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Adolph Murie and the Toklat Wolves Denali National Park & Preserve

by Timothy Rawson

The Toklat wolves first came to the public's attention following the 1944 publication of a drab government report titled The Wolves of Mount McKinley. This was the first research monograph on wolf ecology, yet the accessible writing style and interesting accounts of wolf behavior gave it readership appeal far beyond most government reports. Readers met the wolves comprising the East Fork of the Toklat River pack through descriptions of their behavior as well as sketches of their appearance. No storybook characters, these wolves lived in a national park; they and their offspring became the "First Family" of American wolves, delighting many thousands of readers and visitors.

Their behavior had been recorded by a National Park Service biologist, Adolph Murie, during research from 1939-1941. A half-brother to Olaus Murie, one of the founders of the Wilderness Society, Adolph had joined the National Park Service (NPS) in 1934 after completing a Ph.D. at the University of Michigan. Adolph specialized in studying predator-prey interactions, which landed him an assignment in Yellowstone to investigate coyote predation. He proved adept at both research and public relations, qualities needed by someone who sought to change the old habits that had seen predators eliminated even within parks.

By 1935 top NPS officials had decided that killing predators was inconsistent with park objectives, but this subjected the service to withering criticism. Virtually no one saw value in coyotes, wolves, or cougars. At Mount McKinley National Park, a tentative order to protect wolves lasted only a year before rangers resumed control efforts. A recent sharp decline in the park's Dall sheep population concerned many; popular opinion blamed the decline on wolf predation. Adolph Murie's assignment was to find out why the sheep were dying and make management recommendations on the wolves.

This was a biologist's dream: Murie had funding and logistical support, a magnificent natural setting, and a project with significant implications. He conducted his research with the simplest of tools: strong legs and lungs, binoculars, camera, pencils, and notebooks; no radio telemetry, no eager graduate students, no computers, airplanes or Gore-Tex. Behavioral research consisted of finding the animals, then keeping them in sight and recording everything they did, in every month and all weather.

Adolph accumulated dozens of notebooks over the years on all aspects of flora and fauna. From these notebooks he took the material that emerged in his many articles and books. We can thank Adolph's widow, Louise, for donating his Alaskan materials to the archives at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

This excerpt from his field notes provides a sense of what research was like. It was the genesis of the delightful section in The Wolves of Mount McKinley concerning Murie's capture and raising of a pup from the East Fork pack in order to learn about juvenile wolf development.

May 15, 1940: ... [The female] ran out of sight around the corner of a hill and howled at intervals for 15-20 minutes. Both wolves were within 400 yards of the den while we were at the den. The hole showed very little excavating. At the opening it was 18" x 21" wide. The burrow was about 10 feet long, dropping down about 2 feet below the surface. Below the opening there was a depression filled with water. A slight rise beyond and the den ended in a chamber where at least 7 young were softly squealing. I crawled into the burrow and with a hooked stick pulled out 3 young, 2 greys and a black. The black was the smallest of the 3. I saved a grey one and put the other two back in the den after photographing them with the Leica.

May 16: Walked up to the wolf den remaining on the west side. The male was lying about 15 yards above the den when we arrived at 9 A.M. After about an hour he moved about 100 yards and lay down again near where I jumped him yesterday ... About 12 he trotted out on the bar and lay down about 250 yards in front of the den and he lay facing the den. About 1 he stretched, frolicked a few seconds, rolled over and trotted to the bank disappearing in a draw about 250 yards above the den. We left at 1 without being discovered.

Murie's research showed that the sheep decline had much to do with weather and disease, but he concluded that predation was also a significant impact. After WW II he recommended continuing wolf control in the park until the sheep population showed signs of rebounding, a view popular with the critics of the NPS. Murie organized the wolf control effort for the next few years in order to be specific about which wolves would be sacrificed for the politics of wildlife management; in particular, he sought to protect the East Fork pack.

It might seem odd that Murie would kill some wolves in order to save others. He explained this in a letter to a friend in 1950:

There are two important considerations regarding the future of the wolf in McKinley. First food supply, second public opinion .... If we succeed in providing an ample food supply, toleration for a small wolf population to take the surplus will no doubt follow ... I would hold the wolves down to permit the sheep to increase rapidly, so that when wolves in the future become scarce in surrounding areas as they are controlled more closely by outside areas, we will have sufficient food to maintain some wolves in the park.

Not until 1954 did the wolves receive full protection within the park boundaries. The compromise Murie made is little different than the one that currently bedevils decisions about wolf survival and subsistence trapping in Denali National Park and Preserve and its vicinity. Adolph Murie worked at a time prior to the current popular enthusiasm for wolves and deserves some of the credit for the shift in public opinion. He began our understanding of the Toklat wolves, a legacy well worth protecting.

The author teaches history at Alaska Pacific University. His book is "America's First Wolf Controversy: Wolves, Wild Sheep, and the Balance of Nature in Alaska" by the University of Alaska Press.

"Reprinted with permission from the Alaska Wildlife Alliance"