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Help the McNeil Bear Sanctuary off linmits to hunting

Remembering Gordon Haber

Bill Sherwonit / AK Voices / Anchorage Daily News / October 21, 2009


News of Gordon Haber's death came to me in bits and pieces, while I worked at my computer. One after another, news reports filed by various Alaska media appeared in my email inbox, forwarded by Wolf Song of Alaska. Each one added new details. First, a plane flying inside Denali National Park had been reported overdue and a search begun. The pilot and his passenger, still unnamed, had been expected back before nightfall, the previous day. Then, a short while later: the missing plane was a white and blue Cessna, flown by Daniel McGregor. His passenger: biologist Gordon Haber, looking for wolf packs. Already I felt a sense of foreboding. And sadness.

The foreboding became a sort of shock after searchers discovered the wrecked and burned plane, and a trooper found human remains inside the wreckage. And then the pilot - himself surviving serious injuries, severe burns, and an epic walk for help - confirmed horrifying details of Haber's death.

Some have taken solace in the fact that Haber died doing something he loved, studying wolves and following his favorite "family," the Toklat pack, across the Denali landscape. And Haber's longtime benefactor, Friends of Animals President Priscilla Feral, told a reporter that Gordon himself once said, "The way he wanted to die was to be flying in a plane and hit a mountain at 100 mph." That, of course, is essentially what happened. But to me Haber's death - and the circumstances of it - is simply tragic. His death was premature, his work and advocacy unfinished.

It's not that I feel a great personal loss, though I'd known him since the late 1980s. It's clear, from all that's been written in recent days, that Haber was anything but a "people person." He could be gruff, abrasive, and confrontational even with his allies and friends. And in his advocacy for wolves, he largely seemed a loner, doing things his way, following his own singular path.

What saddens me the most is that Alaska's wolves have lost a powerful, if strident, voice. They've lost a passionate defender who fought a long-running and quixotic battle with state wildlife managers, federal officials, and other researchers. There's no question Gordon influenced public opinions and, to some degree, wildlife policies. Perhaps his greatest success on behalf of wolves occurred in the mid-1990s, when he boldly videotaped a Fish and Game employee shooting a snared wolf. The video aired on national networks and the ensuing outrage led to the suspension of Alaska's wolf-control program.

More recently, though, Haber's star had dimmed. His never-ending rants about the trapping of Denali's wolves and Alaska's escalating wolf-control programs began to lose their power; he began to sound more and more like the proverbial broken record. Over time, his combativeness, derision of other perspectives, and especially his association with Friends of Animals made it easy for opponents - particularly state wildlife managers - to dismiss him as someone representing the misguided views of Outside animal-rights extremists, his work influenced by their agenda.

I'm sure the Friends of Animals link diminished Haber's credibility among many Alaskans. There's an irony in that. While Haber embraced the funding that Friends of Animals provided, the evidence suggests he maintained his independent streak, even bickered with Feral. They were, in a sense, an alliance of convenience. Feral could use Haber's work and opinions to challenge Alaska's wolf management strategies; Haber could use her group's money to conduct the work he loved so much. Apart from wolves, their philosophies and attitudes often differed greatly.

Yet even if his "lone wolf" ways and argumentative tendencies put people off, many of us Alaskans who care about wolves and oppose the state's wolf-control policies 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.

Over the years, Haber made plenty of enemies. It may sound paranoid, but while reading early reports of the missing plane and then the crash and his death, some part of me wondered whether one of those enemies had somehow taken him down.

* * *

I first got to know Gordon when I worked at The Anchorage Times, while reporting on wildlife issues. Our paths continued to cross over the years, both because of a shared passion for wolves - which prompted us to attend many of the same Board of Game meetings - and a liking for Café del Mundo. During his stays in Anchorage, Gordon was a del Mundo regular. Most afternoons he could be found at a window-side table, working on his computer.

Sometimes we'd say hello, other times not. Now and then I would do my best to avoid him, especially if I had my own work to do. 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 then he'd go into overdrive to prove his point. In thinking about those conversations, I'm reminded of stories I've heard or read about recluses who live alone in remote areas and go without human company for weeks or months at a time. Though choosing a hermit's life, such people sometimes can't stop talking when a visitor happens by, a temporary easing of their loneliness.

I always hoped that someday I might spend time with Gordon "in the field," together watching - and, I imagine, celebrating - the wolves he loved so much. We even talked about the possibility a few times, but that was years ago. So I never got to know his field biologist side. But I did get to experience his passion for - and obsession with - wolves.
I celebrate Gordon Haber's passion, work and advocacy today. Alaska's wolves have lost a great champion. It is our loss too.

* * *

A memorial service for Gordon Haber will take place Saturday Nov. 7 at the Campbell Creek Science Center, at 2 p.m.

Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is the author of 11 books; his most recent is Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey. A book about his long-running and life-changing relationship with the Central Brooks Range will be published in the fall by the University of Alaska Press, titled Changing Paths: Travels and Meditations in Alaska's Arctic Wilderness.


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