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Backpacker Magazine – Online Exclusive

The Alaska Wolf Debate: Q&A with Tracy Ross

Author Tracy Ross discusses her feature story "Dogs of War" devoted to the debate raging in Alaska over the famed Toklat wolf pack.

by: Anthony Cerretani

Tracy Ross
Photo by Tracy Ross
Tracy Ross

For the January 2009 feature story "Dogs of War" senior editor Tracy Ross tackled one of the most controversial battles raging in the wilds of Alaska: the future of the famed Denali National Park Tolkat wolf pack. Anthony Cerretani spoke to Ross about the challenges of reporting from both sides of the fence, what it was like spending time with wolf advocate Gordon Haber, and hunter Coke Wallace, and how she dealt with seeing the skinning of a wolf in Alaska.

The Tolkat pack has been around for hundreds of years. Why was it time for this story?


A 91-square-mile protective buffer—put in place years ago along the northeast boundary of the park to stop trappers from lining their snares and traps on the very edge of Denali—is up for debate in 2010.

Already, trappers and environmentalists are gearing up for the fight.

If the Alaska Board of Game decides to roll the buffer back, the wolves—which have been studied for 70 years and are extremely visible to park visitors—could run the risk of being wiped out.

And you were right in the crossfire with Gordon Haber and Coke Wallace. How did that happen?
I worked as a backcountry ranger in Denali in '97 and '98, and saw the Toklat wolves -- and Gordon Haber -- way back then. Both intrigued me to no end; the wolves because they were so cool and wild-seeming and Haber because he had a reputation of being really intense.

My ranger friends and I would see Haber stopped along the side of the park road waving this mysterious antenna around, listening to something we couldn't hear. Eccentric people fascinate me, and his face and name stuck with me until I finally met him.

Then, in 2005, I was reporting another story in Denali and ran into Haber in Fairbanks. The three key Toklat wolves had just been killed and he was visibly distraught. I remember thinking, "this could be the biggest story of my life."

And Wallace?
I didn't know about him until Gordon told me that he was responsible for killing the Toklat alpha female in 2005.

Then I became very interested, not just because he'd trapped the wolf, but because I saw in him a way to learn about trapping and trappers—what motivates them, how they do the actual trapping, how they feel about trapping the seemingly important Denali wolves.

What did it take for you to get in contact with them and eventually follow them both into the field?

With Coke, it took very little convincing. He’s a neighbor of a family I know from my ranger days, and he was very interested in getting his side of the story told. I wouldn't say he jumped at the chance when I told him I wanted to come shadow him in the field, but he certainly wasn't reluctant.

It took a bit more to convince Gordon to let me go out into the field with him. He's a scientist, for one thing, and looks at things very analytically. He couldn't understand why I wanted to write about HIM instead of, or in addition to, the wolves. And he was not at all happy when I mentioned that I was talking to Coke too.

Let’s talk about the different sides of the argument here. What’s Wallace’s take on the wolf pack?

To Coke, the Denali wolves are no different than any other wolves. Like many of the trappers in the area, he thinks they shouldn't be afforded any special protection because, he says, there's no way to tell if they're the same genetic strain of wolves as the ones famed biologist Adolph Murie began studying in 1939 and Haber later took over studying. Once they leave the park boundary, says Coke, they should be considered, literally, fair game.

What about Haber. How is his view so radically different?

Haber believes that these wolves are descended from the same ones Murie studied.

He believes they have inherited very special, specific traits, such as how to hunt sheep on high rocky ledges using incredible non-instinctive tactics, and that these traits have been passed down through a long line of specific wolves. This view is very controversial within the scientific community. But at the same time, Gordon has been watching these wolves more than any other living person. He knows them pretty intimately.

Do they ever encounter each other? Do they hate each other?

They rarely come in contact, although Coke does sometimes attend presentations where Gordon is speaking about wolves. And the Healy/Denali area, where both live (at least during the summer, in Gordon's case) is very small. So they do have run-ins from time to time. As for them hating each other...well, based on what they've said about each other, I think it's safe to say they share a fair bit of animosity.

You’ve reported stories all over the world, from Ecuador to Iran, covering everything from autism to sexual abuse. How was this story different? What were the challenges?

I was juggling  a lot at once—and that was different for me. I had two complex, colorful characters that I wanted to present as fully as possible, an animal group that BACKPACKER readers care about deeply—and who are now potentially at risk— a complicated back story just to explain the history of the buffer of wolf control in Alaska, and of the relationship between Coke and Gordon, my own personal experience with the wolves, and the challenge of treating all the players in the story fairly.

That's a lot to pack into 6,000 words. And then there's the issue of the wolf skinning...

What was that experience like for you?

Very, very strange. I had no idea what I was walking into when I went to visit Al Barrette at his tannery in Fairbanks. I thought I was just going to talk to him about trapping and building traps. But when I walked in the door, and saw a wolf hanging by the ceiling from its back leg, I was blown away. As a reporter, I realized this was an incredible opportunity to witness and record something few people outside the trapping world ever get to see, so I felt fortunate in that way. But man, you should have smelled it when Al cut the wolf's stomach open. Julia Vandenoever (BACKPACKER's photo editor) and I couldn't get the smell off our clothes for a week.

What do you think the future holds for the Toklat wolf pack?

I really can't say. I think the wolves are incredibly resilient and that they've continued to rebound from near devastation time and again. If the current Toklat pack were to be wiped out, another group of wolves would likely re-colonize their territory, possibly using their den and hunting in the same range they hunted in.

To tourists who don't know the story, the new "Toklat" wolves could look very similar to the old Toklat wolves. But to Gordon Haber, their destruction would mean the end of a lifetime of passionate study.



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parker wallace
Sep 23, 2010

Right now, i think its a shame, that i dont have the corkscrew for this fine champagne. one down one less in the air, RIP Gordie!!!!
Visit Alaska This Summer Or The Wolf Gets It!!!!

Kristen
Mar 14, 2009

Why do WE need to 'manage' wildlife? Before humans got here, the wildlife managed ITSELF. If we could just leave well enough alone, all of the Creator's creatures would take care of each other. That's why they are called 'prey' and 'predators'. Just because humans depend on guns does NOT make us the smartest species on the planet, rather the stupidest.

Anonymous
Feb 05, 2009

As of a few days ago the Alpha male is DEAD! Trapped!

jack
Jan 29, 2009

We need to focus on the greater issues of wildlife protection. Instead of looking only at a pack with an emotional attachment we must look at wolves as a species and encourage there protection based on ecological significance not emotional worth.

Tom
Jan 23, 2009

Leticia, please dont put all hunters in the same category as a Coke Wallace. Im a hunter, and I know alot of other hunters that would stand up with you on this subject, your right wolves should not be killed, I agree that an animal should not be killed for trohy purpose. Understand that people like Mr. Wallace use animals for a profit, trophy ass****s are what we call them, shot for the fur or head, not meat and dont let anyone say they eat wolf, coyote, lynx, bobcat and even most bear meat is not eaten. Its a lie, I grew up around hunting my whole life, never taken anything but deer, elk and antelope. I know Leticia that I may never change your mind about me, but know without each other fighting this cause it may never end, people like Mr. wallace feeds off of other peoples anger. Lets pray we can save these beutiful animals.

Russ Whitworth
Jan 22, 2009

I thought the article were very well done, I expected there to be a pronounced anti-hunting/trapping bias but was pleasantly surprised to find good questions asked and an open mind when exposure to a part of trapping she had never seen before. The actual skinning of an animal. I did not see either man as being eccentric but rather as being typical men earning a living at what they enjoy, and trying to explain to others in a few unprepared words why they do what they do. As for the controversy I did not see or hear anyone bidding for annihilation of the species. The hunter/trapper makes his living or suppliments his living by trapping, why would they want to destroy thier cash crop? I am also sympathetic to a scientist who finds his study samples destroyed. But is human interaction not going to be a viable part of any study of wild animals? I think it should be as much a part as any "naturally" occuring disaster that might cause death to an animal. In closing once again I tip my hat to Tracy Ross for very good and balanced article.

Eric
Jan 06, 2009

Leticia,

With gross generalizations about hunters and Alaskans I can safely say that your absence from Alaska will not be missed. Have your opinion of trapping but if you eat meat of any kind you better think before trashing hunting. Although I am sure you think feed lots and factory farms are great for the environment!

Leticia
Jan 04, 2009

Hunters and trappers are murderers. And you know why? Because there is absolutely no need for hunting and trapping in this society, in this country! It's the thrill of the kill. It's greed, one of the most disgusting human traits. If you people could kill humans, you would. You have serious mental and emotional problems. You are a danger to all that is beautiful - well, all that is LEFT that is beautiful, because we Humans encroach on and destroy everything without ever thinking of the repercussions or the future. Wildlife population would take care of itself just fine if we would let it. Killing wolves has absolutely nothing to do with the food chain. They need to feed, just as we do, but we take their food away. And these age-old fears of the wolf are simply stupid. I've been around wolves, and they are so amazing it can't be put into words. Are you people all blind, and do you want to leave these legacies for your future generations? Coke Wallace and people like him have no heart, are stone-cold, emotionless and dangerous. And to all Alaskans - don't know what is wrong with you, but as long as wolf killings are going on, I will not ever travel there, and will join every boycott and signature collection against your state. The cold up there must have frozen all of your insides, and made you into an inhumane mess.

cattwmn
Jan 01, 2009

Thank you, Rainier - the inhumane slaughter - or should I say - genocide of wolves is wildlife terrorism. It has been proven that that wolves are not the biggest threat to moose, caribou, and other 'game' animals. Parasites, disease, pollution are the biggest threats, as well as 'man'.
In the fate of the Alaskan wolves - it's all about the money and tourism $. No one eats the wolves they destroy. Hunting wolves is not subsistence hunting. They are killed for cash - that makes Wallace an assassin, right?

Wolves mate for life, unlike humans. Wolves support their family and extended family, unlike humans. The Alpha male will not desert his mate - unlike humans. Maybe that is why humans fear wolves. Wolves make humans seem to be the primative specie.

rainer nolywaika
Dec 27, 2008

As a new immigrant to the u.s. and a reader of your magazine i am shocked and amazed how many people support coke wallace.This is the worst case of animal terroism! A wolf wandering around with a wire snare blood caked embedded still 2" inches deep in the neck.What is wrong with You people? Are you all under hypnosis? But then if someone throws their shoes at this countrys president milions of people are discussted and upset about it. Tracy ross can't make up her mind on what site she is standing! Well tracy i am not surprised about your dumm airhead remarks. America the land of freedom and ethics! Well look to iraq and afghanistan then You meet the lies and sickness of american culture.From Abu-grai to the bombing! Thousends of children have been killed and more civillians every day and the cancer rate is among the highest in the world! All the pollution of the very strong bombs( depleted uranium etc.) We even have a top leadership not just supporting human torture but also recomending it to the rest of the world! The fact that people now can carry guns even in national parks make an end with my outdoor hobby in the U.S. I live not far from canada. Thats where my family and i spend vacations and tourist dollars from now on! on......rainer nolywaika

LKE
Dec 27, 2008

After reading "Dogs of War", I needed to have some time to reflect on the issue presented and the personalities involved - so much information about a world I know little about. The story presents both sides of this controversy objectively and both characters are definitely "eccentric". I finally watched the three videos and feel my emotions and passion once more triggered. Coke Wallace is even more frightening to me and I wish I knew more about Gordon Haber. Excellent research and writing, Tracy Ross! Thank you.

DARRELL WILCOX
Dec 21, 2008

THE ARTICLE ON "DOG WARS" IS SAD, I KNOW I DON'T LIVE AROUND WOLVES. I MAY NOT KNOW ALL THE PROBLEMS BY BEING AROUND THEM I STILL FEEL THAT THE KILLING AND SHOOTING OF THE WOLF IS SICK WAY OF KILLING OFF ONE OF THE MOST BEAUTIFUL AND SMARTEST ANIMAL WE KNOW. THE FACT THAT THEY LIVE LIKE US IN SO MANY WAYS. WE HAVE NO RIGHT TO PUT ANY ANIMAL IN THE RISK OF ENDANGERMENT.

BOBBY
Dec 18, 2008

COKE WALLACE IS A MAN OF MYTH AND LEGEND!

Eric Oberg
Dec 16, 2008

Troy,
I can not and will not dispute your post. You seem intelligent and your point is well taken, but I stand by my experience. On more than one occasion I have heard "scientists" state one thing and then within days my eyes have observed the exact opposite. This makes it awfully hard to accept much as truth from these guys!!

Troy Dunn
Dec 15, 2008

Reference “Dogs of War” Jan 2009 Backpacker.

For starters, Coke Wallace and other trappers/hunters are killing Park wolves within inches of the park boundary as opposed to 7 miles as stated in the article. These trappers are intentionally parisitizing on Park wolves by setting their traplines inches off the Park boundary. Additionally, the Haber vs. Wallace scenario is non-existent in my opinion. It is the bad science coming from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s (ADF&G) alleged scientists that Haber is disputing. Ask any ADF&G biologist, Wallace or any other wolf trapper/hunter how may years they have observing wolf behavior and how much peer reviewed research they have published and you will have your answer as to who the true expert is.

Until Alaska politics force peer-reviewed analysis of the states predator control programs, Alaska will continue to arbitrarily kill its top predators. Yes, there is actually a law that states the Alaska Board of Game only has to believe data provided by ADF&G and ignore sound science from other sources or agencies.

Alaskans can no longer trust the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) or the Board of Game to make sound decisions on predator control. I attended ADF&G's program on predator control in Fairbanks and found it very deceptive and lacking in truth. When opened for questions, I asked the presenter, a member of the Board of Game, why there is no data on winter scavenging by wolves. I was answered with the statement “there is no scavenging in the winter by wolves as everything is frozen and they can not get to it”. I believe this attitude accounts for the inflated “kill” statistics that ADF&G has posted as they appear to count anything wolves are eating as a live kill.

When I presented factual science and peer-reviewed research accomplished here in Alaska over a five winter period which included the harshest winter on record, the mildest, and 3 average winters proving 47-48% of the study group wolf meals were scavenged (ungulates that were already dead), the presenter dismissed my claims with no further explanation.

Over many winters I have personally observed wolves digging deep in the snow and frozen ground to eat animals that have died from natural causes. The presenter, a sitting Board of Game appointee, was either deliberately lying about wolves in Alaska or is genuinely ignorant of wolf ecology in Alaska...neither of which I consider endearing qualities for a person deciding the fate of our wildlife.

As for the wolf haters, do some research, arm yourself with facts versus your latent little red riding hood fears and debate the proverbial wolf war intelligently as opposed to what you have heard or think you know by spending a few weeks a year in the wild on your 4-wheeler or snowmachine.

Flynster
Dec 10, 2008

I am a small and big-game (whitetail deer)hunter myself. There are no wolves in my area, but there are coyotes. I have heard fellow hunters become apoplectic about these predators and how they are destroying game populations, especially the whitetail deer. Then I hear (and see) the number of roadkill deer in my area is on the rise, that insurance companies are pulling out their hair because there are not enough hunters to effectively reduce the deer population to safe - safe for vehicles, that is - levels.

So which is it? Are the coyotes killing too many deer? Or not enough? It is clear to me that you cannot have this both ways.

I use this as a jumping off point for a question that has always puzzled me and I think applies to the debate about predator management: How did "management" - a human term about owned resources - get into the mix? What are we doing here? Managing nature in total? For what purpose? The health of the herds?

There is a predator/prey relationship that is self-correcting. Why do we think we are even able to significantly study the numbers of one species or another and make decisions wisely? And deal out death to the "offender"? Is not even a pause in our thought process?

It is evident that it is about money - bringing outside visitors in who are engaged in the thrill of bloodsport, not locals who hunt to eat. And money concentrated into the hands of very few people.

As a final thought: I am a hunter and proud of my ethics; I eat what I hunt, I am careful or my target and respectful of the power I hold in my hands, I strive for a clean kill every time.

To shoot an animal in its mouth (even if it is dead) as some sort of grotesque show makes me ill. It is twisted and sick and revolting.

Tom
Dec 09, 2008

I found Sharon's comment made on Thanksgiving interesting. If she isn't vegetarian, I assume she ate turkey that day. Wallace probably ate moose or caribou that he shot, dressed and put up for the winter. I'm not a big fan of trapping, especially leg hold and snares that are slow to kill, but which has a better life (and chance): The wolves or the turkeys raised and slaughtered and presented to us in plastic wrap? Who has more appreciation for the wilds and the animals that live and die there, the trapper or the occasional backpacker at the supermarket?

If you haven't seen it already, here's a link to our Gov. Palin talking in front of the local turkey slaughter:

http://community.adn.com/adn/node/134739

Tom

Eric Oberg
Dec 09, 2008

I started to question Gordon's word when I heard him on the radio one January morning 6 years ago saying there were NO wolves in the upper Nenana River. We left on a dog training run a couple hours later up the Nenana and came across two caribou kills and had wolves howling all over the river! Was I hallucinating, or does Gordon have an agenda even when the facts are howling in my face?? Kind of hard to dispute the facts!!

Trapper
Dec 08, 2008

I grew up with a strong family connection to the trapping industry. Although I have never caught a wolf, I have caught dozens of coyotes, redfox, grayfox, coon, mink and muskrat. Most were caught with leg hold traps. Some were caught with conibears. I skinned all animals and sold the pelts. Skinning an animal for its fur came as naturally as sending my grandfathers hogs to market. After I graduated from college, I took up backpacking. Although I love backpacking, I have begun to realize that most (not all) backpackers never really understand the environment or appreciate nature the way ethical hunters and trappers do. Backpacking it seems often turns into watching your feet as you race down a well marked trail to get to your next destination. Standing around an AT shelter listening to others brag about their equipment, how many miles they have done in a day or their AT thru hikes is hardly a connection with nature. By contrast try going with an ethical trapper for a day. You will observe more animal and plant life on one trapline than you ever will as you plod down some trampled and overused trail with a bunch of people escaping the big city for the weekend in their latest outdoor fashion. You don't have to trap or hunt; just realize that animals must be managed. If we do not trap and hunt them, how do we manage them? Base your opinions on sound wildlife managment principles and an understanding of the economic impact that trapping contributes to.

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