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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.

Without Gordon Haber, we may never have known the story of the Toklat wolves, how, on successive returns to Coke’s trapline, two more were caught in leg traps. Or that a few weeks later, the alpha male left his family and ventured east, where he was shot by a man on a bear hunt.

The six orphaned siblings survived the spring, and in May 2005, produced eight new pups. Gordon never doubted that the wolves–either the survivors or “recolonizers,” as intruder wolves are called–would rebound quickly in the Toklat territory. “But,” he wrote on his website, “this numerical recovery does not mean that what happened can be dismissed.”

When Gordon got back to Fairbanks on the night of February 11, 2005, he wrote a letter to then-game commissioner Mike Flealge asking for an emergency closure because he knew the alpha male would return to the kill site–and Coke’s traps.

“But Fleagle said what Fish and Game always says,” Gordon told me. “‘We don’t see a problem because the wolves will repopulate’–as if there’s no other consequence.”

And yet, for Gordon, there is a consequence. He’s invested too much, learned too much, seen things no one else has seen. Like wolves skiing down 60-degree slopes for the fun of it. Or wolf daughters “cooperatively stimulating” their mothers while the mothers copulated with their mates. Or a wolf chewing its dead mate’s head out of a snare and carrying it back to the pair’s den, then burying her body and howling from the bluff above her before running down and laying his beating heart across the stark blanket of blood-stained snow. If you are Gordon Haber, you cannot relent, and you will not, even if people claim your science isn’t true.
They’re out there, the critics who say Gordon is in too deep. His work rarely appears in peer-reviewed science journals, because he rarely submits. If he did, says Denali’s Philip Hooge, his study could cement the Toklat wolves’ protection.

“In 26 years, Gordon hasn’t published in the mainstream literature,” Hooge says. “Cultural transmission, for instance, is controversial, so he has to back it up with factual data. But until he goes through the review process, we can’t use it.”
Gordon agrees that he publishes infrequently, but that when he does it’s substantial work that spans many ideas. “My Ph.D dissertation alone is the most comprehensive, carefully observed account of a large predator population in the wild ever conducted,” he argues. But maybe being a traditional scientist isn’t as important as turning his communion with wolves into direct action. When I hear the story of how he freed the black wolf, I realize he’s gone beyond conventional fact-finding and analysis to righteous activism, something bordering on possession.

It was winter, and Gordon tracked a collared wolf to a jumble of illegally set snares. Five caribou were tangled in them, all in various stages of decay. The wolf sat there, too, snared around the neck and foot. Gordon tried to do the right thing, calling the ADF&G, who told him the game commissioner would come set the wolf free. Gordon waited for hours in the -30°F cold before cutting it loose himself. The moment was cathartic. “He let me massage his head, muzzle, around his ears,” recalls Gordon, practically mooning. “At one point, I was sitting on his back. He could have taken my head off.”

The wolf spared him, but the trapper didn’t. Despite the illegal placement of the traps, the owner successfully sued Gordon for theft. Undaunted, Gordon continues to take matters into his own hands. Last July, he exposed an unauthorized aerial helicopter hunt. And he makes no apologies for liberating the black wolf. “There is no doubt in my mind,” Gordon whispered to me as we sat in the brush last June, “that I would do the same thing again. It was the most incredible experience of my life.”

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