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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.

Last March, I went to see Interior Alaska’s foremost trap-builder and fur tanner, Al Barrette, to talk about wolf management. Inside his converted air hangar on the outskirts of Fairbanks, I saw a dead wolf hanging from the ceiling with the snare that killed her still dangling around her neck.

“So you girls are going trapping with Coke?” asks Al, 43, who owns Fairbanks Fur Tannery. As an elected member of the Fairbanks Fish and Game Advisory Committee, Al is also a passionate advocate of hunters’ rights.

Standing amid bear, wolverine, and lynx carcasses, Al tells photographer Julia Vandenoever and me about trappers as he slices open the dead wolf’s gut. On the floor, a dozen sticky wolf eyes stare out from a pile of recently severed heads.

Al says trappers are, by nature, individualistic, resourceful, and deeply connected to the land. Most consider themselves more effective conservationists than “preservationists” who write checks and fire off save-the-wolf emails. Denali wolves receive special consideration, he says, because they’re cute and cuddly and you can’t see them everywhere. But he believes all game should be managed for the greatest sustainable yield. “I don’t want all the wolves gone,” he says, “but I want them managed in sync with the other populations.”

According to Game Commissioner Cliff Judkins, that’s exactly what state biologists do. “They report on the populations of certain game, like moose,” Judkins says. “They tell us what the calf weights are, what the cows’ fat contents are, what the bull-cow ratio is. Based on their recommendations, we set the number of wolves we want to reduce, so the game can rebound. It’s really well-documented. It’s all in the plan.”

The same thinking underlies Denali’s wolf management philosophy. “[We’re] mandated to maintain healthy populations,” says Denali Assistant Superintendent Philip Hooge, himself a biologist. “Wolf advocates want an individual focus, but that’s not the management scheme we work under. If harvest levels [in the buffer] began to threaten the park’s wolf population, we’d take a much stronger stand, but for now, Denali’s wolf population is acting in a natural way.”

But not everybody agrees that the plan is based on sound science. “The National Research Council and the American Society of Mammologists have repeatedly made clear that Alaska’s wolf and bear control programs do not meet scientific standards,” says John Toppenberg of the Alaska Wildlife Alliance. “What you’ve got with the game board are seven out of seven extremist hunters who want to kill off wolves and bears to artificially inflate the numbers of ungulates they want to kill. And with the park service, you’ve got wolves that have been habituated to humans wandering into areas where trapping is legal. Those animals deserve protections since we have taught them to be tolerant of us.”

As Al preps the dead wolf for skinning, I think about the alpha female in Coke’s trap, how she suffered for two weeks; how her mate and nine pups hovered while Coke put a bullet into her lung. Afterward, the alpha male led the group 14 miles back to their den and dug it out from under two feet of snow. Gordon says they didn’t go there looking for shelter; they returned because it’s the place they most closely associated with their dead mate and mother.

Some people believe that Toklats wouldn’t be dying if the park would just stand up and demand a complete buffer. But Al says there’s no way the state would go for that. “The controversy isn’t so much that people don’t want to see that pack protected. But has anyone told you how big Denali is? Millions of acres. The government set that aside so the ecosystem could go in peaks and valleys [and] to protect these wolves. Well, come to find out, the wolves don’t stay in the park. So the preservationists, thinking they have the oldest pack of wolves in Alaska, made a buffer zone.”

But the buffer zone only allowed the wolf population to grow larger, says Al, which meant it needed an even greater range to satisfy its food needs. “So they asked for another buffer–a buffer to the buffer zone. And us Alaskans, we’re out there trapping and enjoying ourselves. And guess what? [Even with the buffer] we’re still catching wolves.”

Now Al takes a break from talking. He breaks the wolf’s right leg at the knee, then skins the foreleg and cuts off the paw. “Someone will use this as a decoration or for an Indian breast shield,” explains Al. “Another lady incorporates the bones into jewelry–broaches, earrings, and necklaces–and sells them in high-end galleries in Seattle.”

When Al is done skinning, he removes the wolf’s glands–the footpads, anal gland, and gall bladder, all parts she once used to leave her scent. Then he slices off her head. Stripped to muscle, bone, and sinew, the carcass looks like a large, naked German shepherd.

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