• Barry Lopez on the Wolf Biologist Who Changed His Life as an Environmentalist

    How Bob Stephenson Incorporated Indigenous Knowledge Systems in His Work

    In the fall of 1975 I read a scientific report that made me sit up straight in my chair. It was entitled “The Eskimo Hunter’s View of Wolf Ecology and Behavior” and appeared in a peer-reviewed volume of technical papers called The Wild Canids, edited by Michael Fox. At the time I was in the middle of researching a book about wolves, so I read carefully every paper in Fox’s book. The one I regarded as a watershed statement was co-authored by Bob Stephenson and a Nunamiut Eskimo hunter from the central Brooks Range named Bob Ahgook.

    In the early 1970s, the notion that indigenous peoples had anything of substance to offer Western science about wild animals, any important contribution to make to the overall study of wildlife, was either scoffed at by professionals in wildlife science or gently dismissed because the indigenous information, purportedly, “lacked rigor.” The report by Stephenson and Ahgook flew directly in the face of this idea. In my mind, their observations on wolf behavior were far and away the most interesting in Fox’s volume, though few recognized the revolutionary nature of this piece back then.

    From the beginning of the colonization of the New World, Western science has had an ingrained, cultural prejudice against the validity of what indigenous people know about wild animals, about what they have learned during their centuries of living with them in the same environment. Their observations on social dynamics, cooperative hunting, ecology, neo-natal behavior, and diet were considered “contaminated” by folk belief or to have been based too often on anecdotal evidence alone.


    Immediately after reading the Stephenson/Ahgook paper I wrote to Stephenson, a wolf biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G), and asked if I could fly up to Fairbanks to speak with him. I’d not yet come across his perspective in the literature on wolves but very much wanted to listen to what he had to say, both about wolves and about his interactions with the Nunamiut. I arrived in Fairbanks in March 1976, which was late winter in interior Alaska. Bob picked me up at the airport and offered me a bed at his cabin outside the city, in Goldstream Valley. Three days later I was sitting next to him in the back seat of a Bell 206 JetRanger, a four-passenger helicopter, flying across Nelchina Basin, in the drainage of the Susitna River south of the Alaska Range. We were looking for wolves to radio collar.

    This was a mind-boggling excursion for me, to find myself so suddenly on the front lines of wolf research. I was nearly speechless with appreciation at Bob’s invitation to go into the field with him, and for his trust that I would be capable as an assistant working alongside him. In the days that followed, I came to marvel at the breadth of his knowledge of wolf anatomy, morphology, and social behavior.

    From the beginning of the colonization of the New World, Western science has had an ingrained, cultural prejudice against the validity of what indigenous people know about wild animals.

    After that first meeting, and after I finished the book I was working on, Of Wolves and Men, Bob and I traveled together extensively across central and northern Alaska. We canoed up the Yukon River to explore Charley River, which had just gained protection as a part of Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve; we flew out to St. Lawrence Island in the northern Bering Sea during walrus-hunting time there; and we camped at several places in the central Brooks Range (all of them now part of Gates of the Arctic National Park). Our intent on these trips, for the most part, was simply to watch animals together.

    It wasn’t until decades later that I was able to look back on those trips and comprehend how deeply the major themes of my professional writing life were informed by these excursions with Bob. My gratitude for his company and expertise, for his introduction to other wildlife biologists, and for his hospitality whenever I came to visit, knows no bounds.


    In June of 1979, Bob and I journeyed up to Anaktuvuk Pass—a village of just 110 people back then—where I finally met Bob Ahgook, Justus Mekiana, and some of the other hunters Bob had worked with in the early seventies. The afternoon our plane landed there, nearly every woman in the village rushed down to the airstrip to greet Bob. Some years before this, after Bob started living sporadically at Anaktuvuk in a sod house he purchased from Justus, a flu swept through the settlement. Bob nursed dozens of people through this epidemic, emptying honey buckets, changing and washing bed linen, and cooking meals. The senior women in particular never forgot his courtesy and allegiance.

    I listened in on his conversations with the hunters during our time in Anaktuvuk as they caught up with each other’s lives. The regard in which they held Bob was obvious. Relations between ADF&G personnel and indigenous hunters in many of the villages back then were less than friendly. Bob, however, had not originally come to the village to lecture people about adhering to state hunting regulations; he’d come to hear what the local hunters had to say. He was eager to get their insights into the nature of amaguk, the wolf, especially about the parts of its life that had not yet made it into the professional journals. No wonder, when he initially approached them about it, they had welcomed him to travel with them as they set out in early summer to look for wolf dens.

    Beyond his own empathetic personality, his obvious lack of racial prejudice, and his respect for people with backgrounds very different from his own, Bob had a sharp sense of humor. One day when we were all sitting around telling stories, especially about wolverines as I remember, Bob told a story about an arrogant man and his humiliating comeuppance. The Nunamiut men roared at the well-delivered punchline. One leaned so far sideways on his stool he fell over. Another man nearly spit his dentures.

    Bob helped pioneer something new and unprecedented in Western wildlife science— the inclusion of traditional indigenous knowledge (TIK) in peer-reviewed wildlife publications. (There were a few others in the Fairbanks office of ADF&G at the time who sought out indigenous knowledge and gave it equal standing with Western-based knowledge. I think immediately of two marine mammalogists, John Burns and Bud Fay, and of Kathy Frost and Lloyd Lowry, both of whom I worked with later when I was researching another book, Arctic Dreams; but the road to advancing mutual cultural respect in Alaska was to be long and hard.)


    On that first trip with Bob, to radio collar wolves in Nelchina Basin, I saw first-hand an exhibition of the knowledge Bob had acquired by choosing to turn first to the Nunamiut instead of investing his allotted ADF&G funds in flying aerial surveys. (He had been charged by ADF&G with learning how the Alyeska pipeline might be affecting the lives of wolves. He believed he’d learn much more by traveling with Nunamiut hunters first, questioning them about wolf behavior in general, before setting off to study wolves along the pipeline corridor.) One day we spotted a wolf trail in Nelchina Basin—seven wolves walking single-file across a frozen, snow-covered lake. They were more than a mile ahead of us when we sighted them nearing the edge of the taiga; when they heard the helicopter approaching, they bolted. We caught up with a group of three. Bob was able to dart two, one of whom entered a dense copse of trees before going down. As we got out of the helicopter in knee-deep snow, Bob said, “Female. Maybe six or seven.” In my naive way I jokingly said, “Oh, come on. You can’t sex and age that animal at this distance.”

    Bob helped pioneer something new and unprecedented in Western wildlife science— the inclusion of traditional indigenous knowledge (TIK) in peer-reviewed wildlife publications.

    “Well,” he answered. “That’s what those guys taught me to do, anyway.”

    We followed the wolf’s tracks into the trees and found it lying on its right side, its eyes fully dilated because of the tranquilizer. I lifted its left rear leg. Female. I eased her lip up to reveal her premolars and the left canine. Her teeth were blunt and worn down, to the degree you’d expect in an older wolf. When we prepared to carry her back to the helicopter, I ran my bare hand up through the fur where her shoulder blades came together. I felt a distinct layer of fat there, and in that moment I understood what knowledgeable people meant when they referred to the wolf as a “social animal.” Though she was probably too old to hunt efficiently, she was still in excellent physical condition for late winter, usually the leanest time of year for wolves.

    We moved her out of the trees to where the other wolf lay sedated on an open stretch of tundra. Bob said it would be less traumatic for them if they woke up near each other. He cut spruce branches to build a platform for the wolves, to keep their heads from going nose-down in the snow while they were immobilized. He placed cloths over each wolf’s dilated eyes to shield them from the bright light of the sun and began his field exam. We weighed them and then put the radio collars on.

    I recalled this particular moment several years later when Justus Mekiana told me that sometimes when wolves approach a junction where two valleys meet, you can see them making a decision about which valley would be the one most likely to provide them with food. The female lying at my feet that time in Nelchina Basin, I thought, might very well have been a decision maker. Too old to hunt effectively, probably, but maybe she had something else to offer the pack: the experience needed to ensure that all of them would make it through the winter. She would know which of the two valleys was the most promising.


    After a couple of days spent hiking around Anaktuvuk Pass and talking with residents on that 1979 trip, Bob and I flew west, paralleling the north flank of the Brooks Range, to arrive at an ADF&G field camp on the middle Utukok River. A half-dozen or more biologists were using the site that year for summer wildlife research. A large wall tent, set amid eight or so individual tents, served as a mess hall, radio room, and field lab. A landing strip had been smoothed out on an old gravel bar near the river.

    The charter flight that had brought Bob and me there loaded up quickly with a couple of scientists and their gear and roared off for Kotzebue. After we pitched our tent and squared away our things, Bob began introducing me to people who were conducting research on caribou, tundra grizzly, arctic fox, wolverine, and, now that Bob was here, wolves. A JetRanger, a Super Cub, and a Helio Courier sat on the runway. The latter could fly very slowly, staying aloft at speeds other aircraft couldn’t maintain without stalling. A good plane from which to survey caribou herds.

    On that first trip with Bob, to radio collar wolves in Nelchina Basin, I saw first-hand the knowledge Bob had acquired by choosing to turn first to the Nunamiut instead of investing his allotted ADF&G funds in flying aerial surveys.

    On any given day, these biologists might be ferried up into the foothills of the western Brooks Range or out onto the adjacent coastal plain. There they would set up spike camps and observe animals in the area for a week or so before returning to the base camp. One morning I joined one of the pilots to search for bears in a Super Cub. (It’s more economical to look for bears in a small plane and, having found one, to radio the base camp with coordinates than it is to use much more expensive helicopter time to do the searching. The biologist can then fly directly to the area you found the bear in.) About ten miles south and west of the base camp, we came upon a lone adult grizzly chasing a herd of about fifty caribou. The herd began running up a tundra slope and quartering away from the bear below and behind them. Instead of slowing down, the grizzly charged furiously up the slope, cutting across the radius of the turn the caribou were making. It hit one of the galloping animals hard in the shoulder and took it to the ground. The speed with which the bear ran up the hill was astonishing.

    After spending another day or two with people at the base camp, Bob and I helicoptered south, up into the De Long Mountains. We set our camp up on a bench partway up the side of Ilingnorak Ridge, several hundred feet above the flood plain of the Utukok. Bob had heard about an active wolf den nearby, three-quarters of a mile west of us in a cutbank above the river.

    The conditions around here were perfect for observing animals. After we set up the tent and put our food and gear in order, we began watching the wolves with 20-power spotting scopes. Three adults, a pair of yearlings, and four frisky pups, whom we then studied continuously for a week. The vast, rolling countryside surrounding us was treeless and the air was eerily transparent—at one point we were observing a herd of caribou that were six miles away according to our topographic map. The weather was clear and the summer sun never set. From the elevation of our camp we could look straight across and slightly down to the entrance of the den.

    Our regular routine was to sleep for four or five hours when we felt the need, but otherwise to watch the wolves and other animals, unless we were taking a few minutes to cook and eat, or to stretch our legs. If we both were going to sleep at the same time, we left a spotting scope on a tripod in the doorway of the tent, focused on the den. If either of us woke for some reason, he checked the scope. If anything was going on, he woke the other guy up. One day we saw members of the pack create an ambush a hundred yards from the den and surprise a herd of caribou. It worked and they made a half-hearted chase before giving up. “Practice,” Bob observed.

    Once when the adults and one of the yearlings were away hunting, we watched a single female yearling hold off an adult grizzly trying to get into the den, where the cubs were. Another time, I was sitting near our tent, steadily glassing the hillside beyond the den for any movement. Bob was asleep. I sensed something to my left and turned. There, thirty feet away, was a yearling wolf, sitting its haunches and watching me. I knew it was a yearling because its body hadn’t yet filled out fully, and because, by then, I had absorbed from Bob a little bit of what the Nunamiut had taught him about sexing and aging wolves. When the yearling got up, she walked off at a steady pace, heading straight for the den, weaving her way through tussock mounds on the mesic tundra. Two jaegers harassed her, diving at her head. She leapt up several times to try to snatch one of them out of the air, behavior, I now knew, an adult wolf would never have wasted its time with.

    In October 2016, Bob Stephenson passed away in his cabin outside Fairbanks. His work with wolves, and later with lynx and wood bison, was groundbreaking. His field methods were sometimes unorthodox, involving, for example, tracking lynx in an ultralight he built and flew. He jokingly referred to his methods as “commando biology,” exploring the lives of wild animals in other-than-standard ways. Because he rarely said much about himself, never pursued fame or notoriety, never traded on his close relationships with the Nunamiut, and published little, he was not as widely known in his field as he might have been. What he cared most deeply about was the fate of the animals he studied. He wanted them to fare well in the world that was coming for them, which world, he believed, maintained a certain prejudice toward them, and accorded them little of the protection they needed to pursue lives of their own.


    The following essay will appear in Nunamiullu Amabullu: Nunamiut and Wolves Local Knowledge from the Inland Iñupiat of Northern Alaska which is forthcoming in 2021 or 2022, general editors S. Craig Gerlach and James Nageak.

    Barry Lopez
    Barry Lopez
    Barry Lopez is the author of six works of nonfiction and eight works of fiction, including Arctic Dreams, which received a National Book Award. His writing appears regularly in Harper's, The Paris Review, DoubleTake, and The Georgia Review. He is the recipient of a National Book Award, an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and other honors. He lives in western Oregon.

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