top of page
  • Louisa Willcox

A Grizzly Tribute to John and Frank Craighead

Photo: Craighead Institute

Earlier this fall, 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.

I am not the only one to have been inspired in my youth by their many discoveries about nature that landed their stories and photos on the front page of National Geographic and a slew of other magazines. A friend of my family, Dan Mannix, knew them personally and thought that, being a tomboy, I would appreciate learning about their daring adventures with wild animals. Dan was right. As I grew up in Pennsylvania during the 50’s and 60’s, the Craigheads were celebrities, frequently featured in prime time television specials following grizzly bears and birds of prey in spectacular wild settings.

Their message was simple and provocative: understand and save our magnificent predators and the wild habitat they depend on.

Like many my age, 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 found my way West in the 1970’s and hardly looked back. To get into Wyoming’s remote wilderness, I mastered mountaineering skills, and became an instructor at the National Outdoor Leadership School. But, then, this was decades after the Craigheads taught survival skills to Navy pilots during World War ll.

I finally got a chance to meet the twins in my 20’s when I lived in Jackson Hole. During the late 70’s and 80’s, Frank and John were giants around Jackson in a landscape then populated by legendary scientists, educators and conservationists. I also met their little sister Jean Craighead George, a prolific author of children's books such as Julie of the Wolves.

Besides the Craigheads, there was Luna Leopold, renowned hydrologist and son of conservationist and author Aldo; Mardy Murie, author and wilderness advocate; Ted Major, biology teacher who founded the Teton Science School; and David Love, geologist and raconteur, who became one of my early mentors. To paraphrase Shakespeare’s Hamlet, I shall not look upon the likes of these men (and women) again.

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. While the Craigheads were at the epicenter of this discussion, there were many other voices.

David Love would make wondrous connections between geology and natural history and management. He explained why antelope chew on a certain shale during their spring migration; why a proposed dam on the Upper Green was geologically and morally a stupid idea; and why land in the Gros Ventres Range tended to slump after being clearcut.

I heard Luna Leopold once tell the entire story of the earth and all of human history in just an hour, using as a prop an ancient, locally quarried quartzite hand axe, concluding with a powerful warning about our collective fate if we stop respecting the earth. It was a stunning performance.

I sat at Mardy Murie’s kitchen table drinking tea and hearing about her youthful adventures in the wilds of Alaska, and her support for restoring wolves to Yellowstone, where the last had been exterminated while her husband Olaus was starting his famous research on Jackson Hole elk. I would later come to appreciate that their understanding and sense of duty to protect nature was not fundamentally different from how indigenous people see the world: everything in nature is connected, including ourselves, and we have a duty to leave future generations with a healthy planet.

Then in 1985 it was time to graduate from Mardy’s kitchen. I was urged by David Love to apply for the Program Director position at the 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.”

I reflect on this point as the Trump administration entertains a move to liquidate public lands in the West, while giving free reign to energy interests. There is no doubt that an anti-environmental storm of epic proportions is brewing, at time when the older generation of sages are dying off.

Worse, we have entered into a no man’s land where facts and science no longer seem to matter. There is thus no small amount of irony in the fact that John and his coauthors concluded that: “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.

The Craighead-Government Wars: Harbingers of Things to Come

At one time I thought that the Craigheads’ mistreatment by the Park Service would be an impossibly nasty act to follow. That has sadly proven not to be the case.

What I have seen over the past 30 years in the arena surrounding public lands and endangered species is that the good guys, who care about the broader public interest, are frequent victims of the agencies they work for. Too often, a small, thuggish minority of special interests prevail and are rewarded for being bullies and interfering with wildlife management to benefit themselves. Agency managers, like dogs that have been beaten, anticipate the lash from ranchers and energy industry executives and curb their behavior, preventing staff from carrying out responsibilities to protect the resource or even to talk to the public about choices that are rightfully theirs.

What happens to the public employees with integrity? They get silenced, demoted, intimidated, frozen out of decisions. Their responsibilities or research shrinks in scope. They are asked to relocate to the professional equivalent of Siberia. Their professional work is rewritten if it does not adequately accommodate the politically-expedient ethos.

Some go quietly and take other jobs. Some blow whistles. Some go a little nuts. Some take revenge. All seem scarred and disillusioned at some level. Because they went into public service to serve a purpose higher than themselves – and discovered that those who survive in government either have the spirit of transcendence and altruism knocked out of them, or never cared in the first place.

Here’s the rub: all of us need good people inside government, along with watch dogs outside the government, to help keep the system honest. In a democratic society, we have entrusted the government to protect our interests. Because researching wide-ranging species such as grizzly bears is expensive and often legally proscribed, the government has become the sole purveyor of relevant science for a number of larger mammals. For good or bad, the government is more important than ever.

If the good guys can’t survive, we, bears, the planet are in a world of hurt. And right now, in the arena of imperiled species, those with public spirit are as endangered as the species they study or manage.

The grizzly bear arena, which has remained especially spiteful since the Craighead days, is littered with casualties (link).

Reforming Management Systems: The Next Challenge

While the Craighead conflict was dismissed by some as a personal feud with managers, or a simple disagreement over policy, neither premise captures the whole story. I have come to see that the problem that faced them and continues to beset grizzly recovery more broadly is related to pathologies built into the management institutions themselves -- their cultures, funding, and systems of internal and external incentives. (For more on this, read this and this blog by David Mattson).

The real issue is that the protection of natural resources is not rewarded inside government agencies as much as exploitative activities, despite clear, conservation-oriented mandates such as the ESA. Federal agencies such as the Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS), which is tasked with implementing the ESA, have been captured by the special interests they are supposed to regulate because of interference by powerful regional politicians. Perversely, the FWS has reflexively adopted a self-justifying narrative that species such as grizzly bears must be delisted in order to placate the ESA’s foes--even though these ideological enemies of the ESA are altogether implacable (link).

Solutions to structural problems are multi-faceted and complex, including more openness and transparency in management; breaking the current monopoly on Yellowstone grizzly bear data; better training of managers in civics and social sciences; appropriate chastisement for unethical behavior of agency officials; and humility, given the huge amount of uncertainty arising from the massive environmental changes currently underway. You can read more details here (link).

Recognizing that the current system is despotic and dysfunctional is an essential baby step to the larger challenge of reforming our wildlife and wildland management institutions. So is the education and development of a new generation of inspired leaders. They may not look or sound like Frank or John Craighead, but rather resemble some of the young people recently arrested at the Standing Rock Reservation, or involved in climate change activism or animal welfare.

Hopefully, some will be skilled observers of nature like the generation of giants I was blessed to know. With the challenges ahead, public servants cannot all be desk-bound slaves to their computers.

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."

Featured Posts
Recent Posts
Search By Tags
Follow Us
  • Facebook Basic Square
bottom of page