MOORHEAD — Olaus Murie spent his boyhood paddling the Red River in a canoe and camping in the woods along the riverbanks in an area he regarded as a patch of wilderness.
He was especially eager to explore the wooded river around Moorhead in the spring, after a long Minnesota winter. In one outing with two friends they heard a weird cry piercing the nighttime calm — the bark of a red fox, who they saw silhouetted on a haystack.
The outdoors experiences proved to be formative for Murie and his younger brother, Adolph.
“The cup was full in that boyhood wilderness,” Olaus wrote years later of his youthful adventures along the Red River.
Both brothers became leading wildlife biologists and significant figures in the conservation and wilderness preservation movement in the United States from the 1920s through the 1960s.
Each did groundbreaking research in the relationships between predator and prey species, and Olaus, who was born in Moorhead in 1889 to Norwegian immigrants, eventually became president of The Wilderness Society.
“They became voices for wilderness,” said Mark Harvey, a professor of history at North Dakota State University who studies the American conservation movement. “These guys became quite well known in their day.”
Harvey will give an online talk hosted by the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County, “Moorhead’s Wild Murie Brothers,” at 7 p.m. on Thursday, April 22, via Zoom and Facebook Live.
There was a third Murie brother, Martin, who died at the age of 30. Before his untimely death, Martin had planned to work as Olaus’ assistant studying caribou in Alaska. Martin was a popular Boy Scout leader in Moorhead, said Gretchen Harvey, Mark’s wife and a retired history professor at Concordia College.
All of the Murie brothers graduated from college despite the family’s meager financial circumstances, an accomplishment she attributes to the strength of their mother, Marie, who was widowed early in life but valued education.
The brothers’ early outdoors experiences while growing up in Moorhead helped mold them to become influential naturalists and conservationists later in life, the Harveys said.
“That all began here, in Moorhead,” Gretchen Harvey said. The brothers grew up with an appreciation of outdoor experiences that was common in Nordic cultures, a view summarized as “fresh air life” or “open air life,” terms Olaus used in letters to his friends, she said.
Olaus, who is regarded as the “father of modern elk management,” did extensive field research involving mammals in Canada, Alaska and Wyoming.
Adolph, who was 10 years younger than Olaus and graduated from Concordia College, concentrated his research on predator and prey species, including bears, wolves and coyotes. During his early field work, Adolph learned important wilderness survival skills from Inuits and American Indians. He is credited with being the first biologist to study wolves in their natural habitat.
Although both wrote academic research articles, Olaus also wrote for popular magazines.
“Olaus sort of had a bigger reach with his writing,” and also was an artist who illustrated some of his writings, Harvey said.
Early in their careers, both brothers did research for the U.S. Biological Survey, the precursor to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Both did early work demonstrating that predators can have beneficial effects on populations of prey species.
“They go after the old and the weak,” Harvey said, referring to wolf predation in thinning elk herds. That foundational work had important implications for wildlife conservation, which also involved setting aside large tracts of wilderness.
“There was an enormous effort to get rid of predatory mammals in those days,” Harvey said.
Olaus bought an old ranch near Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where he later was joined by Adolph. The ranch was listed in 1990 on the National Register of Historic Places. Olaus' wife, Mardy, also was a renowned wilderness preservation advocate.
Although influential and remembered — the brothers have science centers named after them in Alaska and Wyoming — the Muries never became as famous as some towering figures in American conservation, including John Muir and David Brower.
“No one has ever written a book about them,” Harvey said. “I think for that reason they are less known.”
Years after leaving Moorhead, Olaus returned to the secluded area along the Red River where he had written about his boyhood experience in “the wilderness.” When he was a boy, the area had been four miles south of town and had escaped livestock grazing and wood cutting.
Today the area includes the Lemke Park Hiking Trail and nearby 24-acre Lemke Conservancy Park Conservation Area in south Fargo, Harvey said. The trail and conservation area likely would have pleased Olaus, although he was disappointed to see that civilization was encroaching on the area.
In seeking to preserve large tracts of wilderness, “Are we neglecting the possibilities nearer home, that bit of wildwood that may still be harboring a tiny part of wilderness America, that may be in its very neglect the greatest treasure for youth, and for youthful grown-ups?” he wrote in a publication called “The Living Wilderness” in 1942.
If you go:
What: Online talk, “Moorhead’s Wild Murie Brothers” by environmental historian Mark Harvey, hosted by the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County
When: 7 p.m. Thursday, April 22. Short question-and-answer session following the talk.
Register online: https://www.hcscconline.org/events.html