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"Among Wolves" Details Researcher's Lifelong Passion

Fairbanks, AK - The University of Alaska Press recently published a book detailing one biologist’s lifelong effort to chronicle the lives of wolves that live inside the boundary of Denali Park and Preserve.

Marybeth Holleman was a friend of Doctor Gordon Haber, who was killed in a plane crash in Denali in 2009. “I was just struck by his incredible knowledge and his passion for his research subject, wolves," she said. Holleman spent the last few years digging through forty years’ worth of Haber’s field notes, journals and even tweets. She compiled Haber’s work into a book, "Among Wolves".

Holleman will present her book as part of a Summer Speaker Series at the Geophysical Institute on the UAF campus tonight at 7 p.m.

Marybeth Holleman first heard Gordon Haber talk about wolves and his research thirty years ago.

“He just retained that sense of wonder about his subject that really makes other people light up about it.  It really gets you excited about it too. That was my first memory of Gordon," she said.

Holleman soon became friends with Haber.  He has been described as ‘cantankerous’ and ‘prickly.’  He first came to Alaska in the 60’s for the same reason many twenty-somethings do: the wilderness.  Later, he became an outspoken biologist, questioning the state’s wildlife management methods, but Holleman says that’s because he was also one of the few wolf experts in Alaska.

“People don’t like people who say things they don’t want to hear and Gordon had an unassailable experiential authority in wolf behavior and wolf family structure," Holleman said. "So he drew some conclusions from his research and a lot of people in Alaska don’t want to hear them because it goes directly against a lot of the predator control and wildlife management that goes on in the state."

Haber spent his career monitoring the wolf packs of Denali National Park and Preserve.

“His primary conclusion was that you can’t manage wolves by the numbers because the functional unit of a wolf isn’t one wolf, it’s a family group of wolves. That social group, that dynamic is the core," Holleman said. "So if you say ‘I’ve got so many wolves I’ve got to kill,’ that’s not really the way to manage them. The way to manage them is to look at that family structure and manage them that way.”

Holleman’s book outlines Haber’s other discoveries. For example, why DO wolves howl?

“Wolves howl for a lot of reasons. Wolves howl to let each other know where they are. They also howl simply for the joy of it.  Sometimes they would howl with the plane engine overhead as sort of a resonance.  They also howl when in distress," Holleman said.

As an anthropologist might spend years chronicling the habits of a specific cultural group, Holleman says Haber spent countless hours in blinds tracking wolves, chronicling everything from their social habits, to how they eat.

“Gordon talks about an old timer who hated wolves because wolves would take down the animal and eat out its guts and just leave it.  He found an animal with its guts eaten out and the rest of the animal left.  But Gordon said actually the wolves will scavenge a winter-killed moose but the moose is so frozen that they only eat so much of it and then they come back later for the rest, unless they’re disturbed by a human, which is what happened in that instance," she said.

Holleman’s book includes stories from people who ran into Haber during his time as a biologist for the National Park Service, including one from mountain climber Johnny Johnson, whose food cache was buried in an avalanche in 1972.  Haber had hamburgers and french fries dropped to Johnson’s climbing team.

Holleman also includes snippets from Haber’s Twitter feed: “Raw, wild beauty at the den tonight, with the wolves howling a great chorus for me as rolling thunder from a passing storm shakes the valley” tweeted Haber, four months before his death.

"He could write for a scientific audience very clearly: his research reports and articles in Conservation Biology and other journals," Holleman said. "And he could write pretty astonishingly concise letters to the Board of Game and other entities that he was communicating with and then he could writer for a general audience.  His blog and these tweets really showed that." 

Holleman’s epilogue paints a dark picture for the future of Denali’s wolf population. The Park Service has reported declining numbers in recent years, but biologists there maintain that trend isn’t out of the ordinary. But the issue remains politicized. Environmental groups continue to clash with the Board of Game. In 2010, they set a six-year moratorium on all proposals regarding the Denali-area wolf population.