Margaret Murie captured George Schaller’s enthusiasm for field biology with a few lines in her book, “Two in the Far North.”
“And there came George, the tall warm-blooded one, running out onto the ice, with his red-plaid flannel shirt sleeves rolled to the elbow,” Murie recalled, describing the moments after landing in a small aircraft on lake ice near the Sheenjek River in spring 1956. “George’s first words were: ‘Brina! Two ptarmigan nests with seven eggs already!’ That exclamation set the tone of our first weeks in the Sheenjek.”
Schaller, who had graduated from the University of Alaska the prior year, went on to become one of the world’s leading conservation biologists.
The “Brina” who Schaller excitedly greeted was Brina Kessel, a UA biology professor who accompanied Margaret Murie and her husband, Olaus, on the plane.
Olaus Murie was then the president of The Wilderness Society, a relatively new national organization advocating for the complete preservation of large portions of the nation’s remaining wild places.
The Sheenjek expedition, and the accompanying publicity, helped drive the creation of what would become the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Today, the refuge, one of the largest in the world, covers most of the northeast corner of Alaska.
After graduating from UA with degrees in vertebrate zoology and anthropology, Schaller worked at various institutions until joining the Wildlife Conservation Society in 1979. He remains a senior conservationist with the organization.
He has focused on the study and protection of highly endangered animals, including several species of wild cats around the world. He has written 16 books.
In 2006, on the 50th anniversary of the Murie expedition and in the midst of a heightened congressional debate about oil drilling in the refuge, Schaller returned to the Sheenjek to survey changes during the intervening decades and advocate for the refuge’s continued preservation.
More online about George Schaller:
- A report by National Public Radio’s Elizabeth Arnold, a former Alaska public radio reporter, about his return to the Sheenjek River valley in 2006
- A recent interview in Smithsonian magazine
- A biographical sketch from Panthera, an organization dedicated to the conservation of wild cat species, where he is vice president emeritus