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Prominent wolf researcher found dead at home near Denali National Park

Craig Medred

One of North America's top authorities on wolves has died unexpectedly at his home in Alaska.

The National Park Service says that after Tom Meier failed to show up for a seminar on wolves, co-workers went to check on him at his home just outside Denali National Park and Preserve.  They found him dead. Meier, 61, has been leading the parks biological program for the last eight years and continuing predator/prey research he began there in 1976 with Dave Mech.

Mech is the dean of U.S. wolf researchers. Meier was a highly respected colleague. Park Service spokesman John Quinley called Meier "a Denali institution who was passionate about his work with the park's emblematic wolves.''  Despite the passion, Meier never seemed to fall blindly in love with wolves the way better-known Gordy Haber did.

Haber, who died in a Denali plane crash in 2009, convinced himself wolves had developed a "culture.'' Meier saw the species more as a sophisticated end-product of evolution, fighting to survive in a harsh, harsh world. His studies detailed a species that spends almost as much time warring to maintain a homeland as it does hunting. At least 60 percent of the wolves that die in Denali, he discovered, die at the fangs of other wolves. And yet, despite the violent way in which wolves live, Meier admired them for their tenacity, strong social bonds, and hunting abilities.

As with most of those seriously researching wolves, Meier had been long intrigued by not only the biology but also the mythology of an animal that once spread unfounded fear among humans and now, some would say, has attracted unfounded adulation. Meier held a more-grounded, scientific view.

He started his wolf studies in Denali when American views on the animals were just beginning to change with the birth of the environmental movement. Meier went Outside to work in Minnesota and Wisconsin in the late 1970s, when the wolf was hanging onto a last toehold in the Lower 48 states. He helped save the wolf in Minnesota and get wolf research started in neighboring Wisconsin.

Meier returned to Alaska in 1986 to begin field work at Denali with researcher John Burch. He stayed until 1993, when he left to get his doctorate. He went from that to working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the reintroduction of wolves to Montana, a highly successful project, from 1996 to 2004, before returning to the north. His work put him in the center of two major environmental battles -- one to save wolves from extermination, the other to reintroduce them where they had been exterminated.

"His influence went beyond the National Park Service due to his extensive knowledge of wolves and his ability to work with other agencies and independent researchers on wolf management issues,'' Quinley said. "Through his presentations and seminars on the park’s wolves, he inspired countless numbers of park and concession employees, visitors, students, and others."

Along with David Mech, Layne Adams, John Burch and Bruce Dale, Meier wrote the 2003 classic, "The Wolves of Denali." It is considered one of the most comprehensive studies of wolves available that's also accessible to general readers.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com