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The Brothers Wild

Throughout most of the '60s, their bear study was progressing at a great clip, and the Craighead profile remained high with National Geographic documentaries. Most all of it was a family affair, with wives and kids joining the twins throughout the summer. John Craighead's son John remembers hanging out at bear headquarters and long nights of poker played with the grad students.

All the while, the brothers were serious advocates for the conservation of the land and water around them, fighting for wild river conservation. Much of their writing was used unchanged in the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968, which Congress enacted to protect certain designated free-flowing waters. But in 1967, several factors were set in motion that would, by 1971, end their grizzly study and any association the brothers had with Yellowstone.

A philosophical push from a committee appointed by the secretary of the Interior to bring national parks back to "the condition that prevailed when the area was first visited by the white man" already had been recommended in 1963. It was an impossibility for many reasons, including that no park was large enough to be self-regulating and self-sustaining. In 1967, Jack Anderson became superintendent of Yellowstone and ordered the lands to be spiffed up for the looming centennial celebration for 1972. Also that year, in a single bloody night, two women in separate attacks were killed by two different grizzlies, which had both been routinely hand fed, in Glacier National Park. The danger of bears habituated to people had always been a concern -- even through the days of "bear jams," when cars jockeyed so tourists could hand-feed begging (most often black, not grizzly) bears along the road.

But now, officials wanted tourist experiences bear-proofed. Yellowstone dumps -- where so many grizzlies fed -- were to be shut down as quickly as possible to stop bears' association with human refuse and therefore with humans. Management had also decided to stop culling the growing numbers of elk, and in the 1980s, the Atlantic magazine would report: "The major effect of the new eco-philosophy, so far as Yellowstone was concerned, was to end the killing of elk, of which there were too many, and begin the killing of bears, of which there were too few."

The Craigheads wanted the dumps closed gradually, so that the bears could replace them with other food sources. Otherwise, they worried the bears would go looking in campgrounds, and that would lead to trouble. The brothers pointed out that bears don't distinguish between what we would call "natural" or "unnatural" food sources. To grizzlies, garbage dumps were ecocenters in the same way as a clover field or a berry patch. The Craigheads were outspoken in their opinions, and park officials tried to muzzle them -- issuing a new memorandum of understanding to the researchers that demanded that anything the brothers said or wrote about the park be approved by park officials first. In fact, independent research had become so troublesome that the Park Service brought in its own researchers. Animosities escalated. The Craigheads' headquarters (an old unused mess hall) was bulldozed. And bears began to die. Just how many was in dispute. The Craigheads felt official numbers were suspect, and some rangers in Yellowstone concurred. A report from the National Academy of Sciences is damning: "Control actions" (trapping, translocating or killing) went from 13 in 1967 to 63.3 a year between 1968 and 1970. The peak grizzly population during the Craighead years was 245, and, according to a report in the journal Ecology, presented by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, the population was likely down to 136 by 1974.

Some of the dead bears would inevitably be among those that readers of the Craigheads' exploits had gotten to know. After the dump closings, Marian's range increased to find enough food. She even entered campgrounds for the first time in her life. In the fall of 1969, with the added pressure of a berry shortage, Marian and her yearling cubs began to scavenge a campground. Early on the morning of October 13, a park ranger got between Marian and her young in order to immobilize the cubs. "As might be expected," Frank wrote, "Marian came out of the woods at full charge." She was shot dead with several slugs from a .44 magnum.

Since Marian's death, life has improved for the grizzlies in and around Yellowstone National Park (a population that straddles forests in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana). It is now believed there are 500 to 600 of them -- enough for the government to have taken away their "threatened" status this past spring -- a move that a number of environmental groups oppose.

JOHN RETIRED FROM THE UNIVERSITY OF MONTANA SHORTLY AFTER THE END OF THE GRIZZLY STUDY. Frank was an adjunct professor for the State University of New York at Albany. Both men still conducted research and stayed active in conservation work. Frank headed up the bear division of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources for a time, writing Track of the Grizzly, and John founded the Craighead Wildlife Wildlands Institute in Missoula, and wrote scientific books on grizzlies and grizzly habitat. Combined, over 50 years of work, the brothers published more than 70 technical papers, nearly a dozen popular pieces for National Geographic and more than eight books.

Years later, nature writer McNamee would say in his book The Grizzly Bear, "The Craighead study still stands as the longest-running, most thorough, most fertile, and most definitive of them all, the standard by which all subsequent study of bears has been measured." McNamee wrote that the Craigheads' work "forms the very basis of contemporary science's knowledge of grizzly bears." Strangely, after the big battles for the grizzly, there was a rift between the twins. "An identity crisis at the age of 55," said one family member. The estrangement occurred over Frank's solo publication of Track of the Grizzly in 1979. John's family says he was blindsided by it. And though they maintain the brothers never stopped talking to each other, the conflict is often mentioned by many people who knew them at the time. John Craighead's son John says the brothers were always squabbling about one thing or another, as siblings do, and in some ways this was no different than other disagreements.

Frank's wife, Esther, died in 1980. And almost as soon as he remarried in 1987, he was diagnosed with Parkinson's. By the end of Frank's life, the twins, who so often seemed joined as one, were together once more.

John Craighead's daughter, Karen Haynam, recalls a day at Frank's house during that time. John was at a loss about what to do, what to say. "Just be with him, Dad," Karen advised. So John sat with Frank, and the two men, who had been so close that they could practically read each other's minds, sat silently together, holding hands.

Vicki Constantine Croke writes about animal issues for media such as NPR and Discover magazine. Her latest book, The Lady and the Panda, is being adapted for a film. She can be reached at vickicroke@vickicroke.com.


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