Bear Wrangler: Memoirs of an Alaska Pioneer Biologist
by Will Troyer
University of Alaska Press 2008
Back in the day, wildlife biologist was more wildlife rules enforcement than research or resource management. With few actual biologist positions open, if you wanted to work with Alaskan wildlife before statehood, you went to the Department of Fish and Wildlife and became a “fish cop and game warden.”
That meant camping out at streams during the summer, making sure no one took more than they were supposed to, or started earlier than they were supposed to, or broke any other rule.
Will Troyer started his decades-long wildlife biologist career in the summer of 1948, working for the US Fish and Wildlife Services in a seasonal position with the commercial fishery research branch.
“I was a wildlife management major and not looking for a job in fisheries, but working in Alaska caught my attention,” Troyer writes in the first chapter of his book, “Bear Wrangler: Memoirs of an Alaska Pioneer Biologist.”
He spent that first summer clipping the adipose from pink salmon fry so they could be counted as adults to determine survival success and migration patterns. It was a boring task, and getting to and from Prince Wales Island on the 36-foot Sablefish caused Troyer no end of discomfort from seasickness, but the surroundings were worth it. Troyer spent his evenings and days off roaming beaches and forests and observing wildlife. For a farm boy from Indiana, it was captivating – wild, remote, isolated:
“Where I had grown up in Indiana, the countryside was dominated by developed agricultural lands, people, and cities,” he writes. “As I experienced these wild lands I had so often read about in my youth, I realized that I felt at home.”
Although the summer passed too quickly and Troyer had to go back to college, he was already planning to return. He graduated from Oregon State College in 1952 with a B.S. in wildlife management. And there he ran into his first hurdle. Alaska in pre-statehood days had few wildlife management jobs. The territory’s wildlife resources were under the control of the USFWS, whose emphasis was enforcement and predator control.
Troyer found there were 25 wildlife enforcement positions available, and only eight management positions. So, if he wanted to stay in Alaska, he’d have to take the job that was offered. He was hired as the summer field assistant to Bob Bain, game warden for the Kenai Peninsula (winter) and in charge of commercial fishery enforcement at Sand Point (summer). Troyer’s first enforcement job covered
1,350 miles from Chignik Bay to the end of the Aleutians. Patrolling in boats and planes, the intrepid wardens tried valiantly to enforce the laws. But limited capabilities, inclement weather, and a wily population of fishermen who knew the limitations of the wardens made enforcement difficult.
Although Troyer excelled as an enforcement agent, his heart was in management, and he planned to get an advanced degree, hoping that would get him closer to his goal. He’d already arranged a fellowship when fate stepped in. The refuge manager in Kodiak was retiring, and Troyer was offered the job. In addition, he was dating a young woman he really liked, and leaving her was going to be difficult. This was an opportunity he couldn’t turn down, so he didn’t.
“Man! Things were moving awfully fast. I now had the job of my dreams and it appeared, also the girl of my dreams!”
Troyer spent 30 years working with wildlife in Kodiak, Katmai, and other areas of Alaska, from the Arctic Coast to the Aleutians. He pioneered numerous grizzly bear research methods, primitive by today’s standards, but well ahead of the curve at the time. He had countless adventures with every specie of Alaskan wildlife, including some bear stories that will make your hair stand on end.
Troyer is a natural storyteller, giving his tales depth and color that draw the reader into the adventure with him. Whether it’s standing in the middle of a caribou migration or sliding down a snowy hill after trying to get a Dall sheep, we’re there with him, seeing what he sees, feeling the wonder and awe of being in a truly marvelous landscape. His love for all creatures comes through, and his joy at experiencing every Alaskan adventure possible is contagious.
He brings in numerous details of his work, and carefully describes his research and methods, including some of the unorthodox ways he trapped and tagged grizzlies. He’s not at all embarrassed to talk about the methods that failed, or recount his missteps and sometimes really dumb moves when exploring the Alaskan wilderness. His tone is one of, “See, I did this stupid thing, and if you listen, you won’t.” He has the ability to laugh at himself and the world around him, and this makes him appealing as a writer.
In the end, the politics of the wildlife industry got to him, and as he moved up in the ranks, he found himself doing more paperwork and less of the fieldwork he loved. So eventually, he moved out of the FWS and into the National Park Service, which put him back in the field. He stayed there until his retirement in 1981.
And he did marry the girl of his dreams; they raised their kids as Alaskans, and now enjoy the slow life on the Copper River.