that animal ecology was being ignored by the U.S. government, he joined the new Wildlife Division of the National Park Service.22 Murie was now in a position to help the greater western parks achieve something close to natural conditions. Murie’s biological expertise could be applied to bring back species like wolves, cougars, coyotes, foxes, bobcats, lynx, minks, weasels, and otters. The days when the National Park Service had promoted picture-postcard tourism—when the outdoors experience was rigged in favor of the “Kodak moment”—were ending.23 (During the early 1990s, in an article in Wild Earth, this discarded approach was famously called ecoporn.) Besides ranchers, Murie was at war with backcountry people who still hunted and trapped furbearing animals for pelts; this was a primary source of winter income.
Realizing that introducing wolves into a national park was going to be a long battle, Murie set his sights on Mount McKinley. It was unlike the national parks in the Lower Forty-Eight because the surrounding area had no organized stockmen’s associations to protest. However, Alaska did have a bounty for predator species: $15 for every wolf and the same for every wolverine, not an insubstantial sum for a backcountry family. Finding ways to protect packs of gray wolves in the Denali wilderness from twelve-gauge shotguns and 30.06-caliber rifles would not be easy. During World War I surplus Springfield weapons had been sold to Alaskans, so the territory was well armed.
As a wolf ecologist, Murie had a sublime ability to watch wolves undetected by the packs in their dens.* He wrote notes about their sleeping habits, tail wagging, and long jaunts looking for prey. Because wolves have no predators besides humans and other wolves, Murie was able to creep within a few yards of their dens. When they suddenly became alert, however, their defense mechanisms were aroused, and their eyes did not miss much. Sometimes Murie would set up a movie camera to capture their behaviors, such as cubs catching mice and males sniffing each other in greeting. “The strongest impression remaining with me after watching the wolves on numerous occasions is their friendliness,” Murie wrote. “The adults were friendly toward each other and amiable toward the pups, at least as late as October. This innate good feeling has been stronger marked in the three captive wolves which I have known.”24
The Biological Survey and the Bureau of Fisheries were merged in 1939 to become the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service of today. Around Juneau little snub-nosed government motorboats patrolled the Alexander Archipelago. On April 14 Adolph Murie dogsledded into the Denali wilderness and began a two-year stint studying the wolves of Mount McKinley. Using the log shack Sanctuary as his base camp—located twenty-two miles from the border of the national park—Murie started tracking wolf packs for preliminary insights. A cold spring wind whistled around him as he studied wolf stool for signs of Dall sheep hair. At high altitudes, his lips turned purple from the frigid temperatures. A new park road helped Murie survey a vast amount of Denali territory. Murie hiked nearly 2,000 miles that year, exposed to vicious spells of cold and heat, procuring data that he hoped would help the wolf survive in midcentury America.25
Using methods that he first developed at Yellowstone on behalf of coyotes, Murie carefully estimated the ages of Dall sheep supposedly killed by renegade wolves. He studied the tooth marks on the carcasses and analyzed the rams’ horn rings. He also took climate change and varied diseases into account in his wolf studies. No one before Murie had undertaken such a serious biological study of North American wolves. The popular author Ernest Thompson Seton had written a series of articles about wolves, but scientists dismissed these as fiction.* Egerton Young’s My Dogs in the Northland—a memoir Jack London liberally mined for The Call of the Wild—dealt with domestic sled dogs and wolves. Stanley P. Young had cowritten a landmark work, The Wolves of North America, with color plates provided by Olaus Murie. In 1939 Stanley Young, who wanted wolves to survive only when “not in conflict with human welfare,” was appointed senior biologist in the Department of the Interior’s branch of Wildlife Research. But it was Murie who became the defender of wolves, submitting reports to the National Park Service urging it to end its wolf-control efforts.26
Through the 1930s Native Alaskans also started protesting against the slaughter of wolves, although they didn’t speak with a unified voice. New Dealers sought to help Native Alaskan populations prosper during hard times. Congress allowed the Tlingit and Haida Indians, for example, to sue the U.S. government over tribal lands; this helped curtail market hunting in the territory. In 1935, Congress included all Native Alaskans in the Social Security Act. And, more helpfully in the long run, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes set aside lands for Native Alaskans as hunting and fishing sanctuaries. Wolves in these Native lands were safe from slaughter.27
World War II transformed Alaska, seemingly overnight, from a backwater territory to a major strategic asset that was well worth defending. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor the Japanese navy actually seized two outer Aleutian islets—Attu and Kiska—as part of its North American campaign. The Roosevelt administration quickly established a military command in Alaska and moved defense forces to Adak, Dutch Harbor, and Cold Bay. Because the U.S. government censored news from Alaska in the 1940s, this campaign is called the “forgotten war.” The United States engaged Japanese troops in the Aleutians from June 3, 1942, to August 15, 1943. The wind and fog were obstacles for both sides. Many B-24 pilots, in fact, described the Aleutian campaign as a three-sided battle waged between the United States, Japan, and the uncooperative weather.28Samuel Eliot Morison, in his magisterial volume History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, wrote that the Aleutians were the “Theater of Military Frustration.”29
After World War II ended, the U.S. armed forces’ presence in Alaska declined dramatically, from 152,000 troops in 1943 to 19,000 in 1946.30 During the war, the U.S. government had spent more than $1 billion on Alaskan infrastructure projects like building the 1,523-mile Alaska-Canada Highway and modernizing Alaskan railroads. The overland road built from Delta Junction (southeast of Fairbanks) to Dawson Creek (in British Columbia) forever changed how Alaska’s lands would be managed. Huge D-8 Caterpillar bulldozers with enormous cutting blades uprooted towering spruces. Gravel was hauled in dump trucks and other vehicles from alluvial riverbeds and hillsides. When it rained or snowed, four-wheel-drive convoys often got stuck in mud craters and impassable ravines.31
The U.S. Navy also dramatically improved Alaska’s docks, wharves, and breakwaters. Pan American Airways had introduced a commercial link between Seattle and Juneau. Alaska was ready for business. As more and more civilians moved to the territory, the postwar movement to reinstate the timber industries swelled. Both of Theodore Roosevelt’s great national forests—the Tongass and Chugach—were now under siege. During the war, also, the U.S. Bureau of Mines had started surveying Alaska’s North Slope for oil. Reports of seepage between Cape Simpson and Point Barrow were becoming commonplace. Congress gave a $1 million grant to begin oil extraction work at the Naval Petroleum Reserve on November 4. A big question was whether oil drilling was feasible in the subzero Arctic conditions. By September 1945 Alaskans were saying that Point Barrow was located at one of the world’s great oil fields. Secretary of the Interior Ickes wrote to an oil booster in Seattle, “Time alone will show whether there is oil . . . and, if so, what its quality and quantity may be.”32 But Ickes was merely stalling. The U.S. Navy was all over the North Slope, considering how best to drill Unimat Mountain along the Colville River. Seabees were busy with pipeline mitigation issues. By late 1945 Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal said that the U.S. government was ready to invest $150 million in Arctic Alaskan oil. Seabees drilled the first well that year.
While the U.S. armed forces were defending Alaska from the Japanese during World War II and the U.S. Navy was promoting the drilling of oil wells, Adolph Murie worked on his book The Wolves of Mount McKinley. Every page was informed by his shrewd taxonomic analysis of the family Canidae. Focusing on wolves’ home life, Murie created a sympathetic portrait. Wolves’ fur was usually gray, or mostly gray, but could vary from white (in the tundra) to black. Their denning habits, pack frolics, cunning, and preference for sheep meat were all thoroughly analyzed by Murie. When The Wolves of Mount McKinley was published in 1944, Aldo Leopold deemed it the classic wildlife study of Lupus. Since his speech before the American Game Conference in 1935, Leopold had insisted that the U.S. government’s “predator control” programs were wrongheaded. Echoing Leopold, periodicals such as Audubon and Natural History called Murie the world’s foremost wolf ecologist.
Throughout the 1940s Leopold had been putting together A Sand County Almanac, a book about conservation that is equaled only by Walden Pond as a meditation on the need for the wild in our commerce-driven lives. Because of his strong scholarly bent and his “micro-knowledge” of silviculture, it is somewhat surprising that Leopold could write so philosophically and with such poetic grace. Leopold worked for thirteen years on the book and had written hundreds of articles in preparation for undertaking the task. Every line and every comma seems exactly right in this reflective memoir, which is also a work of natural history. Prefiguring the “deep ecology” movement of the 1960s, Leopold reasoned that land wasn’t a commodity to be possessed. Instead humans should be caretakers of the Earth, and wild places should be saved. Famously, Leopold wrote the essay “Thinking Like a Mountain” in 1944 for inclusion in A Sand County Almanac. Filled with an anguished regret, Leopold told of a sad afternoon when, in Arizona’s Apache National Forest, he killed a mother wolf and her pups. “In those days we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf,” Leopold wrote. “In a second we were pumping lead into the pack, but with more excitement than accuracy: how to aim a steep downhill shot is always confusing. When our rifles were empty, the old wolf was down, and a pup was dragging a leg into impassable slide-rocks.”33
What happened next became one of the most profound moments in the annals of the wildlife protection movement. Leopold had an epiphany in the Apache, a pang of conscience. All those bloody hunt stories, the machismo, and the random slaughter of species that came to signify the winning of the West seemed perverse as Leopold watched the pup drag its bleeding body toward cover, away from its mother lying dead in the dust. It was a scene of carnage. “We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes,” Leopold wrote. “I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes—something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the great fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.”34
Thanks to Murie and Leopold, national park superintendents started considering wolves an asset. Poisoning animals was now frowned on in public lands. After spending the summers of 1940 and 1941 studying Alaskan wolves in their dens, Murie refuted the popular perception of wolves as savage and morose.35 Although far more elusive than bears or raccoons, wolves began to attract tourists, who would brave the cold, damp winds around Mount McKinley and train their binoculars on the horizon hoping to spot a pack. Murie had succeeded in changing the reputation of gray wolves from sheep-killers to wild dogs that maintained long familial ties with their pups. But he encountered negative reactions as well as accolades. When Murie returned to Mount McKinley in 1945 to continue writing articles about protecting wolves, the Alaska territorial legislature derided him. Outdoors groups such as the Tanana Valley Sportsmen’s Association had preferred the conservationists of Charles Sheldon’s era who saved Dall sheep; these sportsmen disliked the Minnesotan ecologist—Murie—who was bent on protecting wild wolves and who seemed to be trying to turn gray wolves into teddy bears. A grassroots countermovement, in favor of killing wolves, developed across Alaska; and Alaskans turned against the U.S. Department of the Interior as never before.
Murie was a nice Midwesterner, disdainful of overwrought conflict; he had no overweening desire to battle with Alaskans over wolf conservation. But reports that bush pilots were now shooting wolves from the air sickened him. Very discreetly, he returned to Mount McKinley to conduct more field research on wolves and to protect packs from being slaughtered. Murie was annoyed by the false dichotomy that forced a choice between Dall sheep and wolves. He thought it was childish that in the atomic age people still accepted the image of the wicked wolf presented in Aesop’s fables and the Grimms’ fairy tales. Determined to amass more scientific evidence, Murie would disappear into the trackless wild for weeks at a time, dutifully recording the real behavior of wolves, not the legends. Mount McKinley without wolves, Murie concluded, would be mere scenery.
Wonder Lake, near the base of Mount McKinley, became Murie’s favorite place to watch the wilderness. In the spring of 1948, in preparation for a visit by the famous photographer Ansel Adams, Murie went to clean up a five-room log bungalow maintained by the National Park Service near Wonder Lake. Upon opening the front door, Murie found that grizzly bears had torn the place apart. Flour bins and pantry cupboards had been ravaged. The bears had also gotten into the basement and had ripped into boxes of army surplus Hershey bars. The bears had opened up cans of brown paint, tracking it throughout the bungalow. The basement windows were smashed. “The building was repaired,” Murie wrote in A Naturalist in Alaska, “but the bear could not forget those chocolate bars.”36
It took Murie an arduous day to make the bungalow bear-proof. Using a mop, he wiped away all traces of chocolate. A few days later, however, after a long day hiking the tundra observing wolves, an exhausted Murie went straight to bed. It was around midnight and still light outside. Murie, peering out of his bedroom window before drifting off, saw a grizzly running across the tundra headed right for his cabin. The bear, curiously spectral in the moonlight, circled the cabin, unable to find a way inside. Murie felt triumphant and went to sleep. “In a few minutes big chunks of wallboard were torn loose, and soon a hole was big enough to allow him to pass into the dining room beside the fireplace. He did not come the few steps down the hall to my bedroom, but sat down in front of the kitchen door. With his powerful paw he wriggled the doorknob, and soon I started hearing the rattle in my sleep. I awoke and heard the fumbling at the doorknob.”37
Although 50 percent of a brown bear’s diet consists of vegetation, bears were also known to bring down caribou in the soft snow. Around Mount McKinley, locals claimed that if you wanted to attract a bear, you should put chocolate on your porch. Brown bears were diurnal, but if they smelled even a whiff of chocolate, they could suddenly became nocturnal.38 Now Murie, grabbing his rifle, prepared to shoot the intruder at Wonder Lake. But, perhaps sensing danger, the bear jumped out the dining room window and ran off.39
Murie and Leopold’s ethos had made inroads in the Department of the Interior after World War II. A turning point for the protection of wolves in Alaska occurred in December 1945. A bill, H.R. 5004, was introduced in Congress stipulating that wolves could be protected around their historic range in Mount McKinley National Park, but only if their population was very strictly controlled. Conservationists—including Aldo Leopold—saw this bill as the first major step in protecting a predator. Because wolves dispersed over huge distances and easily colonized new habitats, a lot of federal land would have to remain unmolested in order for packs to survive. “The wolf has been demonized, defeated, and defended by humans,” National Geographic declared. “It must now renegotiate its place in a changed habitat.”40
From 1947 to 1950, Adolph Murie served with the National Park Service at Mount McKinley as resident biologist.41 Ostensibly, his job was to control the wolf population and protect the Dall sheep, even in blizzards and crawling fog, but his real aim was to persuade the service to permanently ban shooting wolves within this park. America’s largest national park would be a wolf haven. Olaus Murie (who had retired from U.S. Fish and Wildlife in 1944) and Mardy Murie (who was interested in writing a novel with a Siberian-Alaskan setting, to be titled Island Between) locked up their log home in the Tetons—which had become a mountain headquarters of The Wilderness Society—and temporarily moved to the Mount McKinley area to help Adolph. They set up shop at a cabin in Igloo Canyon during the summer and lived at park headquarters in the winter, home-schooling their children. The Muries—all three of them—believed that all wildlife in Mount McKinley needed federal protection. Adolph would go on long patrols on snowshoes, always collecting biological data about the species’ natural resilience and adaptability. He identified four principal vocal communications by wolves: howls, little whimpers, prolonged talklike mumbling growls, and a passionate talking bark. To quell local suspicion that he wasn’t properly performing his duties—thinning out wolves to protect the Dall sheep—Murie selectively shot a few sick-looking older wolves. “Ade knocked off a couple of wolves,” a former park ranger, Bill Nancarrow, recalled, “just so they wouldn’t send Fish and Wildlife to start killing them.”42
Victory was at last achieved in 1952 when Conrad Wirth, director of the National Park Service, unequivocally prohibited killing wolves at Mount McKinley.43 The Muries went back to Wyoming, and young activists of The Wilderness Society, such as Howard Zahniser of Pennsylvania and Sigurd Olson of Minnesota, journeyed to the Murie ranch there to discuss wildlife protection strategy in the aftermath of the successful outcome at McKinley.44 Hoping to continue the momentum, the park service now asked Adolph Murie to write a follow-up book, The Cougar of Olympic National Park. “If you could put out a publication on the Olympics featuring the cougar as well as you did the wolf,” his brother Olaus wrote, “you will certainly have made a big mark in the conservation world.”45
Adolph Murie wasn’t enthusiastic, however. Some people, if lucky, discover an ecosystem that speaks to them spiritually—scattered woodlands in the Ohio River valley, for example, or a chasm like the Grand Canyon. Mount McKinley, to the Muries, as to Charles Sheldon before them, was a special place. Adolph decided to devote his life to protecting those 2 million acres* of interior Alaska, using the periodical Living Wilderness as his forum. When a biologist or an ecologist like Murie falls in love with a treasured place, it usually occurs as a result of arduous fieldwork in all types of weather. This process—called “thrumming”—allows the outdoors enthusiast to feel the pulse of the ecosystem.46
A pedagogical change had occurred in U.S. natural history since the late 1920s. Collecting biological specimens in the field—i.e., shooting wildlife for mounts and studying skins—was now outdated. The new impulse emanating from places such as Woods Hole Laboratory in Massachusetts and the Scripps Institute in La Jolla, California, called for analyzing animals in their own distinctive habitat. Farley Mowat, the wildlife naturalist from Belleville, Ontario, who wrote nearly forty books, was already documenting Arctic Canada in realistic novels such as People of the Deer(1952). Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us, published in 1951, celebrated starfish, coral reefs, squid, and dolphins. Famously, Carson, a biologist with U.S. Fish and Wildlife working at the Woods Hole Laboratory in Cape Cod, collected sea urchins along the coast and then released the creatures back into the ocean, without killing a single one. Her science writing at the time was instrumental in developing a public understanding of ecosystems. No longer did a trophy-lined wall (like TR’s) signify a naturalist’s prowess. Ecology was the new ethos: understanding the unity of an ecosystem, documenting the habitual condition of species.
And a new biological field of study—ethology, the science of animal behavior—was becoming extremely popular in the nature periodicals of the 1950s. New ethological approaches were necessary to deal with the ecological issues raised during the postwar era by the concept of “better living through chemistry.” For instance, DDT was causing a decline of peregrine falcons, pelicans, ospreys (Pandion haliaetus), and eagles; habitats were lost when people moved to urban and suburban areas (there were fewer family farms and fewer people living close to the land); and there was a general loss of habitat. The scientific community was determined to learn how to better manage conflict between humans and wildlife. Instead of being killed as livestock predators, for example, coyotes were now being praised for their sonorous song.
Professor Lee R. Dice became president of the Ecological Society of America and also worked closely with the Ecologists Union (later the Nature Conservancy). Ever since Professor Cooper had successfully advocated for the creation of Glacier Bay National Monument, the Ecologists Union having persuaded him to sponsor the idea, there was a real feeling of making a difference in Alaska. The early 1950s saw many great photographers of Alaska wildlife working in the temperate zone—in the Katmai, the Kenai, and Mount McKinley National Park. Was there a more beautiful sight in the world than Kachemak Bay from Homer Spit or the glacier lands from the John Muir Trail? Creatures such as wolves and grizzlies, moreover, were appealing to moviegoers of the 1950s, who were intrigued by Arctic lore. “People were accustomed to the idea that animals had a wide range of behavior and individual mannerisms,” Thomas R. Dunlap wrote, in Saving America’s Wildlife, of the postwar era. “They were used to the idea that people could establish links with animals.”47
Meanwhile, however, a particularly objectionable form of hunting was being practiced in Alaska. Aerial hunting of wolves started in 1948 and became popular as a sport. Guns and planes were a wicked combination. Some hard-core Alaskan hunters would fly over the tundra and blast away at wolves with increasingly powerful automatic weapons. Two men in a plane might sometimes shoot ten to fifteen wolves in this way. The grim sport called aerial hunting attracted trophy hunters from all over the world, and the plane services catered to tourists. “Back in Kotzebue or Bettles or Fairbanks the story was embellished and hunters and pilots were congratulated for their bravery and daring,” Barry Lopez wrote in Of Wolves and Men. “It is both ludicrous and tragic that the death of a wolf so cheaply killed confers such prestige.”48
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Adolph Murie continued trying to ban the aerial hunting of wolves, but with only modest success. Not until 1959, when Alaska became a state, was there serious recognition that wolves had value. In 1963 they were upgraded to the classifications of fur bearer and big game. Bag limits and hunting seasons were established.49 Yet state-sponsored aerial wolf gunning continued unabated throughout the 1960s. It was an ingrained behavior.
It wasn’t until 1969, when NBC presented the prime-time documentary Wolves and the Wolf Men, that the public turned against this cruel practice. Eventually, the federal Airborne Hunting Act of 1971 forbade it. But numerous states-rights activists, including the future governor Sarah Palin, were unenthusiastic about the federal law, insisting that killing wolves was an all-American sport, a way of life in Alaska.