This profile of biologist Gordon Haber, who died this week in a plane crash in Denali National Park, appeared in the Daily News on Dec. 11, 1994.
Flying through the cold shadows of a deep winter morning in the Alaska Range, Gordon Haber scanned the frozen creek valley for the Fish and Game trapping site he had located the day before. Suddenly, five wolves broke from a tangle of spruce and willows and loped into view.
They paused, circled, then turned back, seemingly uncertain whether to stay or leave. Maybe they were frightened by the whop-whopping helicopter a few hundred feet overhead. Maybe they were unwilling to give up the carcass of the snared caribou they had been feeding on.
Or maybe, as Haber suggested, attributing a social motive to their behavior, they did not want to abandon their three packmates that were snared and still alive.
"They don't know what they're doing. They are all shook up. They want to stay and help, " he said.
Eventually, and for whatever reason, the wolves reached a decision. Single file and tails low, they chose a path through the deep snow, between the scattered trees, and headed north.
"You're seeing the demise of the Yanert pack, " Haber said gloomily.
A month before, the pack had numbered 18 to 20. Methodically, a few at a time, they had been diminished by baited snares set by government trappers.
The pack was one targeted in the state's latest wolf-control project, aimed at eliminating three-quarters of the wolves and most of the packs in a 4,000-square-mile area south of Fairbanks. The program, begun last winter after a long and bitter political battle, was intended to give the Delta caribou herd enough relief from predators to double in size from 6,000 to 8,000.
That would be enough, according to Fish and Game, to allow resumption of human hunting that had been halted in 1991 when the herd declined.
Haber, a wildlife scientist and constant critic of state wildlife management, didn't think it was going to work and was not worth the cost, bad publicity or long-term damage to what he views as remarkable and vital societies of wolves.
"To me it is just plain wrong, from both a biological and ethical standpoint, " he said. He is not anti-hunter, he says: "I enjoy a moose steak as much as anyone." And he claims he is not absolutely opposed to wolf control. But state wildlife managers should target wolves, in his view, only when necessary to save populations of prey animals such as caribou or moose that are truly endangered.
Killing wolves as the Alaska Board of Game decided, to raise more caribou in one particular area near Fairbanks so people could hunt them, does not meet his test.
Fish and Game and the Game Board, its panel of citizen directors, had been hearing from and largely ignoring Haber for years.
"It's not worth my time to waste to get into a fray with him, " retired biologist and board member Al Franzmann of Soldotna said. "There is no meeting ground with him."
But a week and a half ago, with part of the Yanert pack twisting in the snares, Haber was about to grab officialdom by the tail.
He had been commissioned by three groups opposed to killing wolves -- Connecticut-based Friends of Animals, Washington-based Wolf Haven International and the Alaska Wildlife Alliance -- to review the state's wolf control program. For the first time in a career spent outside the official agencies, the maverick scientist had gotten real money to work with.
He went to court to get the department's aerial wolf-tracking radio codes. With patience and a sophisticated radio scanner, he figured out the caribou tracking frequencies, too. With the help of some experienced bush pilots, he started field-checking -- and challenging -- what Fish and Game was saying about wolves and caribou.
By his count, he spent 18 months, over $150,000 of his sponsors' money and more than 550 hours in small aircraft, counting animals and accumulating observations.
"It took a lot of sleuthing. It is big country. But I have been out there 29 years. And I have got a good pilot, " he said.
"It was like a big cat-and-mouse game for several months out there, " he said, alternately following and dodging the department's aircraft, taking photographs and making notes.
In November he videotaped a cow moose caught in one of the wolf snares. A few days later, a department biologist reported Haber's aircraft to the state troopers for interfering with traps -- an allegation Haber denies.
He had located several of the department's 36 wolf snare locations. Then, last week, in the Moody Creek snares, about 15 miles east of the Parks Highway on the north side of the range, he found what he was looking for. Four wolves were snared. Three were still alive and one of them had chewed off its foot.
Mixing his roles as observer of wolf biology and advocate for wolf protection, he started taking video pictures that would become famous the next day. When a Fish and Game biologist showed up in a helicopter and took five shots to kill one wolf as it stood passively at the end its wire tether -- Haber got that on tape too.
It was about the last thing Fish and Game wanted. It was what Haber wanted most: a solid record of a shocking scene that would create a public outcry.
It was a public relations coup for Friends of Animals, which immediately announced it would make the videotape available to the media. The incident became national news, showing up on CNN and NBC and in The New York Times, and roiling up the Internet.
A day later, as an avalanche of criticism roared down on Fish and Game and the Game Board, the state suspended the wolf kill pending a full investigation.
Haber said he's glad to see the program halted. But what he really wants is the public, the Game Board and the department to take a new look at wildlife management. He wants wolves, which he considers to be among the most highly developed and intelligent wild creatures, to get respect.
"We have stopped the state's wolf killing for a while, " he said, then added: "The work is far from done."
Haber, 51, compact, short-bearded and seemingly fit, traces his fascination with wolves and wildlife to a specific boyhood experience: picking up a copy of "Arctic Wild" from the public library in his hometown of Dearborn, Mich. The book recounts the experience of Lois and Herb Crisler, who lived for a year and a half in the Brooks Range in the early 1950s on assignment from Walt Disney to photograph wolves and caribou.
Haber got a college job at Denali National Park in the mid-'60s, studying and recording wolves. He got a doctorate from the University of British Columbia, studying wolves. He talks of little else and makes little distinction between his work and his play, mainly cross-country skiing or backpacking.
He has spent 29 years and, by his record, about 11,000 hours in Alaska watching wolves and their interaction with other animals. The experiences have led him to embrace some unconventional views about wildlife management and an acute appreciation for wolves.
His idea is that wolves, because they care for their young for long periods of time and form extended families, create their own pack culture and traditions -- such as hunting techniques. Traditional predator control only considers the number of wolves, not the quality or history of the pack, he says.
When confronting state officials who say that wolf control won't have permanent effects because the wolves will return, Haber uses this analogy: If the first string of a football team was fired, then replaced over a few years by rookies, the team might have as many players as it did before, but it would not play nearly as well.
"We would still have the same number of furry canids running around the country, " he says, "but would they really be wolves?"
This view has brought Haber into conflict with traditional wildlife biologists, who view the control of predators as an effective tool in managing game populations. State biologists note that statewide wolf populations are healthy and that local populations rebound quickly when they are reduced by hunting or control programs.
Haber's view also has gotten him sideways with some hunting advocates and others who don't see wolves in such noble terms.
"They are vicious killers, " said Alvin Kile, a gold miner near Boundary who rejects Haber's view as romantic. "They get a moose down and start ripping off chunks of meat while the moose is still trying to crawl away on his front quarters, " Kile said.
Placing wolves off-limits to management ignores the interests of hunters and trappers, said Sue Entsminger, a Game Board member and Tok-area hunter who sews fur garments for a living. She accuses the animal-rights groups and Haber of sensationalizing the state's wolf kill for raising funds and political influence.
When game populations decline, she said, that hurts wolves and other predators, too.
"I care about the resource, " she said. "You are damned right I make money from it, and I damn well don't want to harm it. "
Haber often calls the news media, seeking space for his view that the government is mismanaging wildlife. Haber says he's made a conscious choice not to work for government wildlife agencies, "to be able to take on whoever I want to take on."
Often, that's the wildlife management establishment. His stance has helped make Haber a champion to people who oppose killing wolves, but it also has made him plenty of critics.
"To the best of my knowledge, Gordon Haber has no standing in the professional community, " said Dick Burley, chairman of the Game Board. "It has been tough for the board to separate what he says, the facts from his feelings about wolves."
Fairbanks Fish and Game supervisor Chris Smith, with whom Haber has frequently sparred during the Delta project, said some staff biologists question Haber's scientific methods and are unwilling to rely on his data.
Haber is commonly criticized for failing to publish his findings in professional journals, one of the usual measures of scientific acceptance. He says he does not think conventional journals should be the measure of credibility.
When he presented papers to an international wolf symposium at the University of Alberta in Edmonton in 1992, some were challenged and rejected.
"They were very lengthy papers. There were some good ideas in them. The problem was that much of what he said could not be verified, " said Canadian wildlife scientist Ludwig Carbyn, who organized the event.
Haber's ideas about how wolf-control programs change the social structure of packs stimulated a lot of discussion, Carbyn said. But ideas need good research to become science, he said.
When asked about Haber's reputation as a scientist, Carbyn paused, then said: "I would say he is not a conventional scientist."
Yet, Haber's paper on the same topic was accepted in September at an annual convention in Albuquerque of The Wildlife Society, a 9,000-member organization of professional wildlife managers. A scientific committee reviewed abstracts of the papers before choosing which could be presented, according to Yanin Walker, an assistant to the society's director.
"They selected those papers that had the most technical merit or timeliness, " she said.
Haber said he's heard the challenge to his credibility enough to have a standard response: "When you are a maverick, you pretty much put yourself on the outs."
Victor Van Ballenberghe, a former Fish and Game biologist and former Game Board member, is familiar with Haber's work. He gave him ciedit for advocating, ahead of his time, a long-term ecosystems approach to wolf-caribou biology.
On the other hand, he said, Haber "has lost some of his credibility by being so closely aligned with one of the extremes."
Game Board member Franzmann bluntly asserts that Haber matches his conclusions to the agenda of whatever groups sponsor him. Haber insists that's not the case. He is particularly irked when critics and reporters refer to him as a wildlife activist.
"I am an independent wildlife scientist, " he said. "I am doing good science."
MORE QUESTIONS THAN ANSWERS
The wolf war between Haber and Fish and Game does as much to illustrate what's not known about wolf-caribou relationships as what is known.
There is disagreement among biologists about how well wolf control has worked to boost game populations. Van Ballenberghe, for example, said the only time he can recall it worked as planned was to boost moose on the Tanana Flats in the 1970s. But Smith, the Fish and Game supervisor, said the Delta herd is a good example.
After a wolf control program from 1976 to 1982, he said, caribou started to increase. The wolves recovered their numbers by 1985, but with the help of favorable weather the herd continued to climb from about 3,000 toward its peak of about 11,000 in 1989. But with wolf populations grown healthy, the weather turned -- late springs, early winters -- and the caribou crashed.
The wolves and the weather -- an unmanageable, unpredictable and influential factor governing wildlife populations in the North -- were both important elements in the crash, Smith said.
Haber looks at that same record and finds room to argue: The herd continued to grow after the wolves recovered; it reached a peak and is simply returning to historical levels.
Smith said the recent Delta project was an experiment, a point too often overlooked in the debate. Despite the Game Board's official goal of killing wolves to bring the herd up enough to supply hunters with about 400 a year, state wildlife scientists do not know how many caribou the Delta herd's range will support, or for how long.
"If we got the herd back to 6,000 to 8,000 animals, and something indicated that was not supportable on range, then we could have come back to the board with that, " Smith said.
The Delta herd lives in a complex relationship with other animals. Even golden eagles play a role, though it's not certain how much.
Haber and Fish and Game biologist Pat Valkenburg have both watched congregations of eagles on the calving grounds. Mostly, the birds scavenge afterbirth. But they also eat calves. Haber said he counted 44 eagles at one time on the Delta herd's calving grounds last May. He said he does not know how many calves the eagles killed or ate, but thinks that question should be examined before blaming wolves.
Valkenburg acknowledged that "there is no direct evidence that wolves are the main predator." To his and other biologists' chagrin, Fish and Game did not conduct a study last year, after the first winter of wolf control, to field-check exactly what was killing the caribou.
Still, he said, it's possible to make an educated guess about the effect of the eagles. Calves were still abundant in early June, when they were about 10 days old and large enough to be safe from eagles.
"Our knowledge is still evolving, " Smith said. One reason Fish and Game uses different strategies with different herds is to learn more.
Haber, on the other hand, says Fish and Game thinks too small, too local. He pushes "systems thinking."
"They view the caribou as separate entities. That is not the proper way to view them, " he said.
Building on a theory put forth in the '60s by former Fish and Game Commissioner Ron Skoog, Haber sees most of Alaska's caribou herds as part of four or five core populations that expand and shrink on long-term cycles, now and then spinning off herds that colonize new areas. For example, he thinks the Delta herd may be just such a splinter from an expansion of the Nelchina herd, which generally roams to the south.
With a long-term, statewide approach, he says, hunting could be directed toward herds that are expanding, while allowing other populations to rebuild more naturally. In time, herds shift territory on their own, making wolf control in a particular area unnecessary, he says.
"The story is far more complex than when they imply that all we have to do is kill a bunch of wolves and you have more caribou, " he says.
Here's how much things can change. The Fortymile caribou herd, which now numbers about 25,000, was once enormous. In September 1927, Alaska Game Warden Frank Dufresne counted a stream of caribou migrating past the Richardson Highway that went on for 3 days.
"From all the country to the east and north the caribou seemed to be pouring into this 12-mile long funnel formed by the mile-wide bars of the Big Delta (River) and the encompassing hills, " he wrote. He could see thousands at a time and estimated nearly 500,000 passed by as he and others watched.
Former Alaska Fish and Game Commissioner James Brooks pointed to that and similar historical examples in arguing against the Delta wolf project during Gov. Wally Hickel's Wolf Summit in Fairbanks in 1993.
It is not enough to study a caribou herd over for a year, or a decade, he said, because the cycle is much longer and more complex. "Unfortunately, we do not know the conditions that gave rise to past population eruptions, but it is clear they were preceded and followed by long intervals of relative scarcity, " he said.
It's possible that Haber's big-system theory of caribou populations is correct, said Valkenburg, the Fish and Game biologist. But after 20 years of tracking caribou with radio collars, and 20 years of repeated observation before that, he said, "There's not one shred of evidence that caribou grow and split off into other areas."
There is evidence that caribou exist in distinct groups, so they ought to be managed that way, he said.
With old questions raised anew, and with the wolf-snaring fiasco to deal with, the state will probably approach wolf control very cautiously, predicted Wayne Regelin, a senior biologist and acting director of the Division of Wildlife Conservation. But even as the state investigates what went wrong this time, the Game Board is accepting new wolf-control proposals and plans to evaluate them in March.
Whatever happens, Haber plans to be watching, collecting data, challenging traditional views.
"As they have decided with whales, " he said, "society wants a darn good reason to go out and kill wolves."