Great Brothers


Frank Craighead, left, with a goshawk, and John Craighead, right, with a peregrine falcon, in the late nineteen-thirties.

It is rare that we link to remembrances or obituaries in these pages, but the rare occasions are typically when it was someone(s) who we did not know about and realize we should have. This seems to me to be one of those cases where I can recommend the short read about two superstars of the best variety. It starts with a melancholy air, but gets bright and is worth reading to the end:


At dawn on Sunday, September 18th, a blanket of clouds hung over the tawny grass mountainsides around Missoula, Montana. The cottonwoods had begun to turn yellow. On the south edge of town, in the home that the retired wildlife biologist John Craighead had occupied with his wife, Margaret, for six decades, the couple’s daughter, Karen, had been sleeping only intermittently. For years, she had shared the care of her aged parents with her younger brother, Johnny, a commitment that carried the two of them and their elder brother, Derek, well into their own senior years. During the previous night, Karen had risen, as she always did, to look in on their parents. She found them both sleeping peacefully. But by morning, when she and Johnny checked again, their father had died. It was a month after his hundredth birthday.

In the nineteen-sixties and seventies, John Craighead and his twin brother, Frank, were the most recognizable faces in American wildlife conservation. From 1937 onward, in a stream of magazine articles, photographs, films, lectures, and prime-time television specials, they made their case for the beauty and ecological importance of predators, at a time when the government was doing its best to wipe them out. In the early sixties, as Congress drew up and passed the Wilderness Act—a law so nostalgically anti-technology that it eventually excluded such simple devices as bicycles and chain saws from more than a hundred million acres of American wildlands—the Craigheads embraced the hi-tech fruits of the Cold War defense industry, which they adapted to gather scientific knowledge in the wilderness. They wore flannel shirts and lived in log cabins, but were presciently unsentimental about what was “natural” or “unnatural”—a distinction that, with climate change and other human injuries to the planet, has become harder and harder to make. They thought only about what would give wild creatures a chance.

The brothers grew up northeast of the Potomac River, in Chevy Chase, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C., where their father was an entomologist for the Department of Agriculture. At the time, the banks of the Potomac were a post-industrial wild with hawks, owls, and eagles nesting in grand hardwood forests along the abandoned Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and its towpath. There, on walks with their father, the boys became fascinated with birds of prey. As teen-agers, they taught themselves falconry. Acquiring linemen’s spurs and ropes, they made daring climbs up trees and cliffs to procure raptor chicks and indulge a nascent passion for wildlife photography. They sold some of their pictures to magazines, bought a used Chevrolet, and, the year they graduated from high school, drove west on the first of a series of visits to Jackson Hole, Wyoming. On one of these trips, the Craigheads were reported to the authorities for keeping hawks in their car. The Grand Teton National Park ranger who went to investigate brought his daughter along, Margaret Smith. She would later become John’s wife.

The brothers stuck together through college and graduate school. By the age of twenty-two, they had co-authored a feature article on birds of prey for National Geographic and a book on the subject for Houghton Mifflin. Their magazine piece attracted the attention of a young man on the other side of the world, an Indian prince, the son of a maharajah, who was as avid about falconry as they were. After visiting the Craigheads in the United States, he invited them to stay with him in Rajput. National Geographic supplied steamship tickets and film, and the brothers spent late 1940 and early 1941 with the prince, until the shadow of the Second World War forced them to return home. They joined the Navy, where they were assigned to develop a survival-training program. The task took the Craigheads around the world. They island-hopped from Hawaii through the Marshalls and Marianas to the Philippines, surveying what the atolls of the Pacific could supply to keep a sailor or downed aviator alive. They organized instruction courses in Panama, South America, and the Caribbean, and published a survival manual that is still in print today. After the war, John married Margaret, and with Frank and his new wife, they settled in two identical log cabins, side by side in the sagebrush of Jackson Hole. Each couple had two sons and a daughter, all born in pairs in the same years. The firstborn children entered the world within twenty-four hours of each other.

For more than a decade, the Craigheads continued their work in ecology. John took up a teaching position at the University of Montana, in Missoula, and Frank managed a wildlife refuge in Nevada. Then, in 1958, the National Park Service asked John to perform a study of the grizzly bears of Yellowstone, which had been reduced to a small, threatened population. That research, carried out by John and Frank between 1959 and 1971, made them famous. Partnering with a defense-electronics firm, they devised the first large-animal radio-tracking collar, fitting it on a Yellowstone grizzly the month before the Cuban missile crisis. It was a technological advance that led to a conceptual one. Grizzlies travel much faster than people in thick forests, and they often move at night. Prior to the radio collar, attempting to track them around the clock was impossible, and there was no way to measure the extent of their ranges. (The technology eventually revealed that male grizzlies’ ranges could encompass more than fourteen hundred square miles.) The Craigheads’ data showed that the bears cared not at all about park boundaries, or about the state lines of Idaho, Wyoming, or Montana. They wandered where they pleased. If they were to survive, their balkanized, fragmented management would have to be done coöperatively, across government agencies…

Read the whole story here.

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