Two hundred years ago, before bigger ideas were thrust upon them, the Indians of southeast Alaska believed that the creator of all things was a large black raven. If by chance a Great Raven does have the final say when this world ends, the human race will be in for it. The raven is by nature tidy and efficient, gregarious but still free, living from day to day raucously confident that when one carcass is picked clean, another will turn up. No Alaskan raven would ever, like a man or beaver, spend its short life gnawing and toiling for the future, stockpiling surpluses in untidy hummocks about the land. Most of the world has been appropriated for human use so that more and more men can be packed into large urban wallows, like brood sows on a collective farm. No raven in its right mind would approve of this. Unless men mend their ways, on Judgment Day the Great Raven will consign most of the human species to one of the lower levels of hell, along with the beavers and ground squirrels.
There have been a few men the Great Raven could accept—perhaps among the acceptable would be Kublai Khan and James Audubon, because they cared for birds; possibly also the poet Poe (he understood ravens), and quite possibly Biologist James Brooks, age 38, chief of the Game Division of the State of Alaska. In the confusion of the 20th century, it is doubtful whether Biologist Jim Brooks, or any one of his 19 widely scattered assistants, will ever achieve historical distinction as a conservationist, but they all deserve some reward in the hereafter, for they are responsible for a wilderness as challenging as any the great khans ruled or Audubon ever saw.
The alluvial plains, the volcanoes and hoary, rumpled Cordilleras of the Alaskan wilderness—even the tides along the drowned coast and the winds aloft—all are on a heroic scale. Alaska's outlying islands alone exceed Iowa in size, and Rhode Island could ride on the back of a single glacier. One blast of the cold, wet wind that scours the Aleutians would be enough to scatter all the industrial stink of greater Los Angeles and wither the beard of every false prophet in it.
Because of its size and its elemental hostility to the casual advances of man, Alaska is today the last true U.S. wilderness, the last chance for man to prosper intelligently in free association with companion species. There is no doubt that with the increasing pressure of human population, the Alaskan wilderness, too, will go. Given the motive, the technicians will find a way to tame Alaska and cut it down to size. When the U.S. Army needs an interplanetary missile base on top of Mount McKinley, the Army will take McKinley. When it is profitable to build a putty factory on the Kuskokwim River flats, a putty factory will be built there, with roads connecting it to putty consumers. The ducks and brant of the Kuskokwim flats will have no place to go, but they will have to go. And when they go, they will be gone forever.
January 16, 1961
The certain way to insure the future of wildlife is to forbid any further advances by man. There is no wildlife manager with the authority—and few with the inclination—to do that. This is particularly true in Alaska, where Brooks and his aides do not live in spruce trees but, like all Alaskans, must pay dearly for modest homes, for powdered milk and processed eggs, with no hope of lower prices until industry gets a bigger grip on the land.
Spokesman for the wolf
The biologist in Alaska is the representative of the caribou and moose and wolf, of the Sitka deer, the sheep, goats, bears, beavers, mice and shrews, but he is likewise the paid delegate of the people. If Jim Brooks can tactfully show his people that they can live with the moose, the mouse and the wolf, and prosper without botching the land as grossly as it has been botched in the lower states, he will have succeeded at a job where success is rare.
Biologists generally concur that 90% of any wildlife management job is managing people. In this respect, Brooks is fit for the job in Alaska. He is an average-size, 170-pound, dark-haired man with a custom of speaking carefully and observing with a steady eye that at times—like the eye of a wolf—seems capable of penetrating several layers of man's thoughts. He has the proper academic degrees and has led a varied life that qualifies him to understand the diverse character of the animals and the 224,000 people of Alaska. In the 20 years since he shipped steerage class to Ketchikan, Brooks has washed dishes, farmed, cut timber, mined gold, fished for salmon, worked as a gandy dancer, a bush pilot and an air corps pilot, operated a bulldozer and a weather station. In 1942 he spent a lonely winter working trap lines, breaking trail for his sled team 20 and 30 miles a day in the snows of the Kantishna drainage north of the Alaska Range.
The varied character of the land and people is a mixed blessing for Brooks and his staff. The land is primitive, and at the same time a vital partner in the red-hot present. The greatest herds of caribou on the Arctic tundra—some 250,000 head—are affected little by men or guns, but the antlers of the caribou now carry five times the normal radioactive load. Rodents eat the annual crop of discarded antlers, and thus a remote land with barely a man for every 20 square miles already pulses with the hot breath of science. Some quadrants of the Alaskan wilderness are not yet perfectly mapped, but, like outposts on the moon, the domes and strange configurations of microwave stations and early warning sites stand in the mist on the mountain balds.
Outside the large towns the Alaskan people—the Eskimos, Aleuts, Indians and all later arrivals—live in the present and past, counting heavily on the Piper Super-Cub and the husky dog, the Evinrude motor and the skin bidarka, mail-order underwear and homemade boots. Like the rest, the biologist lives with the past and present. Year round, Alaska maintains about as many miles of road as Delaware. The biologist of necessity flies about 40,000 miles a year surveying remote populations and ranges. His Super-Cub must be able to let him down safely almost anywhere and jump back into the air off a 400-foot beach like a frightened mallard. When he leaves home, the biologist files a flight plan, tests for water in his airplane gas and puts his trust in God, in the weather advisory and selected crystal frequencies. In case these fail him, he also carries a knife, a revolver, a survival kit and life insurance.
The Alaskan wilderness has been used for some years now. The Russian and American fur hunters of 200 years ago and the whalers and the gold men who followed the fur men to Alaska were all spoilers, out to make a killing, contributing little. Alaska still suffers somewhat in this historical pattern. Its wilderness needs love, or at least respect, but today in the land there are both lovers and spoilers. On the Huslia River, a trapper (a self-appointed authority) deliberately curtails his limit on beaver so beaver will prosper. But in the town of Copper Center, a latter-day spoiler defends shooting a cow moose and twin calves, telling the judge that he thought they were caribou. In the barbershop across from Juneau's Hotel Gastineau, one client sits reading the game laws; another client announces that on one good day last fall he got 23 geese and 138 ducks (legal daily limit: five each).
For all its size, the land seems to lack the magic capacity of one small Hawaiian island to absorb a hodgepodge of people and imbue each with a respect for its essential character. It is perhaps because in the north the permafrost lies just under the top-soil, and few roots can go deep. About 35% of the Alaskan population makes its living on military projects—decent people, but by the nature of their enterprise many remain strangers in a far land. Some of the civilians who come to Alaska were motivated largely by the urge to leave somewhere else. Once in Alaska, they think of home. On their first flight from Anchorage to Fairbanks, two newcomers—electrical engineers—look down on the Alaska Range and its large pockets bulging with glaciers, but their talk this early in their new adventure is of a low mountain back in east Tennessee where you can see five different states. In the trapping settlement of Hughes, hugging the Koyukuk River bank 30 miles from the Circle, the postmistress has a 20-inch Zenith television console. There is no television signal within 150 miles, nor likely to be any for 20 years. But for the postmistress, the big blank eye of the Zenith is a satisfying link with the outside.
When some of the people have only half a heart for it, when so much of the wilderness is still untouched and unmanageable, why try to manage it at all? Alaska is far bigger and rougher than any other state—bigger, rougher, but not tougher: the arctic and subarctic, paradoxically, are fragile environments. A tropic area or a temperate rain forest can cover transgressions and mistakes with new growth in a few decades. In the north, growth and decay are slow; wounds heal slowly and scars are lasting. In the brown days of autumn, the trails of caribou and tractors show clearly on ridge lines where there have been no caribou, no tractors for 20 years. When it is burned over, the pale carpet of lichens, favored winter food of the caribou, takes 50 years to repair. Along drainages in the interior, the sluice boxes and mining tools of 1900 lie weathering alongside abandoned gold dredges and 55-gallon drums that came only yesterday. For miles along the drainages the dirty tailings of the dredges lie in barren hummocks, and it will take five or 10 years for the first willows and birch to come back and support the browsing moose.
From the tundra of the arctic slope southward, there are today perhaps 500,000 caribou, and in the rain forests of the state's southeastern panhandle, a peak population of about 100,000 Sitka deer. These handsome numbers are no real proof of strength. Alaska's fauna is typical of the north: strong in numbers and few in kind. Counting the least shrew, in all Alaska there are only 53 native species of land mammals, and less than half that number in the extreme northern limits. (By contrast, you can find more than 100 species in a small, unspoiled area of Florida.) The species of the tropics and subtropics are toughened and their populations stabilized by interspecific rivalry. For lack of rivalry, northern populations tend to instability. An Alaskan species may reach a great peak and then, when its range is hurt by man or by a succession of foul winters, the population crashes. In some instances, an expanding species that is not trimmed by predators such as man and the wolf ruins its own range. It topples by the weight of its own numbers.
Southeast Alaska is a drowned coastline, the steep slopes of the mainland and islands wooded with large Sitka spruce and hemlock. The deer there live in virtually a vertical environment, with a relatively narrow winter range in the lower levels. Of late, winter has been kind; the deer population has trebled in 10 years. But the biologist knows that bad winters like those of the late '40s will come again. The deer will be driven down to the beaches to scrounge for kelp and other poor offerings of the tide line. In one bad winter Biologist Brooks and his assistants know they will find two or three dead deer for every mile of beach. Most of the carcasses in one stretch may be eaten by a wolf or bear, but from the pink, gummy marrow of residual bones the biologists can tell for sure that the deer starved.
Thus, for many species, Jim Brooks is in the happy position of urging hunters to take their usable limit of prosperous populations. The game regulations say: take one ram, one goat, one bull moose, three caribou and, in crowded deer areas, please, please take four deer of either sex. Among those Alaskans who are conservation-minded, this largesse stirs protests. "There is," Brooks feels, "a conservatism in the public mind."
In his reluctance to take advantage of liberal game limits, the Alaskan is making the common mistake of applying human tradition to a wild species. For example, the hunter is allowed to kill the doe; but many do not, for the doe is a symbol of motherhood, source of all future deer. So when a bad winter comes, the mother deer that could be wrapped in a home freezer is left to the wolf on the beach.
Guns for conservation
The Alaskan hunter also succumbs to man's natural instinct for putting something aside in good times to get through the bad times. He theorizes that if bag limits are kept low in boom years, the wild game will have a free ticket through the worst winter. It isn't so. Wild game cannot be stockpiled or hoarded like corn in a crib or money in a mattress. It is the habitat rather than the creature that needs more protection. Where there is fit habitat, almost any species has the resilience to survive, and there is not a predator other than man with the capacity to knock it out. When the hunter understands this, the gun in his hand becomes a valuable weapon to help the biologist guard a shaky land of plenty.
The Bible and the story of Little Red Riding Hood and a spate of literature of greater and lesser worth say that the wolf is a villain. For the biologist, or for any man who takes the time to watch it, the Alaskan wolf is a beauty. By its great size alone, the Alaskan strain reduces all others of its kind to the status of dingos. Like the big bears, the wolf deserves the rank of trophy game, but, by vote of the Alaska legislature, since 1915 it is vermin, bountied at $50 a head. On the fringes of human culture, the Alaskan wolf takes domestic stock now and again, but in the main, knowing a real competitor and predator when it sees one, it stays clear of the permanent settlements of man. There is no authentic instance of a sound and sane wolf attacking man; there is ample evidence that it is a valuable management tool, holding peak populations in line until there are guns enough for the job. Alaska's Dall sheep—prized trophy of rich visitors—lives in high bastions, competing with no other creature over most of its range. When the sheep population is up and winter is bad, some sheep are forced down into range valuable to the caribou. There waits the wolf, judicious leveler, preserver of the equilibrium.
Logic is against it but, regardless, Jim Brooks and his assistants pay out $60,000 a year in wolf bounties. At the same time, incongruously, the biologists raise a den of captured wolf pups and release them as adults on a small island where there were no wolves to trim the heavy population of deer. (The name of the island must remain secret lest a bounty hunter proceed thence and make a financial killing off the biologists' wolves.) If by this island test the biologists prove beyond any doubt that wolves have a stabilizing effect—indeed, even if the biologists find their test wolves are feeding nagoon berries to the starving fawns in midwinter—it is doubtful that the legislature will change its mind. The wicked wolf of Red Riding Hood is a preposterous image, but a strong one. The average man was weaned on it and simply won't give it up.
In surveying and attempting to count the animal population under his control, the biologist runs up against other problems just as vexing and a lot more taxing. By low-level flights over prescribed transects, he can get a fair idea of the sex and age composition of the moose population. The prosperity of the beavers can be indexed in much the same way, although surveying beavers is a more severe test of the whole biologist. To spot the beaver's telltale food caches, he must follow the stream lines. After a half day flying at 200 feet, continuously banking left and right and left along the snaky streams and oxbows, the biologist feels as if a family of horned toads had moved into his stomach. Surveying the caribou is a greater problem. Flying is no good. The caribou won't stand still for it. They are a restless, demanding sort, fairly regular in their habits but requiring lots of room. Unlike the moose, both sexes of caribou carry antlers; so to distinguish yearling bulls from cows with certainty the biologist needs a good look at the genitals, and there is no pilot in Alaska who will fly low enough for that. To index the caribou, the biologist has to work on the ground at some traditional pass on their migration routes.
In the east of the state, the range of one herd of 40,000 caribou covers an area the size of Pennsylvania. The range spreads across two of Alaska's seven highways and eastward into Canada, roughly along the route traveled by Jack London's famous dog Buck. The biologist tries to keep tabs on it twice a year. The herd's calving grounds lie on the north side of the Steese Highway. Perfect. Right at the highway, the biologist can count the cows and last year's calves as they cross in the spring. Heading for their Canadian winter range, the whole herd crosses the Taylor Highway near the border. Perfect. The biologist can index bulls, yearlings, cows and new calves as they cross. The caribou customarily move to Canada between September 25 and October 5 (or at least that is what biologists customarily think). The biologist wisely tries to spot the herd first by plane. He flies for three days. In the snow of the ridges he sees the tracks of thousands of caribou. He finds 200 head around Joseph Creek. Thirty-nine thousand caribou are missing. Have they crossed on into Canada? Two biologists drive the length of the highway twice looking for tracks in the new snow. They find the track of the moose, the bear and the wolf, but no caribou or sign of caribou. Four years ago the whole herd went all the way into Canada, turned around and came back deep into Alaska, turned around again and went back into Canada—total distance: 1,500 miles. What are the crazy caribou up to now? Are they feeding around Beaver Creek or Merry Christmas Creek or Bullion Creek? Or hiding under the black spruce at Confederate Creek? Celebrating on Fourth of July Creek or Happy New Year Creek? Swimming down the Yukon just for the hell of it? The biologist doesn't know, and he can't take any more time to find out. He has another job 300 miles away.
Since the human race is the self-appointed proprietor of the whole land, in the final analysis the future of any wild species depends on the attitude of men toward it. Men do not tolerate any predator half so efficient as themselves, and on this count, the wolf is doomed. The brown bears and grizzlies of Alaska in time will be reduced to the status of public-park wards, desirable but innately feared. The Alaskan has no objection to coexistence now, while there is plenty of room for men and bears, but he's not for integration—doesn't want his kids going to school with bears. Even away from town, an Alaskan finding a grizzly or brown bear on his favorite fishing stream often will shoot it and conscientiously report the kill as self-defense. On the weekend the fisherman has left the tedium of his city work to re-create himself in the bear's world. But when the bear comes to the stream for the mutual purpose of fishing, the man presumes the bear is threatening him.
The mountain sheep and goats are reasonably secure for the future. They have a good reputation among people. They do not eat children. Moreover, their range is a rough one. People like to visit it, the high ground of the sheep and goats, but few would want to live there. The Alaskan deer will do fairly well. When the need arises, the deer can be fitted into fairly small corners, persisting under wise management. The restless caribou will decline. They are getting their antlers tangled in the phone wires occasionally now, and when roads and other communication lines cut unnatural barriers across their land, the effect may be too much for them. The caribou will probably become park wards, to be harvested by hunters on a quota basis, as buffalo are now in some of the shooting galleries of the lower states.
The moose and black bear have some advantage over the others. They are acquiring the status of lovable bums who often show up in town, the bear usually heading directly for the city dump, the moose drifting around, eating shrubbery, chasing (and being chased by) dogs and children. The Alaskan may shoot a grizzly 100 yards from him on the stream, but he tolerates the moose that walks through his back fence and tramples his cabbage garden. A resident of the town of Palmer, 40 miles from Anchorage, finds a moose in the cellar of the new home he is building. He dutifully summons the biologist, who gives the moose a shot of succinylcholine chloride to knock it out and lifts it from the cellar with a wrecker hoist. A construction worker living in a trailer telephones the Anchorage game office: every morning for a week a moose has chased him when he tried to get in his car to go to work. That was O.K., but now the moose is kicking in the side of his trailer. Can anything be done? A lady telephones. She planted cabbages. A moose came and ate the cabbages, and that was all right. But the moose now chases the kids. Can anything be done? The biologist tells her he can come and kill the moose. The lady says the moose should live; the kids will have to take their chances. A sergeant has a question for the Fairbanks game office: The Ladd Air Force Base has only three or four bear on it in the evening, while Eielson Base gets a dozen or more. Does this mean the food at Eielson is better than at Ladd? (The biologist doesn't know.) A lady calls: she was cooking muffins, turned around, and there, in the middle of the kitchen, was a bear. No, she doesn't need any help. She hit the bear on the behind with a broom and it ran out the door. It wasn't a grizzly—just an ordinary adult black bear about three feet high.
End of the line
The bear and moose that drift in and out of town are but a sliver of the total population, but the biologist must spend some time on them. "It is one of our ways," Jim Brooks said recently, "of encouraging the public to think of these animals as objects of value. We may never be able to produce people and bears on the same ground. We have limited manpower and still so much game that we cannot manage it fully. But we have the duty of keeping people aware that what they see today can go tomorrow, and is worth caring for, worth preserving now. Alaska is a place where all kinds come, among them the malcontents of crowded places to re-create their souls. If we sack Alaska, where do we go next?"
GULF OF ALASKA