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Help the McNeil Bear Sanctuary off linmits to hunting

Stubbornness Was Haber's Best and Worst Quality

Craig Medred / Alaska Dispatch / October 19, 2009

Wolves were an interest that became a passion that grew into an obsession for Gordon Haber. That the animals would one day kill him seemed almost inevitable.

Haber, 67, died sadly and tragically in a plane crash in Denali National Park and Preserve on Oct. 14. He went down in the Toklat River valley while observing the Toklat wolf pack. Thirty-five-year-old Dan McGregor, the pilot of the plane, was lucky to survive despite being badly burned. In the best tradition of Alaska Bush pilots of old, an injured McGregor hiked 20 miles after crawling out of the crash to try to find help. It came far too late for Haber.

No matter what you thought of Haber -- and there were people who thought him a god, along with others who thought him the devil -- it was somehow fitting that it was there in the Toklat valley watching the Toklat wolves that he would die.

Of all the wolves Haber loved, he loved the Toklat pack most of all. He considered them unique. He traced their history back to observations made by naturalist Adolph Murie in the 1940s and beyond. He envisioned a great wolf culture passed down from generation to generation from wolves born and raised in the Toklat drainage.

He was not happy when modern science poked a stick in that idea. Pioneering studies in genetics concluded the wolves of the Toklat were the wolves of Alaska. Genetic tracking showed Alaska to be a huge mixing pool of breeding wolves.

Haber wouldn't buy it. He was convinced he could see with his eyes that biochemistry had it wrong. He was convinced the wolves he first saw in the Toklat in the 1960s and came to watch with an increasing obsession through the 1970s into the 1980s, the 1990s and the new millennium were direct descendants of the wolves Murie had watched long before.

Haber was a stubborn man. It was the best of him and the worst of him.

When it came to wolves and his beliefs about them, he knew no compromise. Wolves were his family, and he fought for them as such. He freed a wolf from a trap along the Taylor Highway in 1997, videotaped the incident and bragged about it. Trapper Eugene Johnson sued and won a $150,000 judgment against Haber in an Alaska court.

As far as I know, it's the only judgment ever won against anyone for interfering with trapping or hunting in Alaska. But it wasn't the only time Haber messed with trappers. He was accused of disturbing traps in the Yanert River drainage near Denali Park in 1994, and he made big news later that year when he found four wolves still alive in snares set by state wolf-control biologists along Moody Creek.

One wolf chewed off its foot to escape. When an Alaska Department of Fish and Game employee helicoptered in to finish off the others, Haber videotaped him taking five shots to kill a wolf leashed to the end of a wire tether. It was explosive video that aired on CNN and NBC.

A day later, then-Gov. Wally Hickel shut down the state wolf-kill program pending an investigation. It would be a long time before it got rolling again. It took a woman, Sarah Palin, to stand up to Haber and the Outside interests that backed him. Palin did it in large part because her father was convinced wolf control works.

Once, long ago, Haber admitted that it was obvious to him, too, that wolf control could work to increase moose and caribou numbers in Alaska. It was one of the few views he shared with nearly all other biologists studying predators. There is no doubt that if prey are freed of predation their numbers will increase. This is a biological certainty. Where it gets difficult is in determining how many predators to remove without rendering species extinct, and which predators to remove, given wolves, bears and coyotes are all active in killing popular big game animals in Alaska.

Personally, I've never questioned the effectiveness of wolf control, but I seriously question the economics. The state can spend a lot of money trying to manipulate prey numbers with sometimes little success in increasing prey. As a hunter, and thus someone who pays for this manipulation in the form of license fees and taxes on hunting supplies, it never made much sense to me to gamble much money on increasing caribou and moose numbers when the main beneficiaries, if it worked, were going to be a bunch of wildlife watchers and photographers who pay nothing for management.

Haber, of course, had different reasons for opposing wolf control (or wolf killing, call it what you will). He couldn't stomach the idea of wolves dying because he thought they were better than humans at ecosystem management. He basically thought wolves were smarter than you and I.

That's where Gordy and I split more than 20 years ago. I was at the time writing what would turn out to be a national-prize-winning series on wolves for the Anchorage Daily News. Those were the days when the newspaper allowed reporters to invest the time to become well-educated, if not expert, on subjects of statewide importance, and then provided them the space for reporting on those things.

Back then, Haber and I spent a good bit of time discussing his "multiple equilibrium" theory of predator-prey relationships in Alaska. Were he alive today, he'd no doubt hunt me down to scream at me tomorrow for what I am about to say, but the best way to explain "multiple equilibrium" to the layman is to depict those flowing curves in the "cycle" of predator-prey relationships as a bunch of steps.

Cycles of predator and prey are well-documented. Few are as well documented as those for snowshoe hares and lynx, but cycles seem to be a norm throughout nature. The long-running work of researcher Rolf Peterson in Isle Royale National Park now appears to show a rough cycle for moose and wolves.

The situation in Alaska, unfortunately, is much different than on an island in Lake Superior with only moose and wolves. Most everywhere in Alaska, there are various numbers of prey -- moose, caribou, Dall sheep -- and various numbers of predators -- primarily wolves, bears and coyotes -- complicating things. Then, too, weather is even more of a wild card here than on Isle Royale. State officials could kill every wolf and bear in Game Management Unit 16 across Cook Inlet from Anchorage, and then get a winter with snow 6 feet deep making it impossible for many moose to survive.

Though a skeptic of Haber's multiple-equilibrium theory decades ago, I have given it increasing credence over the years. Unfortunately, I've also come to conclude that the normal state of things in the 49th state might well be what Haber described as the "low equilibrium," or what some other biologists have described as a "predator pit," wherein only relatively small numbers of wolves and bears are needed to hold prey populations low for decades.

Haber somehow must have believed this is how the wolves wanted it, because he certainly believed they knew more than we do. He once explained to me that their instincts were better than our brains. It was his belief wolves could do a better job of regulating prey numbers than people. Call me a homocentrist, but it was something I never could buy, mainly because it violates the prime directive of survival:

You must eat to live.

There is no indication that wolves ever limited their killing to bull moose, the way humans sometimes do, to increase the survival odds for cow moose vital to the production of future moose calves. Wolves kill what they can. They kill the young and the unlucky. There is, of course, a popular belief they kill the weak and the sick, but that's largely just so much poppycock.

The weak are predominately the young; they are weak because they are not yet fully grown. And the "sick" are predominately the old , the injured and the starving, large-scale sicknesses being generally uncommon in wildlife populations. Haber gave some of this short shrift because he loved wolves. I sometimes have the same problem with journalism. When you love something a lot, you tend to see all of the good side and overlook a lot of the worst, or find reasons to excuse it.

Yeah, journalists get eight out of 10 stories -- maybe nine out of 10 -- wrong in significant parts, but hey, they're only human. Yeah, wolves kill some animals, but they have to in order to survive, and, well, they only kill what they need, and never mind if they sometimes kill more than they need. They must be planning to come back and get the carcasses at some future date.

Right. The truth is that wolves kill what they can kill, and if the killing is easy, they will kill a lot more than if the killing is difficult. This is the beauty of wolves. They are beautiful killing machines. Or at least, that is what I always saw as the beauty of wolves.

Haber saw another version. He saw mainly nurturing and caring. He was all about wolves as family, because they were his family. His last online post was about the "importance of young wolves" -- more specifically, the importance of young Toklat wolves.

Haber tended to be more than a little anthropomorphic at times, and I freely confess that because of this there were times I just wished he would just go away. He really wasn't adding anything of any use to the wolf debate in Alaska. He was just adding more emotion where there is already more than enough emotion to spare.

Now, though, I find myself already regretting he won't be around making a fuss. I wish someone could bring him back. It's the way things are; life for all of us moves forward in a messy scrum of one sort of another, and then we die.

Contact Craig Medred at craig_alaskadispatch.com This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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