Olaus Murie1889 - 1963
Conservationist, painter, writer
Born: March 1, 1889, Moorhead, Minnesota
Died: October 21, 1963, Jackson Hole, Wyoming
Born in 1889, in the small community of Moorhead, Minnesota, to Norwegian immigrant parents, Olaus Murie grew up along the Red River in an area of unspoiled prairie land. His earliest environment sparked his lifelong interest in preserving nature, and he went on to study zoology and wildlife biology under the zoologist A.M. Bean at Fargo College in North Dakota and Pacific University in Oregon, graduating from the latter institution in 1912. Throughout his childhood and youth, Murie also spent a significant amount of time drawing, inspired by the work of Ernest Thompson Seton, and although he never undertook any formal training in art, Murie had natural talent for illustration.
Following his time at school, Murie took a job as a conservation officer for the State of Oregon, and soon also published his first article, a piece for a 1913 issue of The Condor Magazine. He went on to spend three months of 1914 on an expedition around Hudson Bay, and worked as the Carnegie Museum's assistant curator of mammals, which sent him to do research in Labrador in 1916. Around 1920, Murie was offered a position with the United States Biological Survey (later the United States Fish and Wildlife Service) under the auspices of which he traveled to Alaska to undertake six years studying caribou. While in Alaska, Murie met Margaret Elizabeth "Mardy" Thomas, an equally passionate conservationist and gifted writer. The two married in 1924, and would go on to spend a significant amount of time working together. In fact, Murie often made his research work into a family affair, as his younger brother Adolph Murie was also a conservationist and close friend; the two brothers studied together in Alaska and both received advanced degrees from the University of Michigan. When the elder Murie and his wife moved to Jackson Hole in 1927 to study the problems with the Yellowstone elk herds, Adolph would eventually relocate his family there, too.
Murie never sought recognition for his artistic talent, as he viewed painting as only an indispensable tool for research. After all, Murie was, first and foremost, a wildlife and nature conservationist with a background in biology. In the tradition of natural history illustration, Murie's paintings were executed in the service of nature, to record visual information about wildlife habitats and natural places. Instead of photographing creatures he met in the field, Murie executed watercolor sketches en plein air in the manner of his predecessors and most of his contemporaries. Of course, his skill in illustration placed him in a class above the rest.
Around 1927, Murie sought advice about his illustrations from famous bird-painter Louis Agassiz Fuertes. Fuertes replied simply, "Just keep doing what you're doing!" and Murie delighted at the encouragement. After this time, and for the rest of his life, Murie enthusiastically published his animals in books and articles; Alaskan Bird Sketches, A Naturalist's Portfolio of Field Sketches, Elk of North America, and Field Guide to Animal Tracks from the Peterson Field Guide series are just a few of Murie's published works.
In 1945, Murie broke away from the Biological Survey to accept the directorship of the Wilderness Society, of which he'd been a member since just after the group's inception in 1937. In this position, he became a powerful ally of the American National Parks and helped begin the effort to create the nine-million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.
Murie passed away in autumn of 1963, but his wife carried on his legacy, writing and speaking about conservation issues, until her own death in 2003. The Muries' former home in Moose, Wyoming is now a not-for-profit organization dedicated to educating and allowing the public to experience some of the environment that inspired their creative endeavors.