Call of the Wild

Eighty years ago, a biologist named George Melendez Wright reminded us that wolves, bison, and grizzlies came before people. And because of him, they still do.


By Mike Thomas


“Last summer for the first time two grizzly cubs became tame and were fed by hand around Old Faithful,” wildlife biologist George Melendez Wright wrote in mid-May of 1932. “This will not do and must be stopped before it is well started or the bear problem will be worse than ever.”

Year after year, bears—black and grizzly—were treated like pets and circus attractions in America’s national parks. They ate from the hands of camera-toting tourists, snared fish from artificially stocked streams, and were allowed to rummage through trash dumps while spectators gawked. “It takes time to teach the visitors to our national parks that they are the ones who are short-sighted in feeding candy to a bear,” Wright went on. “After all, the average citizen expects more intelligence from a bear than he, as an educated person, has any right to expect. He goes on the assumption that if he feeds a bear two sticks of candy and does not want to give it a third, he is the one to say, ‘No, no.’ And he believes that the bear is to be accused of an unforgivable breach of etiquette and lack of appreciation… if it takes all the candy out of his hand and takes the hand with it, perhaps.”

Besides the bear-coddling, elk, deer, and bison were provided winter forage in some na-tional parks, and the animals that preyed upon them—including wolves and cougars—were routinely shot to preserve grazing herds for the sightseeing masses. Wright, though, knew it was wrong. The feeding, the shooting—all of it. The parks, he emphasized throughout his decade-long career with the Park Service, should be allowed to exist “unimpaired.” For “the unique charm of the animals in a national park lies in their wildness, not their tameness,” he believed, “in their primitive struggle to survive rather than the fat certainty of an easy living.”

The well-born son of a prosperous American sea captain father and a politically connected El Salvadoran mother, both of whom had died by the time he turned eight, Wright was taken early on with things natural and, in particular, ornithological. As a young boy living with his adoptive aunt, Cordelia Ward Wright (whom he called “Auntie”), in San Francisco, he was transfixed by all manner of bird species that visited his backyard on Laguna Street and soared overhead and nested in surrounding wilderness. Song sparrows and green-backed goldfinches, yellow warblers and red-breasted nuthatches. “He was given a lot of free rein to cruise around and explore parts of San Francisco that were still fairly wild back then,” says Wright’s daughter, Pamela Wright Lloyd, a respected environmentalist in the Bay area.

As a boy scout, Wright taught natural history at summer camp. As a senior at Lowell High School, he helmed the Audubon Club. And so his love of the natural world expanded. In college at the University of California, Berkeley, Wright studied with famed wildlife biologist Joseph Grinnell, who was then director of the university’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology. Even summer breaks were spent exploring and learning, with treks into the West Coast backcountry and a stint as a natural history instructor with the Sierra Club. When he graduated in 1925, Wright became Grinnell’s field assistant at Mt. McKinley National Park (later renamed Denali); his Park Service employment began with a two-year assignment at Yosemite in 1927. He was one of the first Latinos ever employed by the Park Service.

AHEAD OF HIS TIME

Considering the generally unenlightened conservation mindset of the day, which valued showmanship over science, Wright was a bright light in the darkness. “He had an ecological world view at a time when the science of ecology was just getting off the ground in the 1920s in the United States,” says David Harmon, executive director of the George Wright Society. “What he was learning in the field in places like Mt. McKinley and the big Western parks of Yosemite and Yellowstone, he was trying to get the Park Service to apply on a system-wide basis. He was the kind of person who could look at a very broad picture and see things the way they ought to be rather than the way they were.”

Handsome and dark-haired, the highly personable Wright had a great presence that eclipsed his small stature (five feet, four inches). “He was not one of those overbearing guys with a Napoleon syndrome,” Harmon says, “but he usually got what he wanted.” That doggedness was matched by his devotion to rock-solid ideals and the work at hand. “His observations were intense, but always [made] with pleasure,” Ben Thompson, Wright’s research partner and close friend, recalled in 1987. “At night, he was very self-disciplined about writing his notes. When you’re by a campfire, and maybe you’re tired, and it’s cold and damp, it takes self-discipline to make yourself write those notes. He was very conscientious about that.”

Despite his seriousness of purpose, the crusading biologist’s sense of humor was a constant in work and play. Just before his Park Service employment, when he was toiling at Yellowstone in the mid-1920s, he recorded more than scientific observations in a journal. “While cooking supper in the dark I made the grave mistake of warming the peas in a pot containing our dish rag and washing soap. We could not make a go of the soapy peas—quite impossible to keep them on the knife.”

“He was serious and committed, but he enjoyed life,” says Pamela Wright Lloyd. “You can almost see it in the pictures of [him] smiling.”

Almost a year after his beloved Auntie died, in 1929, Wright gained approval from the newly installed Park Service director, Horace M. Albright, to establish a wildlife survey office and a wildlife biology division. The chief goal: to collect a wealth of scientific data about park lands and the flora and fauna that called them home. It helped immensely that the well-off but not wealthy Wright offered to absorb all costs. (He had inherited a significant sum of money when his mother and father died, though it is unclear how much.) In addition to covering research materials and the wages of his colleagues, fellow Berkeley grads Ben Thompson and Joseph Dixon, Wright’s largesse paid for a customized Buick Roadster. The vehicle had a truck bed in back for camping gear and a watertight compartment for camera equipment, books, and other weather-sensitive essentials. Wright funded his own work for two years, after which the Park Service began covering some, and then all, of his expenses.

Although Wright’s efforts were championed by director Albright, Harmon doubts the survey work would have been green-lighted if not for Wright’s willingness to provide start-up capital. Writer and documentary filmmaker Dayton Duncan, who collaborated with Ken Burns on the recent PBS documentary The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, agrees. “Other people had been suggesting this kind of [survey] off and on,” Duncan says. “It wasn’t a totally new idea that scientists ought to study what’s going on with wildlife and plant life in the national parks. But it wasn’t a very big priority for the Park Service at the time. [Wright] brought two very important, essential ingredients to the proposal. One was his enthusiasm; the second was his wealth.”

While roaming the West, Southwest, and along the California coast near his home in Berkeley, Wright also met and married Bernice Ray (a.k.a. “Bee”). From 1931 to 1933, she often accompanied him on outings—to the riverbanks of Yellowstone, the valleys of Yosemite, and elsewhere—before settling into motherhood with one daughter and then another. Shortly after they wed, Wright penned this journal passage in Carlsbad, New Mexico: “I fight strongly against the natural inclination to interpret the actions of other animal species in terms of human emotions. But I could not watch the two mated pairs of Mearns Quail… for very long without being convinced that here were the perfect lovers. They were constantly together.”

During protracted stints in the outdoors and long days hiking up to 20 miles in the field, Wright and his cohorts observed an array of park species and learned how wildlife was adversely affected by Park Service practices. Although in many cases it must have been difficult to stand idly by, they never intervened. Wright also met with many people who lived on and made use of park lands, including Native Americans, ranchers, and hunters. The first-hand accounts were crucial in deepening his understanding of how humans and animals interacted. In one especially evocative photograph, taken the summer before his Roadster tour began, Wright is shown conversing with Maria Lebrado (a.k.a. Totuya). Said to be the last Indian to live in Yosemite before Europeans arrived, she is gesturing, perhaps explaining or elaborating on something. Wright, meanwhile, is still and focused. His one hand curled over the other, he is looking her square in the eyes, rapt. Her words, like those of all the other people he encountered, carried considerable weight.

Not long after his illuminating wanderings, in May of 1932, some of Wright’s notes and raw data from three seasons in the field were published in the first of two detailed overviews dubbed Fauna of the National Parks of the United States:
A Preliminary Survey of Faunal Relations in National Parks. Volume two was published in 1935.

 “The park faunas face immediate danger of losing their original character and composition unless the tide can be turned,” Wright remarked in the first volume. “The vital significance of wildlife to the whole national park idea emphasizes the necessity for prompt action. The logical course is a program of complete investigation, to be followed by appropriate administrative action.”

LEAVING A LEGACY

Having proved his mettle in the field, Wright rose rapidly within Park Service ranks. Some believe he was on track to become director. Indeed, in 1935, Wright and his young family moved to Washington, D.C., where he was farther from the wilds but closer to policy-making power brokers. He would not become one of them. The following February, Wright was returning home after several days of field exploration with Mexican park officials at what would become Big Bend National Park when his vehicle was struck head-on by another car that had blown a tire. His fellow passenger, Yellowstone Superintendent Roger Toll, was killed instantly, as was the driver of the other car. Wright died in the hospital; he was 31.

With his passing, the Park Service reverted to its old ways—to valuing style over substance, scenery over science. Perhaps most tellingly, the staff of 27 that Wright had supervised was reduced to nine and eventually dwindled to six. His “charisma,” Harmon says, “was probably also the glue that held the whole program together. He had some very able guys who were working with him, but they were really scientists and not charismatic leaders. And so once he was gone, without that kind of figure in the Park Service, there just wasn’t enough traction with the wildlife program and the science program—they needed a champion within the agency, somebody whose personality was as big as Albright’s, to get in the same room with him and argue for the continuance of the science program. And there just wasn’t anybody like that.”

The first volume of Fauna of the National Parks remained an inspirational guide for the handful of biologists who stayed, but a quarter-century passed before Wright’s pioneering views were again reflected in the parks’ ecological practices.

An influential 1963 report, titled Wildlife Management in the National Parks, was spearheaded by conservationist A. Starker Leopold (oldest son of Aldo Leopold) and submitted to Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall. Its Wrightian overtones were clear and numerous. Management of the parks, it argued, should be science-based. And this: “A reasonable illusion of primitive America could be recreated, using the utmost in skill, judgment, and ecologic sensitivity. This, in our opinion, should be the objective of every na-tional park and monument.” Wright’s viewpoints also were reflected in the work of Robert M. Linn, former Park Service chief scientist, who would later found the George Wright Society. During his tenure in the ’60s and ’70s, he pushed for scientific management of the parks. Moreover, starting in the late ’60s, he brought aboard a team of young researchers to bolster his efforts. And in 1970, after years of providing all-hours noshing for bears, Yellowstone’s garbage dumps were shut down for good.

Not quite four decades after Wright’s philosophy crept back into vogue, on the 20th anniversary of the George Wright Society, in the year 2000, Harmon summarized Wright’s sweeping impact in a celebratory essay. “Wright not only set in [motion] the entire scientific and natural resource management program of the National Park Service,” Harmon wrote, “he shone a beacon in the direction park management must go if it is to be up to the task of truly preserving the parks ‘unimpaired’ for the future.”

Duncan regards Wright as a heroic figure on par with civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Just as King’s teachings broadened our understanding of the words “all men are created equal,” he says, Wright did something “equal to that” with the national parks notion by reminding us “what the national parks are supposed to be and what they’re supposed to protect.”

As Wright himself once put it, “Our national heritage is richer than just scenic features. The realization is coming that perhaps our greatest national heritage is nature itself, with all its complexity and its abundance of life, which, when combined with great scenic beauty as it is in the national parks, becomes of unlimited value.”  

Mike Thomas is a staff writer for the Chicago Sun-Times. His last piece for National Parks detailed the history of San Antonio's missions.

This article appears in the Spring 2010 issue.

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