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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.

Sometime after the 13 wolves were snared last spring, two escaped. A black Toklat male was spotted and never seen again. The other, an unidentified gray male with a grotesquely swollen head, appeared repeatedly near the park’s entrance, blood caked around the wire still embedded two inches deep in his neck. I saw this wolf after my hunting trip with Coke Wallace, on a final drive into the park.

Walking out of the willow, he crossed the road, climbed a small embankment, and laid down. Only then did his yellow eyes drift over the snow to peer at me.

Some people, like Coke Wallace, draw near to wolves so they can dominate them. Others, like Gordon Haber, will sacrifice everything–even human companionship–to gaze into a wolf’s private life. I’ve spent the last year with these men–and others like them–researching one of the nation’s most complex land and wildlife debates. Both sides muster persuasive arguments, backed with statistics and science and unchecked passion. Even now, though, I can’t decide who’s right.

But there’s one argument I can’t buy. Some hunters and trappers will tell you that Denali wolves are nothing more than mangy dogs, protected from their one true predator in a glorified petting zoo. Emboldened by the presence of nonviolent humans, they have morphed into something less wild–and therefore less valuable–than a hunted wolf.

Next summer, a half-million people will come to Denali hoping to encounter a wild wolf. They will tap their savings and crowd into line for a backcountry permit, braving Alaska’s unforgiving terrain to penetrate the heart of this great park. When they see a wolf, somewhere between the Teklanika pullout and Igloo Creek, they will believe that they have gained a clearer vision of God–or something very close to it. And for them, the power and purity of the Denali wolf will be unforgettably real.

My last encounter ended abruptly when the gray wolf stood up and padded into the woods. I stumbled after him, following paw prints as big as my own hand. At the top of the hill, I stood and listened, staring hard into the spruce. I wanted to see him once more, and to savor a moment when everything black and white blurred into a simple beauty.

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