By Bill Sherwonit
Mid-October. My thoughts drift back in time and to the north, toward Denali National Park. It’s hard to believe that a decade has already passed since researcher and activist Gordon Haber died in a plane crash on Oct. 14, 2009 while tracking the wolves he so deeply loved and fought to protect. Yet at the same time, his death—and the many years of dedicated and controversial work that preceded it—seem so long ago, a haunting memory.
For some Alaskans, Gordon remains a mythical character, “larger than life,” as the saying goes. But it’s equally true, I’d bet, that many, if not most residents nowadays don’t give Haber or his legacy much thought. This raises the question: what is Haber’s legacy? Did his work change the way we Alaskans, as a community of people, think and feel about wolves and their place in the wild? Sadly, I’m not sure it did.
Though the status of wolves, and the way that people relate to and think about them, has changed dramatically in the Lower 48, not much seems to have changed in Alaska.
My purpose here is not to examine current attitudes toward wolves—that I’ll leave for another time—but to reflect upon Gordon Haber’s life and work and his understanding of wolves as emotionally rich creatures that form complex societies. Those perceptions eventually led him to choose “family” when describing a group of wolves, rather than “pack.” Haber considered the latter a misleading and pejorative term that feeds the simplistic and inaccurate stereotype of wolves as vicious “killing machines.”
Based on his observations, Haber came to view wolves as highly evolved social animals who live in extended family groups characterized by extraordinarily cooperative behavior. In some ways, he argued, their cooperation may even exceed our own.
Though many of his insights are widely accepted today, at least outside Alaska, Haber embodied a minority—and perhaps singular—scientific perspective when he first presented his ideas several decades ago.
The story of Gordon Haber’s life and work is far richer and more fascinating than most people know. That story involves a huge cast of characters and touches on complex issues, including our state’s history of wildlife management and predator-control policies, which have divided wildlife scientists, and Alaskan residents, for decades. At its heart is our species’ complicated relationship with wolves, specifically, and wild nature, generally.
That more intricate narrative remains scattered in people’s memories and stories; in articles and reports and government files; in correspondence between Haber and all manner of people, including—and perhaps especially—his adversaries; and in Haber’s own prodigious writings. For a while I imagined I might tell that larger story, but my own life, and that project, have taken some unexpected twists too, and now I wonder if I ever will. I hope that someone, some day, will do so. Here I’ll simply offer a peek into what I’ve learned about Gordon Haber and his beloved Denali wolves.
I still vividly recall where I happened to be when I got word of Gordon’s death: sitting at the same desk where I now compose this remembrance. The news was numbing, hard to fathom.
Some of Haber’s friends and allies took solace in the fact that he died doing something he loved, tracking wolves across the Denali landscape. Priscilla Feral, his longtime benefactor, even told a reporter that Haber once confided, “The way he wanted to die was to be flying in a plane and hit a mountain at 100 miles per hour.” That’s essentially what happened. But in the end, Haber’s death was less romantic than tragic. At the age of 67, he died prematurely, his research and advocacy unfinished.
While friends and supporters deeply mourned the loss and bemoaned the huge hole left by Haber’s death, at least some of his adversaries—of which there were many—took solace in the fact that they would no longer have to deal with Haber’s confrontational personality, brazen methods, and obsessive efforts to protect Alaska’s wolves from trappers and state-sponsored wolf-kill programs.
By 2009, Haber’s work with, and for, Denali’s wolves (and some groups outside the national park) stretched across more than four decades. Over that time he’d become Alaska’s best-known wildlife scientist, though most of the public knew little about his core ideas and many—perhaps most—of Haber’s peers questioned his research methods. Some even cast doubt on his credentials.
Haber had also become Alaska’s best-known wildlife advocate, a fervent “wolf lover” who once single-handedly revealed huge flaws, and abuses, in the state’s wolf-control program, leading to its shutdown.
Most who knew him seemed to regard Haber as either a heroic (if flawed) figure or they disdained him and his work. In short, he was a divisive figure, celebrated in some circles, despised in others. But on one point everyone agreed: Alaska’s wolves never had a more dedicated, passionate defender. In a way, they’d become Haber’s family.
Though I’d known Gordon for more than 20 years, I never knew him well. Few people did. We met in the 1980s, when I reported on wildlife issues for the Anchorage Times. Our paths continued to cross, both because of a shared passion for wolves and a liking for Café del Mundo (now the Black Cup). When in Anchorage, Gordon was a del Mundo regular. Most afternoons he could be found working at a window-side table.
Sometimes we’d say hello, other times not. Now and then I would intentionally avoid him. Even a quick ‘hi’ could lead to a conversation. And once he got talking, Gordon would usually go on and on and on. He didn’t know when to stop. Or maybe he just couldn’t stop. The worst thing I could do was challenge one of his statements, because he’d go into overdrive to prove his point.
I always hoped I might someday join Gordon “in the field,” together watching the wolves he loved so much. We talked about the possibility, but it never happened. So I never got to know his field biologist side. But I did experience his passion for, and obsession with, wolves.
My sense of Gordon and the reach of his work expanded greatly in the days after his death, especially while listening to friends and colleagues share stories at a memorial service. Here was a Gordon—and to some, a “Gordy”—I never knew: loyal friend, jokester, part-time homesteader, junk-food junkie, social conservative (that he supported Sarah Palin, given her predator-control advocacy, continues to baffle me), and, for a time in the eighties, a guy who struggled financially. As wildlife photographer and longtime friend Johnny Johnson put it, “Gordon was broke. I mean down to pocket change. . . . Being a resourceful person, he decided to sell limited-edition prints of his wolf photographs. At that time, none of the galleries in town carried photography, so Gordon barged into the offices of banks, lawyers, doctors, and real-estate agents. He’d tell the secretaries, ‘I have something your boss has to see.’”
For several years Haber’s photographic sales supported his wolf research. That meant he couldn’t afford to do a lot; mostly drive the Denali Park Road and hike to den-viewing sites. Then, in 1993, Gordon got his big break: he teamed up with Priscilla Feral, driving force of an Outside group so many Alaskans love to hate, the Connecticut-based Friends of Animals.
Bankrolled by Friends, Gordon expanded his studies and devoted increased time to aerial surveys. More importantly, perhaps, he intensified his advocacy, while watchdogging—some might say hounding—state wildlife managers in unprecedented ways. Among those who witnessed it, what Alaskan can forget his shocking 1994 video of snared wolves caught in a state-run wolf-kill program?
In the eyes of many, Haber’s activism eventually overshadowed his research, but both were fed by his passion for wolves and his fascination with their social lives.
Raised in Michigan, Haber showed an early affinity for wild animals and wilderness. After the scattering of his ashes at his Denali cabin, his sister Mary Licht recalled, “When Gordon was a boy, he would disappear into the woods and be there for hours and hours and hours.”
He also had a penchant for rescuing injured animals. Mary recalls that Gordon would “grab those things up; little tiny, tiny things. He’d bring them home. My mom and dad would say, ‘OK, we’ll keep it and then we’ll release it back into the wild after it’s healthy.’” The critters included birds and squirrels and one baby skunk that for a while became the family’s “un-deodorized” pet. “We put a leash on it and walked it around the neighborhood, walked it everywhere, like a puppy dog.”
Haber’s early attraction to wild animals was enlarged—and his fascination with both wolves and Alaska ignited—when he read Lois Crisler’s memoir, Arctic Wild: The Remarkable True Story of One Couple’s Adventures Living Among Wolves. He made his way north to the Denali region in the mid-1960s and there met Adolph Murie, whose pioneering studies of the park’s wolves yielded lasting acclaim and a landmark book, The Wolves of Mount McKinley. It’s unclear how close the two became, but Murie’s legacy undoubtedly influenced Haber’s own investigations.
Haber worked as a park ranger before beginning his own wolf studies, initially conducted while a graduate student. Though Haber’s research and activism would eventually focus on the East Fork/Toklat wolves, he was initially most interested in the Savage Pack that roamed the park’s eastern end. (Though “East Fork” has been the more commonly accepted name since Murie’s groundbreaking studies, Haber preferred “Toklat,” one of his many quirks.)
Serendipity, convenience, and Murie’s groundbreaking work all played some role in Haber’s eventual decision to more closely follow the East Fork/Toklat wolves. That choice allowed him to later proclaim the Toklat family to be “by far the longest, most intensively studied and most heavily viewed wolf pack in the world.”
In Haber’s later years, the Toklat wolves no longer qualified as even the “most heavily viewed” group in Denali, let alone the world. And the rigorous investigations begun by Murie and continued by Haber would essentially end with Gordon’s death in 2009.
The last of the East Fork/Toklat wolves disappeared and likely died in 2016, though that pack—or family—does remain the longest-studied group of wolves ever investigated. While Haber and some of his supporters have claimed that his and Murie’s work spanned more than seventy years of continuous research, there were some substantial gaps in their studies, most notably from the mid-forties through the mid-sixties.
Even before completing his dissertation at the University of British Columbia, Haber was embroiled in controversy. Some wildlife scientists claimed his work lacked “scientific objectivity,” a charge that would shadow his long career. Others charged Haber of sloppy work or worse, incorporating the research of other scientists without properly citing them, and deliberate deception in his writings and public talks. Yet Haber’s chief advisors defended his work and eventually approved his dissertation, an infamously gigantic tome.
Haber, meanwhile, defiantly took on the scientific establishment, including David Mech, widely considered North America’s—and arguably the world’s—leading authority on wolves. Mech was among Haber’s chief nemeses and critics and the two scientists’ public battles would eventually cast a shadow over Haber’s work and ideas.
Early on, Haber pushed his own ideas about the “social life of wolves.” Not long into his studies, he came to perceive wolves as highly intelligent, emotional beings who love their mates and offspring, grieve the deaths of family members, work together for the good of the whole, establish complex societies, and spend considerable time and energy in passing along cultural knowledge and learned behaviors to their young.
Haber went so far as to suggest that wolf societies are comparable to those of early humans and even primitive contemporary hunter-gatherer cultures. In better understanding wolves, he argued, we might learn more about our species’ origins and evolution.
Haber also ran counter to mainstream wolf research in his belief that under ideal circumstances, lupine family units might endure for decades, with both genes and social behaviors passed from one generation to the next. This, he insisted, was the case for his cherished Toklat family, whose lineage, Haber claimed in 2008, “has persisted for at least 42-70 years.” He based that claim on his and Adolph Murie’s combined studies of the East Fork/Toklat wolves, which began in 1939 and continued, off and on, until Haber’s death in 2009.
When genetic studies seemed to disprove Haber’s theories about the long “genetic lineage” of the Toklat wolves, he then focused on the “cultural traditions” passed from one generation of wolves to the next, similar to humans:
“In a wolf family, as in other advanced societies, the basic social framework is programmed in the genes, but important details are ‘tuned’ via learning . . . Learning never stops; hence these traditions can be updated and enriched as local conditions dictate. The result of this collection of traditions can be viewed s culture.” Ultimately, he argued, wolves join a few other species—humans, chimpanzees, and elephants among them—“at the pinnacle of vertebrate social development.”
Not only did his and Murie’s work yield an unmatched wealth of data, Haber contended, it made the Toklat family exceedingly valuable, nothing less than a “biological treasure.”
For all these reasons, Haber believed that wolves generally, and the Toklat family especially, deserved protection from hunting and trapping and other forms of human persecution, which in turn helps to explain his decades-long advocacy on their behalf and his plunge into the long-running debate over Alaska’s management of wolves. Eagerly criticizing state-run predator-control programs, he insisted they were based on incomplete studies and/or flawed interpretations of wolf-ungulate relationships.
Haber’s disputes with the state intensified after he formed an alliance with, and received funding from, Priscilla Feral and the Friends of Animals in the early 1990s. The pinnacle of his activism occurred in 1994, when he revealed, in compelling fashion, the ways that Alaska’s wildlife officials were mismanaging a controversial wolf-control program, sometimes with horrific results.
On a frigid November morning, Haber discovered several wolves caught in snares put out by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Accompanied by a newspaper reporter and photographer, Haber himself videotaped a state employee botch the shooting of one snared wolf. His video of the snared wolves, one of which had chewed off a lower leg, and the messed-up shooting aired on national TV networks.
The media coverage and ensuing outrage forced state officials to quickly suspend Alaska’s wolf-control program. A couple of months later, newly elected Gov. Tony Knowles canceled the state’s wolf-kill effort and ordered a full review of its predator-control policies. It was a great victory for both wolves and their advocates, made possible by Haber’s unorthodox—and controversial—methods.
Less successful were his efforts to protect Denali’s wolves when they went outside the park in winter to hunt prey. The creation of a “buffer zone” on adjacent state-owned lands was one of his great passions. As far back as 1971, he sent a letter and accompanying six-page document to the Alaska Board of Fish and Game, requesting it to consider “a hunting-trapping closure north of [then] Mount McKinley National Park” and explaining why. Though the Board of Game would eventually enact a limited buffer in 2000, Haber believed it insufficient. (Even that smaller buffer would be rescinded in 2010, after his death.) The state’s unwillingness to fully protect the park’s wolves remained one of his most bitter disappointments.
Eventually Haber’s brazen ways would lead to a lawsuit and his conviction, by a jury of rural Alaskans, on charges of illegally meddling with a trapper’s snares. Other controversies surrounded his theft of state and federal wolf-collar frequencies (which he then used for his own purposes) and his refusal to alert Denali’s staff when conducting aerial surveys inside the park, which led to some near misses with other planes.
Besides his ongoing clashes with government officials and other wolf researchers, Haber battled the trappers who targeted wolves just beyond Denali National Park’s borders and thus threatened its wolves, including and especially the Toklat family.
Haber’s behavior sometimes infuriated even his closest allies and nearly everyone who knew the scientist-activist agrees that his brusque, abrasive style often worked against him. Even Haber’s best friends never fully grasped his argumentative nature. “Especially in the early years, Gordon was completely fearless,” photographer Johnny Johnson recalls. “He was brash, unconventional and extremely confrontational, not just about wolves, but everything. A lot of people threw out the message because of the messenger.”
Though often socially rude, Haber showed considerable political acumen. Over the years, several park superintendents threatened to revoke his research permit, but never did. One reason is that Haber cultivated connections in high places. A chief example is his friendship with Ann and Rogers Morton; the latter served as Secretary of the Interior from 1971 to 1975. He also found allies in Alaska’s Congressional delegation. More than once, the “message from above” to various park administrators was clear: don’t interfere with Haber’s work.
Besides being a stubborn and quarrelsome sort, the young Haber considered himself something of a ladies man. Handsome, fit, and charismatic, Haber quickly built a reputation as a big-time “skirt chaser.” Longtime friends of his recall watching Haber approach attractive women and introduce himself as “the Wolf Man.” The shtick worked surprisingly well.
Rarely did Haber get into serious relationships during those philandering days. Even his friends agree he didn’t show women much respect.
As Haber got older and his dark brown hair turned gray, his once lanky frame became stockier, and his advances seemed more sad than ballsy, the Wolf Man’s sex appeal inevitably diminished and he spent more and more time alone. By the time he’d reached his sixties, he often seemed a lonely guy.
In his role as wildlife advocate, too, he seemed the quintessential lone wolf, a curious thing for someone so fascinated with the family life of wolves.
Eventually Haber’s never-ending rants about the trapping of Denali’s wolves and Alaska’s escalating wolf-control programs under a series of Republican governors began to lose their power. His combativeness, derision of other perspectives, and especially his association with Friends of Animals (deemed an unholy union by many residents) made it easy for opponents to dismiss him as someone representing the misguided views of Outside animal-rights extremists, his work influenced by their agenda.
The primary voice crying out on behalf of Alaska’s wolves, Haber asserted his independence to the end, while insisting, against all evidence, that he remained primarily a scientist, not an activist. Yet even if his lone-wolf ways and argumentative tendencies put people off, many Alaskans who care about wolves embraced Haber’s passion and dedication. Here was someone who would fight to the finish to defend a persecuted species. In a way, he offered hope, he symbolized courage.
Something else needs to be mentioned. For all his confrontational and isolating ways, Haber did keep a core group of close friends. And in his final months, some of them noticed a “softening” of his personality. He seemed more at ease with his life—and maybe himself. Tom Klein, a longtime friend who visited Haber at his Denali cabin in early October 2009, later commented that the scientist-activist seemed as happy as Klein could remember.
That cheerfulness seemed connected to the nearing completion of the cabin, a decades-long project. It wouldn’t be long before Haber could get rid of his Anchorage apartment and permanently move to the Denali region, the place he most loved.
Already Haber had access to the Internet, which meant he could regularly share with the world his latest observations, interpretations, and advocacy for wolves “direct from the wilds of Alaska,” without having to leave the comfort of his cabin—and having others try to edit or challenge his work. Haber’s “Alaska Wolves” website had become the primary way he presented his research. It was also a place to display his remarkable collection of wolf images and to rail against the “heavy government-sanctioned killing . . . and Mengele-like experiments” that he considered integral to the state’s war against Alaska’s wolves.
In short, he seemed to be entering a new and more satisfying period of his life. There was so much to look forward to. And then . . .
Gordon Haber’s unparalleled advocacy for Alaska’s wolves came to an abrupt end on Oct. 14, 2009, when he flew into Denali National Park to monitor wolves as he’d routinely done so many times before. On that day, however, he flew with a pilot still new to Haber’s aerial-tracking work, Dan McGregor. While Haber was checking on members of the Grant Creek Pack, the plane hit sudden turbulence and severe tailwinds that, according to an NTSB report, “pushed it to the ground.”
McGregor survived the impact and ensuing fire, but Haber died, bringing a horrific and shocking end to his decades of work with, and for, Alaska’s wolves. His death has indeed left a huge hole, as Haber’s allies had feared. It seems safe to say that Alaska’s wolves will never again have such a dogged, passionate champion.
Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife” and three books about the Denali region. Readers wishing to send comments or questions directly to Bill may do so at firstname.lastname@example.org.