Legendary Biologist John Craighead Celebrates 100th Birthday

Aug 17, 2016

Legendary Missoula wildlife biologist John Craighead turned 100 years old this Sunday.

His kids are home for a week. For a lot of children, vacations are a rare treat; exciting household pets include goldfish, and tree climbing isn’t a survival skill.

By those terms, growing up in the Craighead family was anything but normal.

"We were in Yellowstone with our father studying grizzly bears, when we all realized that the bear was coming very close to us and we had to climb up a tree or something. And I grew up having golden eagles as pets, and took them out after school and released them and flew them in the art of falconry."

Derek Craighead, 67, is the middle of three children who grew up following in the footsteps of his parents, Margaret and John Craighead. Karen, 69, is the oldest of the three siblings. John Jr., 62, is the youngest.

Derek said that this birthday was for family and friends to bear witness to an incredible man.

"August 14th was my father’s 100th birthday, or as we say, 100th trip around the sun. A number of the close family members wanted to come up to his home here in Missoula and kind of bear witness to his longevity and many journeys around the sun."

John Craighead and his brother Frank forever changed the field of wildlife conservation. They were a different breed of scientist, with their preferred laboratory always in the wilderness of Montana and Wyoming. Born in Washington D.C., the twins moved out west to pursue ecology, wildlife conservation, and academia. The impact of their research and mentorship can be seen in many ways.

"My father and his twin brother Frank worked with graduate students throughout their life. You know, take them out and involving them with the research and conservation efforts that they were doing. And were real mentors to a whole group of young college kids that later became influential biologists and conservationists."

It is nearly impossible to summarize the legacy of John and Frank, whose collective resume is exhaustive. For Derek, there are many highlights.

"Of course some policies, like the Wild and Scenic River, the management of grizzly bears... Oh, they did a lot more than just bear research. They developed a survival training program during World War II for the Naval pilots."

Other lessons don’t have anything to do with policy or publications. Derek also told me about a unique perspective woven throughout his childhood.

"The other side of that coin is growing up in a family you learned to have an insatiable curiosity about how all things were interconnected. That everything was somehow related to everything else in the environment. And it was important to be able to look at the big picture, not just individual things."