This episode was written by Lindsey Taylor, whose blog “The Curiosity Chronicles” follows her adventures around the world.
In the early days of Denali National Park and Preserve (formerly known as Mt. McKinley National Park), one park scientist stood out among the rest. He was known for his tough, adventurous spirit, ground-breaking biological research, and inspiring communication. His name was Adolph Murie.
Ade (as he was known to his friends) wasn’t the only person in his family to become a famous conservationist. His half-brother was Olaus Murie, also a biologist. The two half-brothers married two half-sisters: Olaus to Margaret, and Adolph to Louise. Margaret became known by some as the “grandmother of the conservation movement” for fighting to create the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. She moved to Alaska when she was a small child, and in 1924 she was the first female graduate from the Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines (which is the University of Alaska-Fairbanks today).
We could do whole episodes on the Muries, but it was Adolph who would change the face of ecology forever.
On this episode of America’s National Parks Podcast, Adolph Murie and Denali National Park and Preserve.
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Olaus and Adolph Murie grew up in Moorhead, Minnesota. The town had around 5,000 people at the time with a private university founded in 1891: Concordia College. Olaus began his studies at Concordia and finished his bachelor’s degree at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon in 1912. A few years later, he was recruited to America’s last frontier: Alaska. The chief of the US Biological Survey (what we know today as the US Fish and Wildlife Service) was interested in studying caribou migration across the Brooks Range. In his time at Mt. McKinley National Park , he also classified much of the park’s flora and fauna, creating the first record of what plants and animals the park was actually protecting.
Adolph, while in the middle of his undergraduate degree back at Concordia – joined Olaus in Alaska for two summers capturing caribou bulls for mating with reindeer, to enhance the reindeer population.
Two years later Adolph graduated from Concordia with an undergraduate degree in biology. He got a job as a seasonal ranger in Glacier National Park where he spent two summers before heading to the University of Michigan to get his master’s degree. By that time, Olaus, his wife Margaret and their son, one-year-old Martin, were also in Michigan. Olaus was turning his field notes from caribou research into a master’s degree as well.
Adolph stood out early in his graduate program. One of his professors and mentors was Lee R. Dice, a leading figure in the relatively young scientific field of ecology.
Before the study of ecology, which is based on the interrelationships of living organisms and their environment, biologists had a straight-forward approach to nature based on collecting and cataloging. Little attention was paid to if or how species may influence each other. Murie’s mentor, Lee Dice, was one of the first ecologists to advocate that predators in our natural ecosystems are important and worth protecting. Throughout the country, predator control (the killing of carnivores such as wolves, coyotes, and mountain lions to protect prey and livestock) was a common and accepted management tactic. Ecology began to show biologists that every living thing had an important role in the environment, and Dice wrote an article explaining his thoughts, titled “The Scientific Value of Predatory Mammals.”
In 1929, Ade Murie received his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. He completed his first post-doctoral study on Isle Royale, observing the ecology of the moose that lived there. It was Murie’s report that convinced the director of the National Park Service to approve the creation of a new national park on Isle Royale.
In 1934, Adolph Murie was hired to work as a biologist with the Park Service in the new Wildlife Division, hired by George Wright, the division chief. His first assignment was in the Olympic Peninsula, where he recommended that the eradicated wolves be reintroduced into the area.
Three years later, Murie began a two-year coyote study in Yellowstone that culminated in a book: Ecology of the Coyote in Yellowstone. Never before had a wildlife biologist in the National Park Service completed a similar study about predators, and it was one of the first true studies of ecology in a national park. After this project, Murie was assigned to study the wolves of Mt. McKinley, where there was another predator controversy. After his summers spent in the park more than 13 years prior, he was thrilled to be heading back to Alaska.
Much of Adolph Murie’s work time in the park was spent out in the backcountry, collecting scat samples, skulls, and antlers, and taking photographs of tracks, wildlife, and habitats. Scat samples can tell biologists a great deal about what animals are eating, and bones can tell us an animal’s age, sex, and health.
One special mammal he studied was the Dall sheep: the only wild white mountain sheep on earth. The Dall sheep was, in fact, the reason that Mt. McKinley National Park was created in the first place. In the early 1900s, market hunters were harvesting mammals like moose, caribou, and Dall sheep to sell the meat to prospectors and local pioneers. But they were not harvesting animals from populations sustainably, and the Dall sheep population began to dwindle. In 1906, a visiting naturalist and game hunter named Charles Sheldon noticed the decline and worried about the possibility of extinction. So, when he returned to the east coast, he began lobbying for the creation of a game reserve to offer some protection for wildlife. Eleven years later, Mt. McKinley National Park was created, and it was the first national park to be created to protect wildlife as opposed to natural scenery or beauty.
A few years before Adolph Murie arrived, the park Dall sheep population began to wane again. But this time, the cause was unknown. A series of winters with more snowfall and colder temperatures lasting longer than average coincided with this decline, but wolves were blamed as the leading cause.
The park service went along with the theory and began culling the predator population to allow the prey population to rebound. This management philosophy had already succeeded at completely eradicating wolves from parks like Yellowstone and Olympic. But it raised some big questions for Mt. McKinley National Park. Should the park service favor one species over another? Or should it take an ecosystem approach, where all species are treated equally?
Predator control management continued, but in the late 1930s, Adolph Murie was assigned to the task of figuring out what was really happening to the Dall sheep population. His research revolved around the question: “What is the effect of wolves preying on big game species in the park?” While he was focusing on Dall sheep, he also studied the wolves’ relationship with caribou.
In April of 1939, he set out into the park and performed field research until October. He estimated that he walked more than 1700 miles in the park that summer alone. It’s likely that Murie was not using the road much: he was climbing mountains off-trail, crossing rivers, and bushwhacking through willow and alder shrubs, some taller than he was.
In April 1940, he returned to the park, this time completing field research for another 15 months. Spending more than a year observing the wildlife was critical to understanding how animal behaviors change through the seasons.
So what did Murie discover? His conclusion was that, though wolves did hunt the Dall sheep, the main reason for the population decline was the harsh winters. More snow means less food availability, so Dall sheep would have trouble finding enough to eat and could starve or succumb to disease more easily.
He also concluded that predators have an important role in our ecosystem. At this time, in the early 1940s, this was a very radical idea.
Adolph Murie concluded that the wolves were actually helping the Dall sheep population. He noticed that when wolves hunted Dall sheep, they only targeted individuals that were sick, injured, or elderly. By doing so, wolves were keeping the genetic population of the sheep healthy and robust. Out of this research came his book The Wolves of Mt. McKinley. Half research findings, half field journal, Murie takes his readers through the alpine tundra and boreal forests of the park to rediscover wolves alongside him. It was the first study to analyze wolves and their interactions with other species, and it was aiding in the beginning of a new scientific discipline: ecology. It was published in 1944 and is still being reprinted and sold in parks today. Other books Adolph Murie would later write include The Mammals of Denali, The Grizzlies of Mt. McKinley, and A Naturalist in Alaska.
Ade Murie describes one of his favorite wolf experiences in this last book:
“In the morning it was a crisp thirty-five degrees below zero. At a cabin on the lower Toklat River in Mount McKinley National Park, my companion and I started out at daybreak, he on snowshoes, and I on skis, each of us carrying a pack containing bedroll and food, en route to Wonder Lake along the north boundary of McKinley Park. We were making a two-hundred-mile winter trip to carry out general wildlife observations. Heavy frost covered the spruce trees. At intervals, we encountered overflow water on top of the ice, which necessitated detours to avoid getting wet.Enroute, we noted tracks of many kinds—fox, wolverine, wolf, caribou, moose, squirrel, and weasel—and gained general impressions on wildlife presence and abundance. It became dusk, and by the time we left the river and turned in on a trail it was dark and stormy. … Then we stopped, transfixed, for out of the storm came music, the long-drawn, mournful call of a wolf. … It started low, moved slowly up the scale with increased volume—at the high point a slight break in the voice, then a deepening of the tone as it became a little more throaty and gradually descended the scale and the soft voice trailed off to blend with the storm. We waited to hear again the voice of wilderness in the storm. But the performer, with artistic restraint, was silent.”
In 1945, Adolph Murie again checked on the sheep populations in the park. They were at an all-time low after another severe winter, and sportsmen’s organizations pressured the Park Service for action: the extermination of all wolves in Mt. McKinley National Park.
Though he believed in allowing nature to unfold on its own, Murie recommended that 10-15 wolves be killed to allow the sheep population to regrow, and satisfy the growing pressure from outside groups. Even with Adolph Murie’s research, predator control on wolves in the park continued into the 1950s. It is thought by some that Adolph Murie agreed to lead the predator control management in order to limit its harm on the wolf population. The last year of predator control in the park was in 1952.
Development in Mt. McKinley increased as more visitors made the trek to Alaska each year. In the mid-1950s, there was a movement to improve infrastructure throughout the nation’s national parks called “Mission 66”, a ten-year plan to create more visitor centers, roads, hotels, and gas stations, headed by Conrad Wirth, the director of the National Park Service. In Mt. McKinley, there were plans to widen and pave the park road out to Mile 66, where a new visitor center was being built, as well as building a hotel and gas stations out near the end of the park road at Wonder Lake, 85 miles in.
Adolph and Olaus Murie were very opposed to these developments. In 1958, as road construction had started, Adolph Murie argued that it damaged the “purity of wilderness atmosphere.” Construction of the Eielson Visitor Center at Mile 66 began two years later, which Murie called a “monstrosity” and “Dairy Queen” because of how it stood out on the tundra landscape. Olaus warned, “the national park will not serve its purpose if we encourage the visitor to hurry as fast as possible for a mere glimpse of scenery from a car, and a few snapshots.”
The Park Service responded by saying, “the road must be widened to minimum safety standards” due to increased visitation. In the spring of 1963, Murie and a group of other conservationists retaliated. They published an entire issue of National Parks Magazine dedicated to Mount McKinley, arguing through multiple essays and articles that the new road would not allow visitors to receive full enjoyment and that it was a detriment to the park.
Construction continued in the park, and in July 1965, Adolph Murie wrote another article for the National Parks Magazine, calling on conservationists to write to officials expressing their concerns about the park road. Replies flooded in, which triggered intra-agency correspondence. Two months later, construction slowed and finally stopped. The park service had constructed 15 miles of pavement and 30 miles of road widening.
It was through these efforts to protect the character of the park’s wilderness that Ade Murie became known as “Denali’s Wilderness Conscience.” He retired from the Park Service in early 1965 and received the highest honor in the Department of the Interior: the Distinguished Service Award, recognizing his cutting-edge ecological studies, passion for proper park management, and dedication to conservation values in Denali and other national parks across the country.
Margaret and Olaus had moved to Jackson Hole, Wyoming in 1927. Olaus was studying the elk populations in the Teton Mountains. In 1937 Murie became a member of the Wilderness Society council, and only eight years later became the director of the Wilderness Society. He lobbied against the construction of dams in Glacier National Park and helped drive the movement to create the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, a 9-million-acre ecosystem bordering the Arctic Ocean. Adolph and Louise, along with Olaus and Margaret, purchased a ranch in Moose, Wyoming in 1945. Today, it is home to the Teton Science Schools, whose mission is to inspire curiosity, engagement, and leadership through transformative place-based education.
In Denali, the Murie Science and Learning Center was dedicated to Adolph Murie in 2004. It’s the hub for science communication and education in the park. In the summer, the center hosts a park scientist weekly to share their research conclusions with local employees and visitors. Together the center and the scientists carry on Murie’s legacy of communicating scientific findings directly with the public.
Today, the park road in Denali is still 92 miles long, and the first 15 miles of paved road are the only areas visitors are allowed to take a personal vehicle. The rest of the road is still gravel. Today it is traveled by bus via a shuttle system that was put in place in 1972 to keep the park as wild as possible.