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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)

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."


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READERS COMMENTS

Rob
Jun 18, 2012

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

Powerslave
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!!

Powerslave
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...

clarisselcourcier
Jan 28, 2012

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

clarisselcourcier
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..........................

TS
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?

Jack
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.

TS
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.

Tradionalist
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.

brett
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.

Andalora
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.

Eric
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?

Reece
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,

John

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