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Among Wolves: Gordon Haber’s Insights into Alaska’s Most Misunderstood Animal

Among Wolves: Gordon Haber’s Insights into Alaska’s Most Misunderstood Animal allows the reader a unique opportunity to learn from the late Dr. Gordon Haber and his fascinating 43 year study of Alaska’s wolves that resulted in an unwavering commitment to advocating for their preservation in the wild. Although the crash of Dr. Haber’s research plane in Denali National Park in 2009 ended his life in an untimely manner, reading his field notes and journals, and hearing stories from friends, enables the reader to feel a powerful connection to his passion and dedication to this remarkable keystone species and to learn about some startling findings that can affect the future of wolves everywhere.

Marybeth Holleman, co-author of the book, has lived in Alaska’s Chugach Mountains for twenty-five years.  The valuable insights she captured of late Dr. Gordon Haber’s unique and critically important research highlights the negative impacts human hunting and trapping has on the social fabric of a wolf family. The book also points up the critical challenges wolves face in and around Denali National Park today. “When his plane went down in 2009, I became determined that his work wouldn’t go down with his life. His findings are too important, and too essential to what wolves—and we humans who live alongside them—are facing today.”

The Wolf Conservation Center was fortunate to ask Ms. Holleman three critical questions about Dr. Haber’s message as it relates to present day issues affecting wolves in our nation, including the current proposals by USFWS to delist all gray wolves in the lower 48 states.

Wolf Conservation CenterGordon’s research, field notes and stories continue to be relevant. Why do you think this is so? What do you believe is Gordon’s most important message to all of us?

Marybeth Holleman –  Gordon’s work is relevant because it’s true. Gordon’s conclusions still fall on deaf ears in Alaska and in much of the United States because people don’t like to hear what they don’t want to hear. They don’t want to hear that wolves are complex, fascinating beings who can’t be managed by the simplistic models most commonly used in wildlife management. They want to stick to their old worn pathways. As Voltaire wrote, “Those who walk on the well-trodden path always throw stones at those who are showing the new road.”

But the results of Gordon’s 43 years of on-the-ground, up-close intensive research continue to hold true. The truth will win out.

And Gordon’s essential message is: When it comes to wolves, it’s not about numbers. It’s about family. A wolf is a wolf when it’s part of an intact, unexploited family group capable of astonishingly beautiful and complex cooperative behaviors and unique traditions. If a family group is left unexploited (that is, not trapped, shot, poisoned or otherwise killed by humans) it will develop extraordinary traditions for hunting, pup-rearing, and social behaviors that are finely tuned to its precise environment and that are unique to that particular long-lived family group.
Wolf Conservation CenterToday, with predator control, hunting, and trapping of wolves at a new high throughout Alaska and the western United States, with national park wolves at risk when they cross outside park boundaries, and with the threat of delisting for the entire country, how should Gordon’s legacy guide our advocacy as it relates to these contentious issues?

Marybeth HollemanWe can take hope in the resiliency of wolves as a species, but we must shift the conversation to emphasize the vital importance of intact family groups.

Today, there are no unexploited intact wolf family groups in our country. Not even in Alaska. Not even in our most esteemed national parks, like Denali and Yellowstone. Even there, wolves are at risk whenever they cross the invisible boundaries.

A healthy wolf population is more than x number of wolves inhabiting y square miles of territory. The notion that we can “harvest” a fixed percentage of an existing wolf population that corresponds to natural mortality rates and still maintain a viable population misses the point. According to Gordon, it’s not how many wolves you kill, it’s which wolves you kill.

Natural losses typically take younger wolves, whereas hunting and trapping take older, experienced, wolves. These older wolves are essential because they know the territory, prey movements, hunting techniques, denning sites, pup rearing and teaching—and because they are the breeders. Gordon observed this several times: an alpha wolf was killed by humans, setting off a chain of events that left most of the family group dead and the rest scattered, rag-tag orphans.

It’s a sad spectacle. And we’ve seen it happen in Denali and Yellowstone several times in recent years. Just think how often this is happening to family groups all across the continent.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposal to delist gray wolves nationwide is flawed because it’s based on numbers. No one knew this better than Gordon, who called such numbers-based management “ecological nonsense.”

You can’t manage wolves by the numbers. You can’t just count the numbers of wolves over a particular area and decide whether it’s a “healthy” population. That’s because the functional unit of wolves is the family, a multigenerational extended family group.

We need to realize, and push for, this fact: Wolves are no longer endangered when these family groups have permanent protection, when we manage according to this essential functional unit, and when wolves have adequate habitat and prey.  If we leave wolves alone, they will manage their numbers in concert with their environment.

And another thing Gordon concluded: If we leave wolves alone, we’ll be the ones to benefit – for the presence of wolves in our natural world, he wrote, “evokes the sense of wonder that helps us not just to live, but to be alive.”

Wolf Conservation CenterAs a writer in Alaska, why did you believe it was so important to write this book about Gordon?

Marybeth HollemanThirty years ago, I moved from North Carolina, where red wolves were being reintroduced into the wild, to Alaska, where people were gunning wolves from the air. The contrast wasn’t lost on me, and has threaded through countless essays and poems since.

Times I’ve seen wild wolves stand out in memory like the most crisp photographs: my first fall in Alaska, watching wolves thread up a new-snow-covered mountainside; in Denali when my eight-year-old son saw wild wolves for the first time, padding beside the Toklat River.

Then there was the first time I heard Gordon Haber speak, when I’d been in Alaska less than two years. I was thunderstruck not just by his incredibly intimate knowledge but by his extraordinary passion for this animal that he wrote “enlivens the landscape.”

I followed his work, got to know him, and remained in awe of his sense of wonder and his dedication to continue his research in some pretty harsh environmental conditions, but even more so to continue his advocacy in the far harsher conditions of Alaska wildlife politics.

Very few wildlife biologists today do the kind of whole-systems observational research that Gordon practiced; few spend as much time with their subjects, and thus few have Gordon’s unassailable experiential authority.

What’s more, very few scientists have the courage and conviction to take what they learn about their area of expertise and speak out in defense of it, to really educate the public and help us make more informed, intelligent decisions. Gordon did this time and again; he never gave up.

The world needs his voice, now more than ever. The world needs his example. We need more Gordons, and my hope is that this book might inspire them.

When his plane went down in 2009, I became determined that his work wouldn’t go down with his life. His findings are too important, and too essential to what wolves—and we humans who live alongside them—are facing today.

Among Wolves: Gordon Haber’s Insights into Alaska’s Most Misunderstood Animal is a highly recommended and compelling read that encourages us to closely witness Dr. Haber’s work on behalf of wolves and to become inspired by important guiding principles should influence our work to preserve the future of this keystone predator in the wild.

Purchase the book here.

Enjoy Marybeth Holleman’s interview on Alaska public radio.

If you have yet to submit comments to USFWS re: the agency’s nationwide delisting proposal and/or rules governing Mexican wolf recovery, please take action today.  USFWS is accepting comments re: the proposals until October 28th.

  • Voice your opposition to the Nationwide Delisting proposal HERE.
  • Tell USFWS that Mexican Wolves are essential HERE

Thank you!