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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.

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!

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