John Craighead liked to quote fellow legendary conservationist Aldo Leopold, who once said “we should think like a mountain.”
The philosophy of following nature’s cues and looking “at the fundamentals of things” guided Craighead’s pioneering work in American conservation, its wild rivers and seminal studies of grizzly bears.
“I have listened to the voice of the mountain for most of my life,” said Craighead upon receiving The Wildlife Society’s Aldo Leopold Memorial Award in 1998.
The mountains still talk, but they lost one of their most avid listeners Sunday morning when John Craighead died in his sleep at his home of more than 60 years in southwest Missoula.
Craighead turned 100 on Aug. 14 and had been ailing for years, though his children said it wasn’t until last year that he was unable to frequent the tepee in his yard in all seasons.
“It was unexpected, but expected,” said son Johnny, who lives next door to and has been the primary caregiver for his father and mother Margaret, 96.
“When he went to sleep Saturday night we didn’t expect it to happen, but we expected it to happen sometime soon,” the younger Craighead said. “He was going, and we’ve been grieving, for a long time.”
No formal services will be held. The family plans to spread his ashes in the Jackson Hole, Wyoming, area, where Craighead and his twin brother Frank settled when they first came West as young naturalists and husbands, building look-alike cabins near Moose. Johnny Craighead’s older siblings, Karen Haynam and Derek Craighead, still live in the area.
The breadth of Craighead’s experience and expertise in the natural world – with Frank and apart from him – is legendary. In 1998, the same year John received the Aldo Leopold Award, the twins were named among America’s top scientists of the 20th century by the Audubon Society.
“I don’t think his impact on the wildlife profession can be overestimated,” said Dan Pletscher, who retired in 2013 as director of the University of Montana’s wildlife biology program that Craighead helped establish as one of the best in the nation.
The Craighead brothers were born in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 14, 1916. Intrigued by falconry and birds, they attended Penn State University and, at age 20, published their first of many articles for National Geographic Society titled “Adventures with Birds of Prey.”