Letters from the West

Principled biologist, conservationist Craighead dies at 100

John Craighead, who turned his love for the Middle Fork of the Salmon River into legislation that protects more than 200 rivers today, died Sunday in Montana.

Craighead, who lived to be 100, became the model for the modern principled biologist who stood his ground even when Frank Craighead, his twin brother, was about the only one who stood with him.

The Craigheads challenged the federal government’s plan in 1971 to close the dumps in Yellowstone and make grizzly bears go cold turkey on garbage. They said it would push the relatively small population of grizzlies into conflict with people and threaten them with extinction.

But the National Park Service, the Department of Interior and even Starker Leopold, the son of their hero, Aldo Leopold, attacked them.

“The whole profession ostracized them,” said Maurice Hornocker, the noted wildcat biologist from Bellevue, who began his career under John Craighead. “Eventually they were proven correct.”

Dozens of grizzlies were killed by park rangers and ranchers surrounding the park, and visitors were mauled. In 1975, grizzly bears were listed under the federal Endangered Species Act. In 1998, the Wildlife Society, one of the groups that had criticized the Craigheads, gave John its Aldo Leopold Memorial Award.

“He was a father figure for me,” said Hornocker, 85. “John taught me most of what I know, that biology wasn’t just a profession, it’s a way of life.”

The Craigheads grew up in Washington, D.C., and came west in the 1930s to study raptors. They wrote “Hawks in the Hand“ and many articles for National Geographic before coming to McCall to teach survival to Navy pilots during World War II in what is now the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness.

Hornocker got out of the Navy in the 1950s and went to work for John Craighead in Missoula, studying pheasants. Craighead first showed him the Frank on a salmon fishing trip to the Chamberlain Basin.

Hornocker cut his sharp-tailed grouse hunt in eastern Montana short earlier this week and spent two days in Missoula with Craighead’s family. Frank Craighead died in Moose, Wyo., in 2001.

The two brothers wrote most of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act that Idaho Democratic Sen. Frank Church sponsored in 1968. They were worried that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was seeking to build dams on every river it could at time. The Middle Fork was one of the original rivers protected, and today the Salmon River is one of the longest free-flowing rivers in the lower 48 states.

The Craigheads took on the government again when the Bureau of Reclamation sought to build the Teton Dam in the 1970s. Their advocacy prompted the Nixon administration to get the Internal Revenue Service to audit them, Frank Craighead claimed.

Perhaps the Craigheads’ most lasting legacy is the concept of the greater Yellowstone ecosystem. They first recognized that the park itself wasn’t big enough to support a grizzly population.

One of the reasons the Craigheads and Hornocker were denigrated by fellow scientists was their willingness to publish in popular magazines such as National Geographic and to frequent television specials about wildlife. They had pioneered the use of radio telemetry to track grizzlies and mountain lions, which helped them get great photography and movies of the animals in their native state.

“John said don’t let (criticism) bother you,” Hornocker said.

Combat biology became a serious part of the profession, as new laws protecting habitat and endangered species often depended on the research compiled by biologists such as the Craigheads. Idaho changed its laws to protect mountain lions as a game animal based on Hornocker’s research in the Frank.

One Boise biologist who has stood his ground in the face of political pressure is Steve Knick of the U.S. Geological Survey. Knick, who will retire this month, stood up to George W. Bush administration officials who didn’t like his research showing that oil and gas development was fragmenting sage grouse habitat.

Then he angered some environmentalists with his latest work that supported keeping the bird off the Endangered Species list in 2015. He met Craighead when he was studying wolves with another pivotal biologist David Mech.

“They were role models of how we should do research and present science,” Knick said.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker

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