Remembering Alaska’s “Moose Man”
I got the hard news in a group email last September—biologist Vic Van Ballenberghe was gone. I could practically feel the collective sigh as the news radiated outward across Alaska, the Lower 48, and worldwide to scientists, conservationists, writers, filmmakers, and others who had known him, or his work. His passing hadn’t come as a surprise; at age 78, he’d been struggling with Parkinson’s for years. But letting go of Vic and imagining Alaska without him would take a while.
Though they should, most Alaskans probably wouldn’t recognize his name. A short version of Vic’s bona fides goes like this: he was regarded as a (some would argue the) premier moose biologist, especially noted for his keen observational skills and uncounted thousands of hours of boots-on-the-ground field research stretching over a 50-year career. He published scores of peer-reviewed scientific papers, editorials, and articles, plus a fine, well-regarded book, In The Company of Moose, and garnered a pocketful of awards. But most important of all, Vic Van Ballenberghe was an outspoken champion of ethical, science-based wildlife management and conservation in Alaska, appointed by two governors to the state Board of Game (BOG), where he strove to shape regulations and policies according to the facts—a straightforward-seeming task that would prove anything but.
I can’t claim to have known Vic as a close friend, or even very well; we lived hundreds of miles apart and over the years met face to face fewer than a dozen times whenever our courses overlapped. But over decades, I’ve lost track of the times I asked him for an opinion; or to look over something I’d written, or otherwise drew on his encyclopedic knowledge. He was unfailingly generous with his time and unerring in his guidance.
Vic was raised on a dairy farm in upstate New York, where he learned to love the natural world and honed his outdoor skills. Harnessing his backwoods farm boy strength, he set a shot-put record at his high school that still stands six decades later. Following his intense interest in animal behavior, he ended up in graduate school at the University of Minnesota, where he wrote his master’s thesis on moose ecology—the complex interrelationship of moose with their North Woods environment. In his fieldwork in the late 1960s, Vic was the first person to ever place a functioning radio collar on a moose. Less known is the subject of his doctoral dissertation: the ecology of wolves in the same area. Logical enough, considering that the evolution and lives of the largest members of the deer family are inextricably tied to the apex predator that evolved alongside them, each shaping the other over millennia. Simply put, impossible to understand one without studying the other. Vic probably had no idea that his choice of subjects would plunge him into the heart of wildlife management politics.
No surprise that Vic would end up in Alaska, a land defined by moose, wolves, and wilderness. In fact, the subspecies of moose that roams the Great Land and the bordering Canadian Yukon is the largest on the planet, exceptional bulls topping out just short of a ton, seven feet at the shoulder with multi-tined antlers spreading more than six feet. In 1974, he was hired by the ADF&G. His first assignment was to study the impact of the just-completed Alaska pipeline haul road on the moose population. In the process, he fitted radio tracking collars on more than 200 moose as well as many wolves in an overlapping, privately funded project. Vic’s moose study was abruptly curtailed, a move that was later officially ruled by the state ombudsman to have been retaliatory and illegal after Vic spoke out against the state’s upcoming plans to kill wolves in the study area in reaction to an upswing in moose predation. Vic’s examination of kills and other evidence indicated grizzlies, not wolves, were responsible for the moose decline in the area, and he broke ranks with ADF&G leadership—an institutional taboo. As always, he wouldn’t back down from the facts, regardless of consequence.
Vic moved on, accepting a position as a research biologist for the U.S. Forest Service, studying moose and wolves in the Copper River Delta and in Denali National Park: population dynamics, movements, feeding habits, and mating behaviors, their interactions with each other and other species. Often working on his own in Denali, turned loose to design and implement his own studies, Vic thrived. Fitting dozens of moose with radio collars, he tracked them in all seasons from the park road, from the air, and increasingly on foot, where he could observe the minutiae of moose behavior—for example, how many bites a moose takes in a day, and of which specific plants. Following the footsteps of pioneering elk researcher Olaus Murie and chimpanzee behaviorist Jane Goodall, he came to know individual animals and their habitat intimately through years of intense, up-close observation—a classic, detail-oriented naturalistic approach that contrasted with trends toward studies driven by computer modeling, satellite tracking, and genetic analysis.
A steady flow of researchers, photographers, nature writers, and filmmakers tagged along, including Sir David Attenborough and National Geographic crews, and many noted Vic’s intense concentration and powers of observation. His study of Denali’s moose, spanning more than three decades, remains one of the longest continuous studies of a single wildlife population.
Vic’s knowledge and accomplishments made him a natural choice for Alaska’s State Board of Game. He was first appointed in 1985 and served two subsequent partial terms. Comprised of governor-appointed Alaskans, the BOG is tasked with creating wildlife management policies and hunting/trapping regulations for the state’s 26 game management units (GMUs), totaling a mind-boggling 666,400 square miles. Informed by law, scientific input, private citizens, and powerful special interests ranging from sport hunting and trapping groups to conservation and Alaska Native organizations, the BOG and its regular meetings have long been a crucible—sometimes simmering, sometimes at full, molten boil—for opposing viewpoints. And frequently at the center of that bubbling pot was the subject of predator control: the longstanding practice of killing wolves (and to a lesser degree, bears) in specific GMUs to increase numbers of prey animals available to human hunters. It was enough of a hot-button issue in Vic’s time to inspire three ballot initiatives, legislative action, and gubernatorial interventions as the debate over killing or not killing wolves, and how and by whom, raged, a full-blown Alaskan culture war.
The pressure to go along with the state’s push to continue the practice, backed by the immensely powerful sport guiding and hunting lobby, was huge. Filmmaker and wildlife advocate Joel Bennett, who served on the BOG alongside Vic, explains, “Due to the potential for repercussion, the roster of credentialed biologists willing to call it as they saw it was small. Vic was one of the few.” Clearly, calmly, and repeatedly, Vic reminded everyone of what science had to say on the matter: predator control offers only limited, temporary increases of prey populations, and decreasing wolf numbers without study can destabilize an ecosystem. He pointed to research findings and undeniable statistics that anyone could understand; for example, following periods of aggressive, intensive wolf control—most of it done by shooting wolves from small aircraft—Alaskan moose harvest numbers didn’t notably increase, despite there being more hunters than ever.
Though he and others pushed back in the name of sound science and ethical wildlife management, predator control continues to this day, though largely uncontested; there’s no one like Vic on the BOG. No one has taken over his research position at Denali National Park, either, and I suppose that’s fitting. After all, there will be no replacing Vic Van Ballenberghe. But his spirit remains—as always, in the company of moose.
Vic’s book on moose ecology and his experiences, In The Company of Moose, is available from your favorite bookseller.