The Craigheads: Conservation, Controversy, and a Classic Nat Geo Story

Frank and John Craighead were National Geographic grantees and National Geographic magazine writers. Frank passed away in 2001 at 85, and his twin brother John passed away September 18th at 100 years old. Learn more about the Craigheads here.

By Mark Jenkins for the National Geographic Timeline

When, a few years ago, Audubon magazine included among its “100 Champions of Conservation” Frank and John Craighead, it praised their pioneering research that “helped save grizzly bears from extinction in the lower 48 states” while also bringing “the ecosystem concept to the fore of conservation.”

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The Craighead brothers championed the concept of the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone being conserved as the “Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.” Here, the lower falls of the Yellowstone River tumble into the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.
Photograph by Joe Scherschel, National Geographic

But it was another magazine that made the Craighead brothers prominent in the first place, and it was the National Geographic Society that co-sponsored all of that pioneering and remarkably influential research. Together we trod a track that spanned half a century.The journey began in 1930, when the 14-year old Craighead twins discovered an old National Geographic article on falconry and were hooked.

Born into a family of naturalists—their father was an entomologist with the Agriculture Department, and their sister, Jean, would become the Newbery-award winning author of My Side of the Mountain and Julie of the Wolves. The boys, who scampered up tall trees and cliffs with alarming frequency, soon became keen falconers and expert photographers.

At 19, they walked into Geographic’s headquarters, so charming the editors with their manner and photographs that “Adventures with Birds of Prey” was published in the July 1937 issue, and the Craigheads were launched upon the world.

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For more than 50 years, twins John and Frank Craighead devoted themselves to studying wildlife and the environment and reporting their findings in 13 articles in National Geographic magazine. Their first magazine article in July 1937 pictured Frank with two great horned owls. Photograph by John Craighead, National Geographic

That first article led to eight more in the next two decades, carrying readers to India, where the twins hunted with falcon-loving maharajas; to remote Pacific atolls, where they taught survival skills to World War II aviators; and to the Grand Tetons, where the ruggedly handsome boys and their photogenic wives took up homesteading amid the natural beauties of the West.

The Craigheads and their strenuous adventures were the perfect fodder for the kind of Kodachrome travelogues so popular in the National Geographic of that era. 

Studying and Wrangling Grizzlies

Yet Frank and John were nothing if not serious. Both received doctorates in wildlife management, and their joint dissertation, published as “Hawks, Owls, and Wildlife,” remains one of the classics of the field. Both became highly respected biologists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. And both, in 1959, with strong Society support, embarked on what would become their signature project, a 12-year study of grizzly bears in Yellowstone National Park.

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This grizzly prowled the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem long before the Craigheads.
Photograph by Haynes, National Geographic

Constantly on the roam, active both day and night, and “unpredictable” when closely approached, grizzly bears had always been difficult and dangerous to study.

So the innovative Craigheads sought ways to circumvent such problems. They refined techniques for trapping and immobilizing the animals by shooting them with tranquilizing darts, a risky activity that involved more than one close brush with bears that shook their stupor faster than expected. The brothers perfected methods for (very) quickly weighing, measuring, sampling, tagging, and safely releasing scores of the enormous, bad-tempered, sharp-clawed bruins.

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The Craigheads take dental impression of the jaw of tranquilized grizzly.
Photograph courtesy Frank and John Craighead, National Geographic

Moreover, the Craigheads were soon outfitting some of the immobilized bears with collars containing radio transmitters. Using hand-held receivers to pick up the quiet beep-beep of the transmitters, the twins were able for the first time to track grizzlies over hundreds of square miles of rough terrain. Radiotracking, as the technique was called, would soon revolutionize wildlife studies. With the space program in full swing, the twins also tinkered with ways to affix satellite transmitters to bears, actually crawling into the

Radiotracking, as the technique was called, would soon revolutionize wildlife studies. With the space program in full swing, the twins also tinkered with ways to affix satellite transmitters to bears, actually crawling into the dens to do so, hoping that the animals were really hibernating in there and not merely dozing. Before long the life history of a creature long demonized by fear and misunderstanding began to emerge, “the first penetration of human light,” as one authority put it, “through the ancient opacity of bearhood.”

Radiotracking, as the technique was called, would soon revolutionize wildlife studies.

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Radiotracking, pioneered by the Craighead brothers, revolutionized the study of grizzlies like these, in Wyoming’s Shoshone National Forest.
Photograph by Raymond Gehman, National Geographic

The project, however, ended badly. The twins, though unusually modest, could be bristly, independent, and not a little headstrong. They clashed with their host, the National Park Service, on a range of issues, mostly centered on a tangled, furious—and very public—debate over bear management that left both sides fuming. Refusing to be muzzled by new regulations, the Craigheads abandoned the grizzly study in 1971.

National Geographic’s Partnership

National Geographic’s support never wavered. The Society produced another magazine cover story and television special, “Wild River,” in 1970. The special featured the Craighead clan rafting down the Middle Fork of Idaho’s Salmon River. It was a tribute to what the twins had viewed as one of their proudest achievements: pushing through Congress, even to the point of providing much of the wording, the landmark Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968.

The National Geographic-Craighead partnership, in fact, continued until the twins were well into their 70s. Society grants provided ultra high-frequency transmitters to follow migrating eagles by satellite and helped translate LANDSAT imagery into tools for comparing and mapping habitats.

Meanwhile, even National Park Service personnel were quietly admitting that when it came to grizzlies, the Craigheads had been on the right track after all. By the end of the century, shortly before Frank Craighead died in 2001, one authoritative book declared that their Society-supported grizzly bear study remained 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.”

The overall impact of their work—ranging from the revolutionary development of radiotracking, to pioneering work with satellite telemetry and habitat mapping, to the formulation of the ecosystem concept of wildlife management—has also been staggering, influencing an entire generation of wildlife biologists.

The overall impact of their work—ranging from the revolutionary development of radiotracking, to pioneering work with satellite telemetry and habitat mapping, to the formulation of the ecosystem concept of wildlife management—has also been staggering, influencing an entire generation of wildlife biologists, many of whom were first inspired to enter the field by those National Geographic articles and television specials. The Craigheads’ methods and techniques, refined and sharpened, have now been applied to the study of animals ranging from voles and warblers to snow leopards, Siberian tigers and great white sharks.

To John Craighead, who passed away at 100 this week, the public is the ultimate guardian of our natural heritage.

“It is the people’s resource,” he said.

John Craighead, 100, spent his life championing fighting for the conservation of rivers and contiguous ecosystems.Photograph by Erika Larsen, National Geographic

John Craighead, 100, spent his life championing fighting for the conservation of rivers and contiguous ecosystems.
Photograph by Erika Larsen, National Geographic

2 responses to “The Craigheads: Conservation, Controversy, and a Classic Nat Geo Story

  1. Pingback: 11 Things We Learned This Week | Nat Geo Education Blog·

  2. Pingback: 11 Things We Learned This Week | Nat Geo Education Blog·

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