In September, 2016, world-famous scientist and grizzly bear researcher, John Craighead, passed away at the age of 100 at his home in Missoula, Montana. This followed the death of his twin brother Frank in 2001. Together, the Craighead brothers made history for grizzly bears, opening a window into the bruins’ magical and sometimes strange lives.
Their message was simple and provocative: understand and save our magnificent predators and the wild habitat they depend on.
Like many who saw them on TV in my teens, I wanted to follow in their footsteps – a falcon flying off the wrist, rappelling down a cliff face, crawling into a bear den. Adventuring across a still-wild America in the spirit of scientific discovery. John wrote this about a peregrine falcon in an early book by him and Frank on birds of prey: "Those eyes revealed her nature, and in them I could see her life. I could see love of freedom, of wild unconfined spaces. I could see the spirit of adventure, the desire for thrills, an appetite for daring."
I got to know Frank before John, because he lived in Jackson full time -- in fact, just down the road in Moose. He would pay visits to the Teton Science School where I worked as Field Studies Director, and enthrall the high school students with hair-raising tales of close encounters with Yellowstone’s grizzly bears, fording raging rivers, traversing wilderness in white-out conditions. It was one long adventure story, delivered in quiet understatement.
Frank shared a sense of discovery even about the space age technology that he and his brother deployed. They invented radio collars to track animals, a tool that revolutionized wildlife research. Radio telemetry allowed Frank, John and their team to peer into the most intimate details of the bears’ lives -- from teaching cubs to forage, having sex, to attacking competitors near food, and dozing through winter months. In the course of their research, they opened our eyes to the complex relationships between the Great Bear and its habitat – habitat that was shrinking as the nation’s appetite for wood, oil and other natural resources increased.
Everything Is Connected
What stuck with me most about Frank and John over the years was their central message that everything was connected: they would talk about plant phenology and the weather in the same sentence as bear behavior. For example, around autumn equinox, as days shorten and sandhill cranes fly south, you know to look for squirrels’ winter caches of whitebark pine seeds and the tell-tale sign of bear diggings. Learning about one aspect of nature would connect to a lesson about the whole ecosystem. (For a delightful read about ecological connections in Greater Yellowstone, see For Everything There Is a Season, by Frank Craighead).
Recognizing fundamental ecological connections, Frank and John coined the term “Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem” (GYE) in the 1960s to describe a 6 million acre landscape used by bears that far exceeds the size of Yellowstone Park. Needless-to-say, the term stuck.
If we were going to save bears and sustain ourselves, Frank and John argued, we need a different management framework. Management should be coordinated among agencies in the three states of the GYE. We needed to talk to each other, and learn better ways to coexist and solve collective problems. We need to act from a place of humility simply because nature is more complex than we will probably ever understand. And we need to be better informed by science. All of this made sense to me.
Starting In the early 1980s, the public debate about protecting Greater Yellowstone as an ecosystem took off. This was a heady time: I remember feeling exhilarated, as everyone I knew, inside and outside government, seemed to be talking about ecosystem integrity, and what was needed to synthesize existing science to protect species and ecological processes. Naturally, the Craigheads were at the epicenter of this discussion.
Then in 1985 I got a job as Program Director at the then new Greater Yellowstone Coalition – a move that launched me, unwittingly, into the career of a conservation advocate.
Of course grizzly bear protection became a big part of my beat. For advice, I sought out other bear researchers, people like Frank’s son, Lance Craighead; Chuck Jonkel, who taught at University of Montana; Barrie Gilbert from Utah State University; and David Mattson who worked at the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team. It goes without saying that these and other scientists and advocates got early inspiration from the Craigheads.
This was a time when bear numbers in Yellowstone were precariously low and many feared for their future. The advice I got was simple and urgent: protect habitat and reduce the killing.
Why Public Land, Science Matters
One theme that Frank, John and others etched in my brain was the importance of public lands, and the fact that these lands are owned by all of us, no matter if we live in Jackson Wyoming or Jacksonville Florida. This was, in fact, the centerpiece of the last conversation I remember having with John and his wife Margaret at their home outside Missoula several years ago. John was pretty hard of hearing by then, but he could still hold forth on this topic with passion and a twinkle in his eye. Never ever take the public lands for granted, and never let a well-heeled, exploitative minority dictate the terms of management.
John and coauthors Jay Sumner and John Mitchell emphasized in their 1998 tome, The Grizzlies of Yellowstone, that protection of grizzly bears and other sensitive species is “severely threatened by the way in which our public land resources are manipulated by political forces... If special interest groups and their political supporters prevail in dictating the use of public lands, it will become extremely difficult, if not impossible to maintain the grizzly in perpetuity as a free-roaming member of the western landscape.”
And this: “The science to manage (public land resources) on a sustainable basis while protecting the region’s great diversity of life must come from both the government and the private sector…Pressure to apply the science must come from an educated public.”
How is the public to be educated now, in an era of unprecedented fake news and sensationalized twitter storms? If the government and the private sector are locked together in pursuit of profit, what hope is there to sustain future generations of bears, people, the planet? Are messages about the importance of science doomed to irrelevance in a time when reality television dominates the airwaves?
These are tough questions, and it will be up to citizens of all ages to shape the answers. Meanwhile, two traits embodied by the Craigheads seem more vital than ever before: a fundamental curiosity about how the world works, and the courage to speak about what is morally right and in the broader public interest.
It is sadly ironic that the moral courage for which the Craigheads are remembered supplied the government with its excuse to terminate their research in Yellowstone Park.
Speaking Truth to Power
Legends have grown up around explaining how and why the Craigheads’ unprecedented study of grizzly bears came to a screeching halt 11 years after it began. At root was a disagreement between them and the Park Service regarding how to interpret the relevant science, how to apply the science to policy, and over the philosophy of how the Parks should be managed.
At the time, Park Service leaders were lurching toward a new approach called “natural regulation,” which meant a more hands off approach to wildlife management. Parenthetically, the fact that Parks were not big enough to include all the habitat needed by Park wildlife would become one of several roadblocks to implementing this idea.
At the same time, the Craigheads were advocating broader-scale trans-jurisdictional management of the the wildlife that ranged inside as well as far outside park borders. Grizzly bears were a poster child. The parks should not be managed in isolation, they said, but should involve collaboration and coordination with the states and other federal land management agencies. The Park Service at first balked at this idea.
The match that ignited the conflagration over the Craigheads’ research came not from Yellowstone but from Glacier National Park. In 1967 two backpackers were killed by grizzly bears in separate incidents onthe same night. In Glacier as in Yellowstone, feeding bears garbage at open dumps had become a widespread practice. It was obvious that this had to change, but questions arose about what approach to take.
Frank and John advocated a slow weaning process due to the vulnerability of the population. Park Superintendent Jack Anderson wanted to close the dumps abruptly, invoking the new policy of natural regulation. He and his chief scientist Glen Cole also felt threatened by the Craigheads, who by then enjoyed celebrity status far beyond what any Park Service official could hope for. Anderson and Cole were further inflamed by the criticism coming from within Park Service ranks.
In 1969 the Park Service cancelled the Craigheads’ research permit, ordered the removal of their radio collars from bears, and bulldozed the scientists’ lab in the Park. By then, the brothers and their assistants had performed nearly 9,000 person-days of research, hiked over 162,000 miles, and captured, marked, and studied 256 Yellowstone grizzlies.
As most know by now, what happened next proved to be catastrophic to Yellowstone’s grizzly bears. Just as the Craigheads predicted, food-conditioned grizzlies sought human foods in campgrounds and communities outside the Park. Rangers and others killed bears in droves.
With the population in freefall, the grizzly bear in Yellowstone and elsewhere in the lower 48 states was listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1975 – in what was, and still is, just the last 3% of their former habitat (link).
The population’s health slowly improved with ESA protections. Sport hunting was eliminated, strict food storage requirements on public lands were adopted, public education was instituted, and domestic sheep allotments were retired. Stiff penalties for poaching also probably reduced illegal killing.
No one today disputes the fact that ESA protections saved the day for Yellowstone bears, or that the Craigheads’ research was vital to the progress towards recovery that has been made over the last 40 years.
Meanwhile, Frank and John went on to write and publish their research findings in scientific and popular venues, conduct ground breaking computer-based wildlife population modelling, and pioneer satellite radio-tracking techniques. They also became leading lights of wildlife research and conservation nationally and internationally. They helped draft the 1968 Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and they widely advocated for wilderness and biodiversity protection.
Today, we need more than ever a new generation of inspired leaders to save our imperiled planet. They may not look or sound like Frank or John Craighead, but rather resemble some of the young people recently arrested as they stood up for clean water at Standing Rock, or others involved in climate change activism or animal welfare.
Hopefully, some will be skilled observers of nature like the Craigheads, interested in saving the grizzly. Because grizzly bears live at the heart of what the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem means to people, they will always serve as a measure of how well we are protecting our natural legacy. As Frank Craighead says in Track of the Grizzly,
"Alive, the grizzly is a symbol of freedom and understanding - a sign that man can learn to conserve what is left of earth. Extinct, it will be another fading testimony of things man should have learned more about but was too preoccupied with himself to notice."
Drs. Frank and John Craighead