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Backpacker Magazine – January 2009

Dogs of War

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.

by: Tracy Ross

PAGE 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
10-week-old Toklat pups (Gordon Haber)
10-week-old Toklat pups (Gordon Haber)
The shed at Wallace's compound. (J. Vandenoever)
The shed at Wallace's compound. (J. Vandenoever)
A wolf skull. (Julia Vandenoever)
A wolf skull. (Julia Vandenoever)
Wallace at his hunting camp. (J. Vandenoever)
Wallace at his hunting camp. (J. Vandenoever)
Gordon Haber (Photo by Julia Vandenoever)
Gordon Haber (Photo by Julia Vandenoever)
Wallace tows dead female wolf. (Gordon Haber)
Wallace tows dead female wolf. (Gordon Haber)
A drying rack. (Julia Vandenoever)
A drying rack. (Julia Vandenoever)
Wallace in front of wire snares. (J. Vandenoever)
Wallace in front of wire snares. (J. Vandenoever)
Denali wolf with snare. (Gordon Haber)
Denali wolf with snare. (Gordon Haber)
Barrette working in his tannery. (Vandenoever)
Barrette working in his tannery. (Vandenoever)

Coke Wallace and Gordon Haber first locked horns over the Toklat in 2001. Bitter enemies who frequent the contested buffer, they've been sparring ever since.

"I remember the day Gordy became a nuisance to me," says Coke, 44, whose face is a smashup of Woody Harrelson and Sean Penn. Alaska-raised and proud of it, Coke lives with his wife and son in the Wolf Townships, where he's been laying his traps and snares for more than 20 years.

"There were wolves over here and wolves over there," says Coke, remembering the brisk October day his buddy Brent Keith called him to say it sounded like every wolf in central Alaska was carrying on in his backyard. "It was, as we say in the guide-hunting business, a target-rich environment."

Heading out, Coke and Brent found 12 wolves sunning themselves on an outcropping, their distended bellies full of moose. The men crawled up and opened fire, killing seven.

Almost immediately, Haber, who monitors multiple wolf packs from the air using radio telemetry, zeroed in on the carnage. "A couple days later," Coke recalls, "people were calling me at home inflicting me shit over something I do that's completely legal: state land, state license, state-sanctioned season, state animals."

Coke also claims that Haber buzzed his house several times a week in a small plane: "It got so bad my 4-year-old wouldn't go outside because of the scary man in the sky."

Tensions between the men ran high for weeks, then settled into an uneasy détente. But the word was already out. In 1992 and 1993, Friends of Animals had taken out full-page ads calling for a tourism boycott until aerial wolf killing stopped. Little came of them, except to put the Board of Game on notice that it could no longer operate in a vacuum.

Thanks to Haber, the scrutiny increased again. Nothing happened immediately, but in March 2004 the board surprised everyone with a decision to maintain–rather than reduce–the buffer's boundaries. At least one member admitted to the Associated Press that the vote was motivated by a desire to make wolf hunting elsewhere in Alaska more palatable.

Coke and other hunters roared in protest, but this time Coke's anger was directed at Governor Frank Murkowski, who he accused of capitulation to "ecoterrorists," and at animal lovers who fell for what he calls Haber's "false biology."

The fragile peace between Wallace and Haber held until the bitter-cold morning of February 11, 2005, when Coke had had enough. With his buddy Adam, he was out in the Wolf Townships checking the wire snares and metal leg traps he had scattered in the willow around a frozen horse carcass. The snares hung snout-high on a wolf, and the leg traps lay concealed in the snow beside Coke's snowmobile trail.

Coke didn't know he had a wolf in his trap that morning, but he'd brought his trailer anyway. If he had gotten lucky, he'd need to get the wolf–or lynx or moose or caribou–back to the small outbuilding on his property where he skins what he catches, the place he calls "the petting zoo." But he did have a wolf, an adult the color of river stones that happened to be the Toklat's alpha female, easily identified by her park- service collar. And he shot her, swiftly and cleanly, just like he always does, with his favorite gun, a Ruger MK II.

Then Coke did something he'd never done. Haber's Cessna 185 came into view, and Coke acted out. Maybe it was frustration, or hatred, or overheated rivalry. As Haber circled, Coke pulled his black balaclava over his face, put on his sunglasses, and stuck the barrel of his pistol in the dead wolf's mouth. "When I saw Gordy up there with his camera, I said, 'This is gonna cost me a shitload of grief,'" says Coke. "'So I'm gonna make it worth it.'"

Coke knew that within days, animal rights activists would be calling his home, threatening to poison him and his family if he didn't stop killing park wolves. He knew the hostile letters would arrive, calling him an "asshole dirtbag murdering son-of-a-bitch," from people threatening to hunt him.

With his free hand, Coke gave Adam his camera, telling him to take a picture. Then they coaxed their Ski-Doos to 20 miles per hour, pulling the dead wolf down the Stampede Road. Back at the shed, Coke unloaded the wolf's body; he'd remove her collar later and turn it in to the park service biologist, following federal regulations, like he always did. But first, he had a call to make–to a T-shirt company.

Coke still smirks when he thinks about the message he had silk-screened above the picture of himself, looking like an Alaskan Sandinista, holding Gordon Haber's prized Toklat wolf by the throat. He likes to imagine the gash it must have torn in Gordon's oozy, wolf-loving heart. "Haber has violated my civil liberties," he declares, "and I can't get the government to do anything about it because he has a herd of attorneys behind him."

Coke's T-shirts come in heather gray and olive green, in a full size run, so you can buy one for your kid. The slogan, printed in square black letters, reads: Visit Alaska This Summer or the Wolf Gets It!

PAGE 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

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Jun 18, 2012

I would never hurt a human, but anyone who hunts this way is not human at all.

Jun 13, 2012

I would not feel sorry if Coke Wallace were killed in one of his own traps. In fact, if it were a trap I placed that killed him, GREAT!!

Jun 13, 2012

I would not feel sorry if Coke Wallace were killed in one of his own traps. In fact, if it were a trap I placed that killed him, GREAT!!

Jun 13, 2012

Regarding Coke Wallace, somebody just shoot him.

Seriously. People kill people every day for far lesser reasons. Shoot him between the eyes to show your humanity, but just shoot him.

Its OK to kill him.

Oliver Starr
Jun 12, 2012

Rich, if you think snares are humane let me humbly suggest you snare yourself and report on just how you enjoyed the experience...

Jan 28, 2012

if someone saw a wolf in a snare, why didn't you cut her loose or help her?

Jan 28, 2012

wolves are gentle and intelligent animals,and I would join up to take up arms against the ones that kill for profit..........................

Mar 01, 2011

Dear Jack.

You noted...

"I respect wolves and I have seen a pack of wolves play and I
have shot a wolf. Each time respecting their power and beauty.

You have an interesting way of showing respect. You were so filled with respect for its power and beauty - and you shot it.

Whatever your justification may be for ending its life, at least you can confirm it's NOT hanging on your wall as a "trophy" right?

Feb 27, 2011

Wow I only read a few of the first comments but the whole concept of hunting and trapping is way over some of you tree huggers heads do a little research of your own before you say your going to go and show these hunting guides and outfitters who happen to be some of the strongest most inshape fearless people I know your martial art skills. I respect wolves and I have seen a pack of wolves play and I have shot a wolf. Each time respecting their power and beauty.

Feb 26, 2011

The old STARVATION card being played once again to justify the hunt. These animals have managed to survive and maintain an ecological, natural balance for decades without intervention from humans. Please don't buy into the "I hunt to prevent STARVATION" story, and be smart enough to see through that spin.

Feb 24, 2011

I am Christian and an American. Like my father, to his father, and family before us; I hunt for food and for the sake of the legacy that is hunting (tradition). Hunting to me is a challenge, it teaches the necessary skills on how to survive on wild meat, and it is a way to take care of the gift the I believe is being taken away from us. The hunting industry glorifies the "trophy" thing too much. I believe in taking care of our remaining resources, game, and fish. Hunting wolves for the sake of food and tradition is one thing, but hunting them for the fun of it or for that trophy mount is a totally different degree. I would love to hunt wolves someday when the I believe that the population has leveled out and there are better regulations, but not today. I would much rather see in fact all of the game and fish species level out again, not just in Alaska but everywhere else as well. I beg to differ that hunting is a sport. Some people might treat it as so, but I do not. Hunting is a part of life. My grandfather once told me that you use a gun for two things: to survive and to eat. That's the way it is for me. Hunting is not a sport, it is a way of life.

Doubting Thomas
Feb 24, 2011

So, let me get this straight: The snared alpha female ate dirt and rocks for over a week while its mate and pups sat around and watched? Wouldn't they have tried to bring her some food? I doubt a snared animal could swallow anything. "Disney" is a most correct description.

Mik Jones
Feb 24, 2011

I understand hunting for food within conservation limits, but individuals who get off on just killing for killing's sake like Coke are absolutely sorry. I have known them up in Alaska and they are all insecure about their manhood, and contrary to what the writer said have no real survival skills other than revving up their engine to go faster. Coke and his ilk are cowards. I and many others would love to help him learn to be a man by comparing our martial art skills, but then Coke and Al are just all mouth when it comes to taking on anything that has two legs and a backbone.

Feb 24, 2011

i would do the same to coke as he does to the animals

Bob, Tx
Jun 25, 2010

Does Candice Berner get a say in this controversy?

Poor, poor wolves. Just like the poor, poor mountain lions of Kalifornia!

This whole presentation (Dogs of War) was presented in a fashion to tug the heart strings of the ignorant and uninformed. Lotsa "kill the trapper" sentiment too ... shame when an animal of any kind is valued more than a human life. Skewed values for sure.

Oct 17, 2009

This is a very sad article to read, after writing an article about the grey wolf last week for my ecology class, and hearing that Haber recently died in a plane crash and now there is no one left to spearhead the campaign for these beautiful animals. I can only imagine the great love and respect he had for the Toklat pack after studying them for almost half a century. I would love to do such extensive research.
While I could never imagine killing an animal, I am not against hunting. I do, however, believe there are limits as to how many animals you should be able to kill during a period of time, etc. I also am against trapping and snaring, because of the creulty of such practices. A kill should be quick - no one should end life in pain. I also think the meat of the animal should not be wasted, nor the pelt or skeleton.
People need to realize the important role wolves play in keeping populations in check. It's not the peoples place to replace wolves in this respect. As well, people simply can not keep caribou/moose/deer populations in check on their own. Wolves are natural hunters, here for a good reason. They should not be hunted. Think of all the car accidents involving cervidae? This is dangerous for humans!
I understand that wolves are not endangered in Alaska, but that does not mean that Wallace and his buddies should lay in wait for these wolves and slaughter them. The thing about wolves is, they're on and off the ESA all the time, being hunted to the brink and put on the list, rebounding, and being taken off - and then the viscious cycle starts again! Why can't we just leave them be?
Studying wolves you realize a pack is like a family. Only a single pair mates and reproduces, all the wolves care for the pups, they cuddle and nuzzle muzzles, and play. They mourn when a family member dies. I swear they are capable of love. We should appreciate the value of their existence as we value our own.

Aug 04, 2009

I was Artist in Residence in Denali a few years back. I stayed at the Murie cabin hoping to photograph wolves for my art. That was not to happen. That was the summer right after Coke killed one of the young and the alpha female of the pack I was hoping to see. Years I waited for this moment. The pack had moved on because of this. In my annual trips to Denali I have only seen one wolf since. The park is not there for a few pricks to trap, it is for everyone. More moose are killed by highway traffic than wolves. So now we have to kill wolves so people can shoot more moose. This is fixing the balance? Can humans be more stupid or bigger scumbags?

Mar 23, 2009

Theres another side of the 'coin' here. And I know from experience.
Most of the time when a wolf is caught in a leg hold trap or snared by a leg (which generally does not happen, snares are usually very lethal), they don't expend a lot of effort once they 'know' they are caught,so they lay or sit to avoid any further pain. Now if someone in a airplane starts buzzing and circling for pictures or just getting as close as they can to look at the wolf, this scares and or agitates the wolf, then they will make a very desperate effort to get loose, tearing skin, flesh and or breaking joints. Now visualize the plane flying off, and returning the next day to,, lets say, get better pictures, and lets say before the plane first found the wolf, the wolf was caught, but hadn't 'fought' wildly to get untrapped and it hadn't even torn its skin, and its joints were okay. So when the airplane arrives the next day the wolf is in much worse condition from the previous days 'airplane buzzing', NOW the photographer gets pictures of a wolf with a broken bloody leg highly visible. These are pictures that $ELL, and bring fame to those that show how 'horrible' trapping is. Better yet, buzz the wolf closely for 1/2 hour for 3 or 4 days, then the pictures get 'better and better'. Don't think for a moment some 'people', independent or paid by a organization, have 'morals or ethics' that are far ABOVE those who trap. Its the unspoken calling, the "pot calling the kettle black"!

Jim Smith
Feb 17, 2009

The fact that man does not interfere with the Denali wildlife is what draws millions every year. It is no coincidence that nature has done such a wonderful job. Once man steps in, all will probably be changed forever-for what-- MONEY.. how sad.

Double Cabin
Feb 15, 2009

People on the forums know I am considered "anti" wolf by most but I seriously encourage you to rethink how you introduce Ms. Ross's article here. With all due respect and IMHO you do Ms. Ross's excellent piece great disservice with the "...park under siege" in your byline. I read it in the magazine and its actually one of the better articles I've read on wolf controversy when it comes to balance in recent years; and although her conclusions seem invalidly drawn IMHO I personally appreciated her introspective honesty.

Given that: 1)Wolves and no other large mammals are really under siege by any stretch of any rational imagination IN Denali National Park or any National Park for that matter. 2) Wolves are not even remotely endangered in the State of Alaska. 3) You are a publication purportedly bound to dispense not misrepresentation but veracity in your pages...

B) I humbly suggest you leave your editorializing for somewhere much farther down the line than the byline. I have come to like your magazine more and more every time I read it at the Library in recent years, but when it becomes apparent a publisher or editor's kenning is in traction before any substance is presented reason forces me to doubt that some of you are not held hostage to your own emotional preconceptions.

But alas I am not a subscriber. Thank Ms. Ross for her own restraint, I will get a subscription when I relocate in April.

My apologies for the consternation but I know if you truly want your already fine publication to be better you will find it well founded. Thanks for yur time,


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