City Wilds By Bill Sherwonit
I met Vic Van Ballenberghe in the mid-1980s, not long after I’d become the Anchorage Times’ outdoors writer. Part of my new “beat” was covering the Alaska Board of Game (BOG). This was my first venture into wildlife politics and I had few, if any, preconceptions about the board, its members, and its inclinations.
One of the first things that struck me was the BOG’s diversity. Its seven members represented a wide range of backgrounds and perspectives and expertise. In retrospect, the board of the mid-to late 1980s was far more balanced than any of the past twenty years.
In one sense, Vic too was new to the board; he’d been appointed in 1985, the same year I began covering its meetings. But unlike me, he was already well versed in Alaska’s wildlife politics, having worked here as a wildlife scientist since the mid-1970s, first for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and later the U.S. Forest Service.
Vic was among the first board members to gain my attention because he didn’t hesitate to question, and sometimes challenge, what state biologists and wildlife managers were telling the board. He presented an independent scientific voice, one that was well-informed by both his own research and knowledge of other wildlife studies being done. (Vic would later play the same role while serving partial terms on the BOG during Gov. Tony Knowles’ administration, the last time the board had any kind of balance.)
In my experience, Vic generally spoke in a calm and measured way. He chose his words carefully, and thoughtfully, which lent him a certain kind of gravitas. But he also had a wry sense of humor and to me he seemed a rather humble guy. In social situations, he struck me as reserved, even shy.
Vic became one of my primary “go-to” people when I had questions about wildlife management, the BOG process, and more technical aspects of board discussions. Over time that reporter-source relationship evolved into a friendship, one based on our shared passion for wildlife and dedication to wildlife conservation.
Over the years, we had many conversations, all of them centered on wildlife in one way or another. In our last extended conversation, which was also something of an interview, Vic talked at length about his life’s path, his wildlife research, and especially his long-term study of moose in Denali National Park, the work for which he’s best known and which led to his reputation as “Alaska’s Moose Man.” Here I’ll share some of what I learned.
Vic’s journey to Alaska began in our country’s Northeast region. He spent much of his childhood and adolescence as a “farm kid” in upper New York state. His family’s dairy farm proved to be a great place to meet the local wildlife, from white-tailed deer to foxes and turkeys, but Vic also spent much of his free time roaming the neighboring woods and streams. All of this would feed his passion for wild nature and curiosity to learn more about wild creatures.
“Early on,” he told me, “I became interested in the behavior of animals.”
Vic would go on to get a Ph.D. in wildlife management at the University of Minnesota, where he studied both moose and wolves. He recalled that he began grad school “at a time when telemetry was revolutionizing wildlife research” through the use of “radio collars” that allow scientists to track animals from afar. “In 1968,” Vic noted, “I put the first functional radio collars on moose in North America.” Later, as part of his doctoral work, he would radio-collar wolves.
Importantly, while in grad school Vic read Adolph Murie’s highly acclaimed book “The Wolves of Mount McKinley.” Murie’s writings inspired him to consider “what a wonderful opportunity it would be, to become a field biologist” in the way that Murie had been decades earlier.
Vic came to Alaska in 1974, hired by the Department of Fish and Game to study the impact of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline on moose. For that, he helped to collar more than 200 moose. In 1975, he joined a wolf study that entailed more telemetry work, the wolves tracked from aircraft.
“I think those might have been the first wolves ever collared in Alaska,” Vic told me. “I flew over 1,000 hours tracking wolves and saw some neat stuff,” which included two instances of wolves chasing down and killing moose, something rarely observed from start to finish as he was able to do.
The aerial studies of both moose and wolves gave biologists only brief glimpses into their lives. Vic wanted more, something closer to what Murie had accomplished: “I remember thinking, wouldn’t it be productive to spend many hours observing moose” while more intimately connected to their world, their lives.
He got that chance after being hired in 1980 by the Forest Service’s research branch.
Vic had started visiting then-Mount McKinley National Park (renamed Denali in 1980) in 1976 and quickly recognized the opportunity it presented to study a healthy, unhunted population of moose. He approached the National Park Service and proposed a long-term moose study that consisted of three components: the animals’ behaviors, their habitat use, and population dynamics.
Both the Park Service and Forest Service approved Vic’s plan. So that same year, using a mix of radio telemetry and personal observations, he began to follow Denali’s moose “through the course of their lives.”
While wildlife research generally was moving toward “computer modeling” as the primary way to study animals, Vic got to follow his dream of becoming a field biologist in the manner of Adolph Murie.
“Nowadays,” he explained, “being ‘in the field’ too often means being in an aircraft. Something is lost when you’re not spending time in the company of the animals you’re studying. Misinterpretations are made because of this failure to be in the field and directly observe their lives.”
Vic retired from the Forest Service in 2000, after two decades of studying Denali’s moose. Even a 20-year study was rare, he told me, at a time when most last only three to five years. But with the Park Service’s permission, Vic went on to study Denali’s moose for another dozen or more years, more than three decades in all.
His studies weren’t without some controversy. Wildlife photographers—and eventually Denali National Park’s managers—opposed his use of radio collars. Vic stopped collaring bulls around 1990, partly because he wanted to focus more on cows, but also because of photographers’ complaints. And in the final years of his study, park management required that he stop collaring any moose.
Though BOG members sometimes dismissed or denigrated wildlife studies done in Denali, Vic pointed out the importance of studying moose and other wildlife in places where they weren’t hunted, places where “predator-prey relations are naturally regulated,” largely free of human influence. “As a biologist, the first thing you need to know is how things work in the absence of humans.”
His studies also showed that, contrary to popular belief, moose exhibit a wide range of “personalities,” something that became “crystal clear” to him the longer he spent in their company.
And though some biologists might be critical of him for this, Vic admitted he felt an emotional attachment to some of the moose that he studied. “It’s only an issue if it finds its way into your collection of data or conclusions,” he said, “and I don’t think I let that happen. When you spend thousands and thousands of hours with any animal, how can you not develop a strong bond? I think you’d have to be heartless for that not to happen.”
Besides continuing to conduct research during his “retirement years,” Vic often worked as a consultant with film crews and others drawn to Denali by its moose and other wildlife. He also authored a book, “In the Company of Moose,” which featured more than 100 of his photographs, accompanied by text that described his experiences with moose. One chapter, in particular, garnered special attention when excerpted as an essay. “Death of a Warrior” described the life and death of a dominant bull moose that Vic had come to know well, one that stirred him emotionally.
Besides all that, Vic increasingly became an outspoken wildlife advocate and critic of the state’s wildlife-management priorities and methods.
In the final decade of his life, Vic’s work was slowed by age and various ailments, the most serious of them Parkinson’s Disease. We largely fell out of touch during that time, but others who stayed close to Vic say he remained alert, bright, thoughtful, and humorous, “as always.” He also stayed involved in Alaska’s wildlife politics and, if anything, became an even greater wildlife advocate and opponent of the state’s controversial predator-control programs.
Following Vic Van Ballenberghe’s death on Sept. 22, 2022, at age 78, many people in Alaska’s wildlife community (and beyond) have both mourned his passing and applauded the legacy of a wildlife biologist, field scientist, and “genuine wildlife hero” who contributed greatly to our understanding of moose and predator-prey relationships, and who advocated for more balanced and ethical wildlife management by the state. I join them in grieving Vic’s death and celebrating his life and work.
Vic once told me that Jane Goodall was the person he most wanted to emulate, a scientist who “was the epitome of the field biologist and who showed great dedication and attachment” to the chimpanzees who came to be at the center of her life. I’d say he successfully followed in both Murie’s and Goodall’s paths and for that, we can be thankful.
Anchorage nature writer and wildlife/wildlands advocate Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.” Readers wishing to send comments or questions directly to Bill may do so at email@example.com.