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Gordon Haber's final days

  • Author: Bill Sherwonit
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published September 27, 2015

On Oct. 14, 2009, Alaskan wildlife scientist and activist Gordon Haber flew into Denali National Park and Preserve to monitor wolves, as he had routinely done many times before. On that day, however, he flew with a pilot still new to Haber's aerial-tracking work, Dan McGregor. While Haber was checking on members of the Grant Creek Pack along the East Fork Toklat River, the plane hit sudden turbulence and severe tailwinds that, according to a National Transportation and Safety Board report, "pushed it to the ground." Though McGregor survived the impact and ensuing fire, Haber died. The accident brought a shocking end to Haber's long and often controversial career as a wolf biologist and advocate. As the sixth anniversary of his death approaches, Anchorage nature writer and author Bill Sherwonit examines Gordon Haber's last days.

By 2009, Gordon Haber's work with, and for, the wolves of Denali National Park and Preserve (and some packs outside the park) stretched across more than four decades. During that time, he'd arguably become Alaska's best-known wildlife scientist, though many of his peers questioned his research methods and even his credentials. It's no exaggeration to say that Haber's reputation made him a household name across much of Alaska, at least among residents who care about wildlife, whether they be hunters, trappers, wildlife viewers, conservationists or animal-rights activists. And most who knew him seemed to regard Haber as either a heroic (if flawed) figure or someone they disdained.

In short, he was a divisive figure, celebrated in some circles, despised in others.

Raised in Michigan, Haber first became fascinated with wolves while reading Lois Crisler's memoir, "Arctic Wild: The Remarkable True Story of One Couple's Adventures Living Among Wolves." He made his way north in the mid-1960s to then-Mount McKinley National Park, where he met Adolph Murie, whose pioneering studies of the park's wolves yielded acclaim and a landmark book, "The Wolves of Mount McKinley." It's unclear how close the two became, but Murie undoubtedly influenced Haber's work.

Haber briefly worked as a seasonal park ranger before beginning his own Denali wolf studies, initially conducted as a graduate student at the University of British Columbia. Even before completing his dissertation, Haber was embroiled in controversy. Some wildlife scientists claimed his work lacked "scientific objectivity," a charge that would shadow his 43-year career. Others such as longtime state wolf researcher Bob Stephenson -- himself widely respected -- charged Haber with sloppy work or, worse, incorporating the research of other scientists without properly citing them, as well as deliberate deception in his writings and public talks. Yet Haber's chief university advisers defended his work and eventually approved his dissertation, an infamously gigantic tome more than 700 pages long.

Haber, meanwhile, defiantly took on the scientific establishment. Early on, he pushed his own ideas about the "social life of wolves." And he plunged into the long-running debate over Alaska's management of wolves. Eagerly criticizing state-run predator-control programs, he insisted they were based on incomplete studies or flawed interpretations of wolf-prey relationships.

Nearly everyone agrees that Haber's brusque, abrasive style often worked against him. Photographer and writer Tom Walker, a Denali-area resident and neighbor of Haber's, compared him to another legendary wildlife advocate, Timothy Treadwell, who was killed and eaten by a brown bear in 2003 after 13 years among them in Katmai National Park:

"Both had the potential to do a whole lot of good, but in the end they were their own worst enemies," Walker said. "Gordon represents a lost opportunity."

Even Haber's best friends never fully grasped his argumentative nature.

"Especially in the early years, Gordon was completely fearless," recalls Johnny Johnson. "He was brash, unconventional and extremely confrontational, not just about wolves, but everything. A lot of people threw out the message because of the messenger.

"I once asked Troy (Dunn, a pilot and friend of Haber's) about that," Johnson adds, "because I never understood why Gordon took it to such lengths. Troy told me he asked Gordon one time, 'Why do always argue so vehemently about everything?' Gordon thought for a minute, then said, 'If I didn't, how would I know if I was right?'

"He used everything to test his own ideas. It wasn't personal, though he could have pissed off the pope."

Though often socially inept, Haber showed considerable political acumen. Over the years, several park superintendents threatened to revoke his research permit but never did. One reason is that Haber cultivated connections in high places. A chief example is his friendship with Ann and Rogers Morton; the latter served as Interior secretary from 1971 to 1975. He also found allies in Alaska's congressional delegation. More than once, the "message from above" to various park administrators was clear: Don't interfere with Haber's work.

Haber's research and advocacy got a huge boost -- and his reputation among Alaskans took a giant hit -- in the mid-1990s, when he teamed up with Priscilla Feral, the driving force of an Outside group so many state residents love to hate, Friends of Animals.

Bankrolled by Friends of Animals, Haber expanded his studies. More important, perhaps, he intensified his advocacy, while watchdogging -- some would say hounding -- state wildlife managers in unprecedented ways. The high point (or low, again depending on one's perspective) of his activist efforts occurred in 1994. On a frigid November morning, Haber discovered several wolves caught in snares put out by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game as part of the state's wolf-control effort. Accompanied by an Anchorage newspaper reporter and photographer, Haber videotaped a Fish and Game employee botch the shooting of one snared wolf. His video of the snared wolves -- one of which had chewed off a lower leg -- and the messed-up shooting aired on national TV networks. Media coverage and the ensuing outrage forced state officials to quickly suspend Alaska's wolf-control program.

A couple of months later, newly elected Gov. Tony Knowles canceled the state's wolf-kill program for an indefinite period and ordered a review of its predator-control policies. Alaska's wolf-control efforts would remain curtailed for the rest of his two terms. It was a victory for wolf advocates, made possible by Haber's unorthodox methods.

Less successful were Haber's efforts to protect Denali's wolves when they made forays outside the park in winter to hunt. The creation of a "buffer zone" on adjacent state-owned lands was one of his great passions. As far back as 1971, he sent a letter and accompanying six-page document to the combined Alaska Boards of Fish and Game, requesting they consider "a hunting-trapping closure north of (then) Mount McKinley National Park," while summarizing "all the major justifications" for doing so.

Though the park's 1980 expansion (from just over 2 million acres to more than 6 million) provided some of the protections Haber sought, it didn't fully protect Denali's wolves, particularly his much-beloved Toklat "family," also known as the East Fork Pack. Neither did the protective buffer that the Alaska Board of Game put into place in 2000 and modified several times later. The state's unwillingness to fully protect the park's wolves remained one of his most bitter disappointments.

In recent years, Haber's star had dimmed. His never-ending rants about the trapping of Denali's wolves and Alaska's escalating wolf-control programs under a series of Republican governors 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.

The primary advocate speaking on behalf of Alaska's wolves, Haber asserted his independence to the end, while insisting, against all evidence, that he remained primarily a scientist, not an activist. Yet the Friends of Animals link clearly diminished Haber's credibility among many Alaskans, even those inclined to take more moderate positions. There's an irony in that. While Haber embraced the funding that Friends of Animals provided, some who knew both Haber and Feral say he maintained his independent streak, even bickered with her. 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. Apart from wolves, their philosophies and attitudes often differed greatly.

Yet even if Haber's "lone wolf" ways and argumentative tendencies put people off, many 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 what they considered a persecuted species. To them, he offered hope; he symbolized courage.

In the 43 years since he came north to Alaska, Haber had gained a reputation as an independent sort, both in his work and social life. The great majority of his scientific peers considered him an iconoclast -- and a bombastic one, to boot. In his other role, as wildlife advocate, he seemed the quintessential lone wolf, a curious thing for someone so fascinated with the family life of wolves. And when it came to personal relationships, even those closest to Haber considered him a loner, someone with few friends and no family life. His abrasive and sometime bullying ways tended to alienate even his natural allies.

Given his reputation as a recluse, Haber had a surprising number of visits, conversations and encounters with people in the days before his fatal Oct. 14 flight. One of those was a brief meeting with friend and pilot Tom Klein.

In early October 2009, Klein was ready to join the seasonal migration south from Alaska. After decades of full-time residency, he'd become a snowbird. But before returning to his winter home in San Diego, Klein needed to drive north from Talkeetna to Fairbanks to take care of some business.

Klein followed the Parks Highway into a landscape that he'd loved for nearly 40 years. The Denali region is where he'd become enraptured by Alaska and the woman who would become his first wife. There he built two cabins, explored the vast wilderness of Mount McKinley and later Denali National Park, learned to fly, and joined a community of people bound by their passion for this remote, wild country and their dependence on one another.

Early on, Klein had joined a circle of people who would become lasting friends. Most of the old-timers had died or moved away, but a few remained. Among them, Haber was probably Klein's best friend.

The two had met in 1973, a year or so after Klein permanently settled at Denali, but Haber had behaved rudely and several years passed before the two really began to know each other. Eventually they became good friends and Klein joined the small circle of people who could get away with calling Haber "Gordy," a nickname he generally disliked.

Still, to say the two were only "good friends" is misleading. As the years passed and Klein learned more about his friend's efforts to both understand and protect Denali's wolves, he became a passionate supporter of that work. Alaskans critical of Haber's research might have lumped Klein with other "Haberites": those who believed deeply -- and, the skeptics would argue, naively -- in Haber's study of Alaska's wolves and his advocacy for them.

Less than 5 miles from the boundary of Denali National Park, Klein approached his old homestead and the cabin he'd built in the late 1970s. Across the highway stood Denali Air and the airstrip where Klein had earned his wings. And several hundred yards to the south, along the same bluff that overlooked the Nenana River Valley, was Haber's place.

On something of a whim, Klein decided to see if Gordy might be around. Haber had split his time between Anchorage and Denali for more than three decades. But Klein had heard rumors that his friend and former neighbor might be ready to settle permanently here.

Pulling into a gravel driveway, Klein saw Haber's truck parked in its usual spot. After parking his own rig, he followed a narrow footpath that wound through a forest of spindly spruce. From the start, Haber had been determined to keep his land as natural as possible.

A few hundred feet into the woods, Klein glimpsed Haber kneeling on the ground. He was covering the foundation of a new shed with plastic, protecting it for the winter months ahead, "being fussy with it."

Haber jumped to his feet and warmly greeted Klein, whom he hadn't seen in more than a year. The two walked over to the log cabin that Haber had begun to build more than three decades earlier. Still a work in progress, the cabin is modest compared to many other local homes. But it is impressive nonetheless, a well-crafted building made of debarked and naturally stained spruce logs. Some 24 feet long and 16 feet wide, the cabin has one main room and a small loft. Like many of his neighbors, Haber had built the place mostly on his own, asking for help only when the job was too big for one person.

Haber gave Klein a mini-tour of his latest projects and proudly showed off the deck that he'd recently finished. Then they headed inside for some coffee and conversation. Grabbing one of the cabin's cushioned folding chairs, Klein sat beside the small, cluttered card table. As usual, Haber served the dregs that remained in the pot rather than brew some fresh coffee. That's the way he seemed to like it: old and strong.

Klein looked around the cabin, messy as always. The few pieces of furniture were overwhelmed by a jumble of boxes, filled with reports, magazines, notebooks and other materials. Several boxes formed a wall, stacked side by side and two or three high. Even they couldn't hold all of Haber's stuff. Notebooks and pieces of paper filled with his scribbled "hen scratchings" were scattered everywhere. Klein never understood how Haber could keep track of it all. Maybe he couldn't.

Squeezed into one corner of the room, a small kitchen area consisted of a cooking stove and a counter stacked with boxes, jars and cans of food. In another corner was the oil stove Haber used to heat the cabin. And kitty corner from it, a ladder leaned against an opening in the ceiling, Haber's stairs to the loft. In all his visits, Klein had never been allowed to peek up there. It's not that Haber had any secrets stored above; the loft was simply an even bigger mess than the main floor.

Haber seemed as happy as Klein could remember. He exulted that the cabin finally had electricity. Better yet, he now had access to the Internet and all that it can provide, for instance online links to radio programming, movies and ice hockey, especially as played by Haber's beloved Detroit Red Wings. Best of all, Haber could regularly share his latest observations, interpretations, and advocacy for wolves with the world -- and do it "direct from the wilds of Alaska," without having to leave the comfort of his Denali cabin. Haber's Alaska Wolves website had become the primary way he presented his research of Alaska's wolves, especially those inhabiting the Denali area. It was also a place to display his remarkable collection of wolf images and to rail against the "heavy government-sanctioned killing ... and Mengele-like experiments" that he perceived as part of an all-out war on Alaska's wolves being waged by state wildlife managers and Alaska's Board of Game.

Besides the deck and electrical hook-up, Haber had exchanged his wood-fired stove for one that burned oil. And he had plans to build an indoor bathroom, to replace the aging, weather-beaten outhouse. With all these luxuries in place, he didn't see much reason to keep his Anchorage apartment anymore. It wouldn't be long now before he moved up here for good. After all, this was the place that he really loved.

The conversation eventually and inevitably veered toward wolves, politics and Haber's ongoing Denali research. His longtime pilot, Troy Dunn, had moved to the East Coast. And the group that funded his work, Connecticut-based Friends of Animals, had begun to trim back his budget in the midst of bad economic times. Those factors prompted Haber to hire a young, local pilot who was looking for work, now that his seasonal job with Denali Air had ended.

Dan McGregor was by all accounts a well-liked and responsible guy who loved to fly. More importantly to Haber, he was reputed to be a skilled pilot. McGregor's boss, R.D. Rosso, considered him both a "natural pilot and a fast learner." Rosso and his staff had even nicknamed the 35-year-old McGregor "Super Dan," because he "does so much and does it so well." Such high praise helped clinch the deal, especially since Rosso was a good friend and supporter of Haber's work. It also helped that Rosso offered to provide fuel for the flights. And the use of his airstrip would be a great convenience.

Still, the hiring of McGregor presented challenges. For one thing, he had never done wildlife survey work before. Piloting twin-engine planes filled with commuters or flightseers isn't the best training for low-altitude flights in the mountains, with their often unpredictable winds and sometimes violent and sudden storms, especially when a pilot is trying to follow the movements of wolves. Besides that, McGregor would be flying a plane he'd only recently purchased, so he likely wouldn't know all of the aircraft's idiosyncrasies. And that single-engine plane, a Cessna 185, wasn't ideal for wildlife survey flights.

Haber had already flown a couple of times with McGregor. He said the kid showed promise and seemed eager to learn. But his tone and manner suggested Haber wasn't entirely comfortable with the set-up. Klein didn't ask for details, but he imagined a young, inexperienced pilot having trouble in turbulent mountain winds, perhaps getting overly excited, or even distracted, the first time or two that wolves were spotted from the air, and losing focus on his primary duty, keeping the plane under control.

Given the circumstances, Klein wasn't surprised when Haber asked, "How would you like to fly for me this winter, Tom? Boy, I'd really like you to do that."

It wasn't the first time Haber had popped that question. Besides being an experienced pilot who'd flown wildlife surveys in Africa, Klein owned a Piper PA-12, a high-wing, three-seat, single-engine plane that's similar to the better-known Super Cub, a Piper-built two-seater that's widely used in Alaska's backcountry flying, especially when landings in tight spots are required. His plane was "totally modified, with a big engine and everything," which meant the plane could fly "really slow" when necessary, making it ideal for wildlife surveys.

The idea of aerially tracking Denali's wolves had always appealed to Klein, given his passion for Canis lupus and respect for Haber's work. In some ways, it could have been a perfect gig. But he didn't hesitate long before answering, "No, no, I really can't."

His reason for declining was simple: Working for Haber and having to deal with his stubborn and argumentative nature would likely drive him crazy -- and perhaps ruin their friendship. It's true that Haber seemed more relaxed. But several hours with him inside the confined space of a small airplane seemed more worrisome than appealing. He couldn't help but wonder how a young, inexperienced and eager-to-please pilot would respond to Haber's badgering. What would McGregor do if pushed to fly lower than he felt comfortable or if pressed to continue flying in worsening weather?

An hour and a half after pulling off the highway, Klein said goodbye to Haber and wished him well on all fronts. He was happy he'd stopped; Gordy had seemed really upbeat, more at ease with his life, anticipating the permanent move to Denali. The only uncertainty, it seemed, involved his new pilot.

Another to have contact with Haber that October was an old friend and confidante who shared his great love for wolves and deep anger at Alaska's predator-control programs.

Barbara Brease met Haber in 1987, not long after she'd settled in the Denali area. Both had gone north to Fairbanks to attend a Board of Game meeting. In both his testimony to the board and more casual conversations, Haber impressed Brease with his knowledge of wolves and passion for them. Brease must have impressed him, too, though not in a manner that fed his womanizing ways. Perhaps that's because she seemed more serious than sexy, not the type that Haber normally pursued. And maybe it made a difference that she'd recently met the love of her life, a geologist named Phil Brease who worked at the park; eventually they would marry and raise two daughters. In any case, their shared commitment to wolves led to a friendship that would deepen over the next 22 years.

Among the biggest supporters of his work, Brease also became one of Haber's most trusted confidants. They didn't spend much time together; in fact, Brease never accompanied Haber to his den-viewing sites, as some other female friends and companions did. But the two stayed in close touch, mostly through long phone conversations. Sometimes they would talk about Brease's work on the local Fish and Game Advisory Committee. She would share what she learned about local attitudes and strategies; he in turn educated her about Denali's wolves so she could be a more articulate spokeswoman on their behalf.

What Haber told her about wolves made lots of sense. Brease could never understand why other wildlife scientists criticized and belittled him so, especially those who worked at Denali. They seemed interested only in wolf numbers, the health of the park-wide population, not individuals or even specific families. On the other hand, Haber recognized the complexities of wolves' social lives; his work made it clear that the loss of key family members could have large, rippling effects. Many people seemed to dismiss his work because of Haber's abrasive personality.

How unscientific is that, Brease thought, to dismiss a person's data and ideas simply because he's abrasive? Gordon was abrasive, she insisted, because he was outraged by the way Alaska's wolves were treated as vermin, even by those who should have known better. You didn't have to be a scientist to see the way that Alaska's politics too often trumped sound wildlife research.

In his work, Haber regularly observed the awful things that people do to wolves, and that took a toll. Better than most of his allies and friends, Brease knew the sorrow and frustrations he carried inside. Now and then, he had to release the pain. And so he told her stories, some exceedingly sad. In Brease's words, Haber's accounts "put a face on the brutality" that she knew existed; to hear the details made it so much worse. As hard as it was, she knew she had to listen, to bear witness in her own way.

One time Haber told her about an alpha pair of wolves that moved in and out of Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, in Alaska's eastern Interior. The female wolf had been legally caught in a snare. Unable to free his mate, and despite the risk to himself, the male stayed nearby and kept watch until she died a few days later. Afterward, the surviving wolf chewed off his partner's head and carried it back to their den site. There he buried the head and then lay upon it for several days, until finally moving on.

Both Haber and Brease believed the alpha male's behavior demonstrated the pair's deep emotional bond -- and the species' sentient nature. Based on this wolf's actions and hundreds of other observations, Haber had no doubt that wolves are highly intelligent and conscious beings that experience joy, fear, sadness and other emotions. They grieve losses. And they play among themselves. They solve problems, teach their young and form hunting strategies that clearly demonstrate teamwork. Given all that, Haber argued -- and Brease agreed -- they should be treated as highly social and complex animals like other "higher order" mammals such as chimpanzees, gorillas, elephants or whales. Instead, the state insisted on simplistically portraying them as killing machines that compete with humans for moose, caribou, Dall sheep and other "prey species." Alaska's wolves, to their dismay, were (and still are) managed "by the numbers" in a way that doesn't account for the species' complex social order, intelligence and emotional life.

Haber called Barbara and Phil Brease a number of times in the fall of 2009. He talked about his cabin projects, his hope to permanently move to Denali within the next year or so. He sounded happy. Unlike most people who knew him, Barbara Brease never considered Haber a loner. He seemed to have plenty of friends; it's just that he preferred one-on-one friendships to circles or groups of friends. Like others, though, she too sensed he was "softening" in his relationships with people.

On one occasion Haber left a long and exuberant message that described his most recent discovery: new evidence of the important role that yearling wolves play in the care of pups. While flying one of his Denali surveys, Haber had watched several members of the park's famed Toklat family -- he hated the word "pack" -- cross a braided, multichannel stream. The group included two adult females, a yearling female and three pups. Most impressive to him was the attention that the yearling gave the pups, helping them cross the river's swift-moving main channel.

In a later posting on his website accompanied by photos, Haber described in great detail the yearling's actions, especially her efforts to encourage a hesitant black pup, "primarily with close eye contact and by leaping and pawing the water playfully." When that didn't work, the yearling steadied the pup against the current by placing her paw on the pup's downstream side and grabbing it by the neck. The frightened pup pulled away and in its efforts to retreat, got pulled downstream by the rushing current. In response, the yearling "jumped into the river just ahead of (the pup), to brace it against the current from the downstream side. The pup could then use her body to climb the bank fairly easily."

The two older wolves -- including the alpha female -- initially paid no attention to the pups' crossing. They watched more closely when the pups struggled, but never appeared too concerned, Haber noted, because the yearling seemed to handling things well and the pups never were in danger of drowning.

To Haber, the sequence plainly shows "the yearling female's attentiveness to the pups" and also conveys "a good sense of the wolves' intelligence, expressiveness, and emotional depth." His excited response to the episode came through loud and clear on the message he left for Brease.

Haber last phoned the Breases' home on Oct. 12. Barbara wasn't there, so Phil took the call. The two men talked about a number of things, including Haber's aerial surveys. As he'd done before, Haber expressed some concerns about his new pilot. Dan McGregor was still on a learning curve; he "seemed to be behind the eight ball" to some degree, which complicated the work. Yet Haber remained optimistic the new partnership would work out.

The conversation that Barbara Brease remembers most, the one that haunts her still, took place a few days earlier. As he often did, Haber talked dispiritedly about the threats to Denali's wolves, his frustrations with both federal and state officials, and a wildlife management system that completely ignores the complex social lives of wolves. At one point he interrupted his lament to tell Brease, "I know you understand."

Toward the end of their exchange, Brease told Gordon she wished he would find a student or intern, someone, and begin teaching that person all he knew about Denali's wolves, just in case something happened and he couldn't continue his work. How old was he now, 66 or 67? He couldn't keep doing the research forever.

"Nothing's going to happen to me," Haber assured her. "I'll be around for a long time. I've got many years left."

That was the last time they talked.

Bill Sherwonit is an Anchorage-based nature writer and author.

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