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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.

“I don’t hate wolves,” says Coke Wallace. “It just happens we’re both fighting to be the top of the food chain.”

Early evening in the Alaska bush. Coke, Julia, Coke’s assistant, Connor, and I are hunkered down in a valley sandwiched between the Talkeetna Mountains and the Alaska Range. We snowmobiled seven hours to get here, setting snares and gooping bushes with Al’s anal-gland lure. Now we’re lying in the willow and alder, listening to a throaty wolf howl echo through the flat-gray dusk.

“This [track] really gets ’em worked up,” whispers Coke. He points a remote control downhill and changes the tune on his Fox Pro FX5 animal caller from Lone Wolf to Distressed Hybrid Puppy. Ear-splitting shrieks replace the mournful song. If a curious wolf comes to investigate, Coke will plug her with his Remington, and he’ll feel energized and lucky, like he did last autumn when a lone female answered his Wolf Songs CD. It was supposed to be a joke, but when he played the New Age-y soundtrack, the wolf walked right up to his hunting cabin. “I couldn’t believe it,” exclaims Coke. “I just sat there and shot her–right off the porch!”

It sounds brutal, but Coke swears he loves wolves. As a hunter and guide, he just loves them differently. “I love Dall sheep, too,” he says, “but I shoot them because they’re food on the planet and a beautiful trophy.”

Coke spends 280 days a year in the field. Through his guide service, Midnight Sun Safaris, he helps hunters bag bears, sheep, and wolves. His work, he says, contributes more to conservation than any environmentalist does. “[Gordon’s followers] shouldn’t have a say about how Denali wolves are managed outside Denali,” he says. “They’ve got their little parks where hunters and trappers and fishermen don’t go, where you can view all the wolves you want. So why should uninformed chiclets have a say in the stuff that sportsmen are paying for?”

Coke and other hunters do contribute millions to wildlife conservation, through groups like Ducks Unlimited and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, and through the federal Pittman-Robertson tax, which directs 10 percent of hunters’ dollars (from equipment purchases and guide fees) toward wildlife restoration, habitat acquisition, and education.

Coke is one of the most skilled outdoorsmen I’ve ever met. In a survival setting, I’d rather have him in my corner than Gordon. He shows us how to ride snowmachines through overflow (open sections of semi-frozen river water) and teaches us how to camouflage a trap to discourage moose and caribou. And he explains–with typical flourish–why he lays his trap sets in the middle of his snowmobile track: “A snowmachine trail to a wolf is like cocaine to the Clintons,” he says. “They just jump right in and huff that **** up.”

When Coke isn’t making up clever analogies–wolves simply find it easier to travel on packed snow–he’s often ranting about “chiclets,” the environmentalists, animal-rights activists, and Democrats who he says are trying to abolish his way of life. His biggest dust-up with those “homo hacky-sack-playing choads” occurred after he killed the Toklat female in 2005, when he received so many death threats that his wife JoAnn called the FBI.

The anonymous calls irritate Coke, but what really angers–and puzzles–him is that he’s not doing anything illegal. “It says in the Alaska Constitution that our Fish and Game Department is constitutionally mandated to manage for sustainable yield,” he tells me. “That means if you, or Julia, or Connor, or someone from Finland wants to come here and kill a wolf, they should have the opportunity.”

Coke isn’t what you’d call thoughtful, but I catch him in a reflective mood one night as we sit drinking beers and eating sheep steaks at the cabin. It’s late, and we’re punchy, so I just dive in with the most important question of the day.
“Coke,” I ask, “Why do you want to kill Toklat wolves?”

“I don’t especially want to kill ‘Gordy’s dogs,'” he replies, “but that area is populated by a whole bunch of different wolves.” That’s why they call it the Wolf Townships, because packs from all over come to hunt and fight and diversify the gene pool. And besides, he says, Gordon Haber’s biology is Disney biology, because there’s no way to tell if this Toklat pack is descended from the original Toklat wolves. A Toklat wolf, he surmises, is no more valuable than any other.

“Okay,” I say. “But suppose that people love the Toklat wolves because of what they represent. A remarkable history. A connection to the park. The embodiment of something free-living and wild. If it could be proved that you were trapping these wolves, would you stop killing them?”

“That’s a lot of hypotheticals,” says Coke, taking a slug from his beer. “Maybe. Maaay-be. The thing is, I’ve been doing this for 21 years. And it’s only a problem when I catch that one collared dog that bothers Gordy and his entourage.”

After a long pause, he adds, “You know, after the second- or third-hundredth death threat we got, my wife asked, ‘Do you really have to trap wolves out our front door?’

“I said, ‘Do I need to eat? Breathe?'”

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