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Changing Tracks: Predators and Politics in Mt. McKinley National Park

Rawson, Timothy. 2001. Changing tracks: predators and politics in Mt.McKinleyNational   Park. University of Alaska Press, Fairbanks, Alaska. 326 pages. Maps, black & white photographs, chapter notes, literature cited, index. 24.95 paperback.

As a sixteen-year-old, I received a loaned copy in the mail of Adolf Murie’s classic: “The Wolves of Mt. McKinley” from that park’s superintendent, with the request that this out-of-print work be returned when I had completed reading it. Even in my youthfulness I was aware of how trusting this person was to loan such a book out to a teen three-quarters of a continent away, and I wasn’t about to disappoint him.

Nights after school I read the book – cover-to-cover. But before I returned it, I somehow managed to find a copy machine (they were exceedingly rare in the 1960’s) and – at 5 ¢ a page – a handsome sum from a boy who had only a summer-time job washing dishes in an exclusive country club at $1.90 an hour – my paltry savings forced me to select the sections most meaningful to my inquisitiveness. Within a half-dozen years, of course, the work was reprinted for $1.25 from the U.S. Government Printing Office likely in response to a resurgence in interest in wolves. I obligingly acquired a copy, but only this year discarded the photocopied elements while doing some necessary house (actually office)-cleaning!

Thinking back to that time, I realized that even then I was curious to know how and why this pioneering work by Murie was authorized. After all – especially to those history buffs who happen to also be hooked on wolves – Murie’s book provided the world with their first glimpse of wolves that wasn’t filled with the hatred and loathing of this beast typical of earlier writers. It was filled with observations on their natural history, supported by facts tediously gotten through hundreds and hundreds of hours of monitoring a wolf pack in the alpine-covered slopes of Denali. It is considered the foundation upon which modern-day wolf biology got its start.

Nearly 45 years later I found Rawson’s book. It answered my question of how Murie’s work actually came to be – what motivated National Park Service administration to authorize it. It is a history book to be sure, but one written that is both engaging and quick-paced. Woven into the fabric of the story of how Murie’s work came to be is the larger story of internal strife within the National Park Service of what to do with the predators roaming a few of their western properties. Denali National Park (in those days named Mount McKinley National Park) , I learned, was established as a sanctuary for Dall sheep, the smaller white bodied versions of the Rocky Mountain Bighorn sheep. Many influential sporting groups, the kind involved in hunting, had promoted its establishment as a mechanism to keep trophy hunters at bay – to provide a sanctuary where Dall sheep could seek refuge to avoid extirpation.

That sanctuary became a National Park. And through its creation, the property took on added objectives in addition to saving Dall sheep from hunters’ gun sights. And thus did evolve a controversy because wolves lived in the park, and wolves – as everyone knew in those days – were wanton destroyers of game. It so happened that an especially tough winter fell upon Alaska shortly after, and Dall sheep numbers plummeted. Enter politics and a struggle for dominance of a predator policy in DenaliNational Park that lasted at least 50 years.

This is a thoroughly researched work, with period photographs and it provides a well-balanced perspective into the predator management controversies with the Park Service. For those with an interest in how all modern-day wolf-work got its start- this is your book!