Olaus Johan Murie
Cornelius Amory Pugsley Local Medal Award, 1953
Olaus Johan Murie (1889-1963) received the Pugsley Bronze Medal in 1953 for "effective and outstanding service in the defense of national parks and...wise counsel toward the shaping of national park conservation policies." Murie was one of America's greatest naturalists, famous for his brilliant field investigations into wildlife and author of the classic book The Elk of North America. He was born in the frontier community of Moorhead, Minnesota. His self-reliance and an intense interest in nature were acquired at an early age from his father, who believed children needed to interact with woods and wildlife. His father taught him outdoor skills. However, when Murie was only seven, his father died of tuberculosis. His wife was left almost penniless with a house, one cow, and the three sons pitched in selling milk, picking potatoes, plowing for local farmers.
As a young man he camped, fished, swam and canoed the Red River with his half-brother Adolph who also became a noted biologist, before becoming a scholarship student at nearby Fargo College (North Dakota), where he studied biology with aspirations to become a naturalist. Subsequently, when his zoology professor moved to the Pacific University in Oregon, he offered Murie a scholarship to transfer there with him. Murie graduated in from Pacific in 1912.
After graduation from college in 1912, Murie became a conservation officer with the Oregon State Game Commission collecting specimens and taking wildlife photographs. In 1914, he moved on to become field naturalist and curator of mammals at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburg. In this position, he was charged with studying birds and mammals in their natural habitats. The highlights of his three year stay at the Carnegie Museum were extended field work in the Hudson Bay and in the Labrador Peninsula areas of Canada at a time when maps in those areas were non-existent.
In World War I he had his nerves tested in the Army balloon service, whose observers, suspended from large and bulbous targets, studied enemy lines. He later earned a M.S. at the University of Michigan in 1927; and was awarded an honorary D.Sc. by Pacific University in 1949. In 1924 he married Margaret E. Thomas who had spent her childhood in Fairbanks, Alaska, and shared his love of wild country. "Mardy" Murie became a leading conservation figure in her own right and was the first female to graduate from the University of Alaska. She accompanied her husband on most of his field expeditions.
The majority of his professional career was spent with the US Biological Service (USBS) which was subsequently absorbed into the US Fish and Wildlife Service in 1939. He worked in the Alaska office from 1920-26 where he traveled hundreds of miles by dogsled each winter and by boat or foot each summer conducting a biological survey of the Alaska wilderness, with emphasis on the life history of caribou. He became a field naturalist for USBS based in Jackson, Wyoming, from 1927 to 1946 and became the leading authority on elk. He was a "tolerated maverick" in the USBS because he disagreed with its policy of eradicating predators in the late 1920s and early 1930s. He wrote "Poisoning and trapping of so-called predators and killing rodents, and the related insecticide and herbicide programs, are evidences of human immaturity. The use of the term 'vermin' as applied to so many wild creatures is a thoughtless criticism of nature's arrangement of producing varied life on this planet." Indeed, as late as 1945, the year he retired from his USBS career, the US Fish and Wildlife Service declined to publish a major study that he had completed on coyotes because it reflected his continued criticism of this eradication policy.
Murie was acutely disenchanted by the Biological Survey by the 1930s. The survey's managers suppressed his scientific research because it favored predators and the survey's policy was to exterminate them. The survey's major constituencies were large hunting and cattle organizations and their selfish interests were allowed to overrule the evidence of Murie's good science. The survey remained blind to his work and that emerging from other ecologists which supported it. Thus, wolves and mountain lions, for example, were commonly eliminated to stimulate production of big-game herds. Murie advocated "hands-off" with regard to the environment, not domination or control over environmental forces in favor of animals deemed "beneficial."
Discussions with like-minded conservationists, including Aldo Leopold, Robert Marshall, and Benton MacKaye, led to creation of the Wilderness Society in 1935. He was centrally involved with the society for the rest of his life, first as a board member; then in 1945 as its part-time director following his retirement from the USBS; and, subsequently, as its president from 1950 to 1957. Murie was also a president of the Wildlife Society and a director of the Izaak Walton League of America. In 1959, he received the Audubon Medal, the Audubon Society's highest award and the citation described Murie as "the personification of the spirit of wilderness." He did not live to see the federal Wilderness Act passed in 1964, but its enactment was in part attributable to his work and convictions.
At the Wilderness Society, Murie became an influential advocate for the National Park Service. However, his advocacy focused on adherence to scientific ecological principles and he opposed the NPS's Mission 66 program, which focused on road construction and developing amenities in the parks, suggesting that the NPS needed a "Mission 76 to undo the harm done in Mission 66." He was an effective speaker and a talented author. His scientific expertise gave his voice authority, but his effectiveness was more attributable to the voice itself which reflected the warmth and vision of the personality behind it. He had a charisma that emotionally connected and moved people whom he addressed.
He made extensive trips through the public lands of the west making recommendations for lands, which should be preserved. At the invitation of the New Zealand government, he led a scientific expedition there (1948-49) to propose solutions to problems emanating from the introduction of elk into that country. Murie engaged in numerous battles throughout the west, testifying, lobbying, heightening public awareness of what it was about to lose forever from the natural legacy. As a result, he deserves substantial credit for saving the choice wilderness areas that today form the west's pristine heritage: San Gorgonio (California); Selway - Bitterroot (Idaho and Montana); Three Sisters (Oregon); Cloud Peak (Wyoming); and many others. He fought off incursions by the Army on Olympic National Park and with William O Douglas promoted preservation in the Cascades. Working through the Wilderness Society, he piqued public awareness to halt the Rampart Dam on Alaska's Yukon River and the Narrows Dam proposed for the mouth of Snake River Canyon. However, he was unable to enjoy his last success. His wife remembers, "As for the Wilderness Act, that was an eight-year struggle and I don't know how many hearings Olaus attended, how many articles he wrote, how many letters (though during part of this period he was ill and in hospital...). I can't possibly list all the lectures and speeches Olaus made..." One year after his death in 1963 the act making permanent preservation official government policy passed Congress.
In 1956, he led an expedition to the Brooks Range in Alaska, cosponsored by the Wilderness Society, the Conservation Foundation, and the New York Zoological Society, which resulted in establishment of the Arctic Wildlife Range in 1960. He spearheaded the crusade to establish an unprecedented 9 million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska which was later enlarged to 18 million acres. The idea of preserving an entire ecological system became the intellectual and scientific foundation for the creation of a new generation of large natural parks, especially those established by the Alaska National Interests Lands Conservation Act. By the time of his death on October 21, 1963, Olaus Murie had earned a prominent position in the historical ranks of eminent American preservationists.
Murie's greatest contribution perhaps was the direction he gave to the conservation movement during the critical period after World War II. He recognized that the world was rushing into change faster than it could understand the long-term consequences of that change: "Our country, as we have known it, is in danger. Our free running streams, one after another, are to be submerged. Rich bottomlands are to be put underwater. Roads and engineering structures are to penetrate our recreation areas...Neither national parks nor national forests are held sacred. In short, our human environment is to be drastically altered, on a huge scale; the pattern of our culture is to be seriously affected." To Murie, the earth was a living organism, not an intricate machine to be manipulated arbitrarily for man's pleasures.
The former explorer knew that he could not single-handedly turn the country's precipitous rush into development. What he could do was spend his last years inspiring others to save as much as they could of the nation's natural habitat. To him, the measure of a civilization's humanity lay not in its profusion of gadgetry, but in the generosity, enlightenment, the care for the earth and concern for its own future it showed in preserving, rather than dominating, nature. To this end he bent himself as president and director of the Wilderness Society, bringing to bear his substantial professional reputation.
Murie was a national leader and effective advocate for the conservation movement, but he remained a skilled naturalist and retained a love of the simple life. He was a self-taught artist who tended to details in field sketches -- head, ears, mouth, nostrils, legs, the colors -- and left behind a legacy of wildlife art. His peers described him as a "20th Century Thoreau" dedicated through his work with the Wilderness Society, to the protection of the outdoors. He directed the Society from the log cabin where he lived on the banks of the Snake River in Moose, Wyoming, rather than from Washington, D.C., because he found no enjoyment from being in cities. "Sounds heard in the city," he said, "are just noise. When I hear the bugling of an elk or the call of coyote in the mountains it is beautiful." He liked to imitate bird calls and on occasions could charm one out of the trees, which he did with the raven shown at the beginning of this biographical sketch. The following quotations capture the character of the man:
There are two cultures in the animal world: herd animals like elk and loners like bear. In herds the individual does not count for much. Caribou, for instance, are dependent on each other. But with a bear there is a difference. He makes his own decisions. I admire that.
How can one express the intangible qualities of the wilderness and the solitude around a gem of a lake in a wild mountain setting? How can we measure such things as happiness, the good life, the elation of being in high country in free surroundings? These things bring peace.
The natural wilderness is a fragile thing; the material of poetry, art and music. Most members of the Wilderness Society come from crowded eastern states. People believe in what they do not have. People become different in the wilds -- more hopeful and happy.
Birds and animals trust one who is quiet. Even if dangerous animals approach I try to stand still. At times grizzlies have come up to me and by my being quiet they strolled away. I wasn't scared until afterwards.Olaus Murie's philosophy of the importance of wilderness embodied the logic of a scientist with the sensitivity of an artist. His professional training in combination with his field experience convinced him that preserving wild country was an ecological necessity. In addition, his philosophy embraced romantic overtones, reminiscent of those of Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson and other transcendentalists. He believed that wilderness belonged to everyone and all deserved to share in its uplifting qualities. Moreover, Murie's scientific and humanistic interests were complementary. Science remained a tool to fathom nature's laws and the adaptation of all life to the environment. An artistic impulse, on the other hand, allowed appreciation of the beauty of nature's intricate web of inter-dependencies. This aesthetic appreciation of life fostered humility which Murie considered to be a prerequisite for an ethical relationship toward land. In a eulogy in 1963 one of his peers said, "He was one person who best personified wilderness in our culture. His life and living were in and from the wilderness, and in his personality the concept of wilderness has a noble and compelling expression."
No single person or organization can claim responsibility for the conservation victories of the mid-twentieth century. It was a collective effort. A small coterie of trained leaders combined with an aroused public to convince Americans of the necessity in retaining wilderness as a permanent feature of the American landscape. Murie was one of this select few. His scientific studies, his efforts as spokesman for an influential conservation organization and his thoughtful and impassioned writings earn him a prominent position in the ranks of American preservationists.
He was the author of seven major publications, including Alaska-Yukon Caribou (North American Fauna [NAF] No. 54, 1935); Food Habits of the Coyote in Jackson Hole, Wyoming (1935); The Elk of North America (1951); Field Guide to Animal Tracks (1954); Fauna of the Aleutian Islands and Alaska Peninsula (NAF No. 61, 1959); Jackson Hole with a Naturalist (1963); Wapati Wilderness (with Margaret Murie, 1966). He also authored numerous popular and technical articles.