|NATIONAL PARKS QUICKLINKS|
Backpacker Magazine – January 2009
Another dead Denali wolf. A battle for the soul of wild Alaska. Our reporter visits America's most iconic wilderness for the inside story of a park under siege.
Gordon Haber first met the Toklat wolves in 1966, when he started working summers as a seasonal ranger in Denali. A graduate student in biology at Northern Michigan University, he sought out Murie, who lived in a cabin overlooking the East Fork of the Toklat River, 47 miles into the park.
Few people had explored the East Fork, and Gordon swelled with the raw beauty. From Murie, he learned that the wolves ranging the East Fork and Teklanika Rivers were descended from the same line Murie had first studied almost 30 years earlier.
Four decades later, Gordon, who now holds a Ph.D in zoology, is still watching wolves. He has sacrificed everything in that pursuit. Never married, he has no family and few hobbies. When snow closes the park in October, he holes up in a cheap motel in Fairbanks (which he didn't want revealed because of "security reasons"), waiting for the next break in the weather, when he can catch the faint beeping of signals emitting from the radio-tracking collars on Denali wolves. He owns no fancy hiking gear and spends nearly every dime he gets from his sponsor, Friends of Animals, on flight time.
I met Gordon in March 2005, shortly after Coke Wallace trapped and killed the alpha female. He was standing at the counter of his motel, and seemed overburdened, like a man who had just felt gravity for the first time. A former hockey player, Gordon is stout but not chubby, with plum-colored bags under his eyes. He's also awkward, intense, and terse, mostly because he's always thinking about wolves.
His routine is compulsively ascetic. In winter, he dehydrates himself so he and his pilot can circle a wolf pack for hours without stopping to pee. Every other day during every single summer, he hikes the same distance at the same pace to the same remote hillside to watch his "critters" loafing around their den. When they emerge, he documents every footstep, lip curl, and howl, his notes filling 155 weatherproof books.
Gordon's years of research have led to some interesting theories. In the mid-1970s, he followed the Toklat family group (as he insists they be called) for 2,700 miles over a five-winter period, recording every kill, den site, and meal. That research, he boasts, is the most detailed analysis of wolf-prey interactions ever published. It also fed his belief in the wolf's extraordinary sociability and, in his mind, elevated their social organization to near-equal standing with humans.
"Sophisticated family groups are what set wolves apart," he says. "Their social organization represents the ultimate of any vertebrate. They have high levels of altruism, successful inbreeding, cross-generation learning, and genetic transfer. It's a more sophisticated form of social organization than human societies. Which is why it burns me up when people say it's the population, not individual wolves, that matters."
But scientific arguments, especially controversial ones, take years to wind through academia, and most wolf biologists continue to question his theory of cross-generation learning, the idea that wolves pass on specific behaviors. Still, Gordon's greatest achievement came in 1980, when federal officials designated 80 million acres in Alaska as wilderness based in part on his paper, "Socio-ecological Dynamics of Wolves and Prey in a Subarctic Ecosystem." The so-called Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act enlarged Denali alone by 4 million acres. And yet, ironically, it excluded the area Gordon pressed hardest for–the Wolf Townships.
Because of his ongoing research–and bullheadedness–Gordon has become a permanent fixture in the park. Operating under a special research permit, he comes and goes with few restrictions. During the summer, he drives to an unnamed spot on the road and hikes exactly 41 minutes to the Toklat den. Come winter, he flies over the silent, whitewashed valleys listening to state-owned radio frequencies that he sued the Federal Communications Commission for access to.
On that fateful day in February 2005, Gordon's signal began beeping long before he reached the park's northeastern boundary. He and his pilot had just returned from the Fortymile River, where they'd watched another of Gordon's study groups, the Copper Creek pack, get gunned down by state-sanctioned aerial hunters. When they realized the signal was coming from the Wolf Townships, their hearts sank.
A necropsy revealed that the alpha female sat in Coke's trap for 10 days to two weeks, eating dirt and rocks. She lost 15 percent of her body weight and broke all of her teeth.
Surprisingly, Gordon harbors little overt animosity for Wallace. To him, the trapper is a pawn, a hit man for biased scientists and pandering politicians. "While a few trappers and hunters did the actual killing," Gordon wrote on his website, "the real culprits are the state and National Park Service biologists, managers, and policymakers who for the last 15 years have refused to support an adequate protective buffer zone and continue to lobby against it." (Go to alaskawolves.org for more on Haber's research.) Gordon often wonders what tourists would think if they knew that taxpayer-funded scientists were allowing Coke Wallace to starve and shoot Denali wolves just seven miles from the park. He wonders if they know that the killing could be prevented by expanding the buffer or, better yet, by closing the entire Wolf Townships to trapping and hunting.
Just in case they don't, he says, he's taking measures into his own hands. "I'm watching one of the most valuable biological goldmines on Earth being treated like it's not worth 10 cents by a bunch of ignorant, ill-trained state biologists who, quite frankly, are guilty of scientific misconduct," he told me. "I've had it. I'm going to hold these guys accountable. I hope they understand I'm their worst nightmare."