The puppies didn’t know they were being hunted.
On a hillside above the Teklanika River, they pounced on their mother, nuzzled their father, and wrestled each other, chewing on snouts and tails. Through the heat of the day, they slept in the forest, curled up in the filtered light. When evening came, they edged out of the tree wells, skimming the roots with their bellies, and played on the brown grass.
It was June, and silver-gray clouds hung over the wide green valleys of Denali National Park. Beneath Sable, Polychrome, and Eielson Peaks, waves of tundra fanned out like carpet. Beyond the tundra, no people. Only mountains, anchored in glaciers, tearing into the sky.
Pups born into the world-famous Toklat pack cavort without fear in the safety of the 6-million-acre park. Protected since 1952, they roam Denali boldly, brushing up against tourist buses, stealing backpackers’ shoes.
But when food is scarce, they follow the Denali caribou herd past the park’s northeastern boundary and across a narrow no-hunting zone into a windswept valley rich with lichen. Waiting there, just 14 miles from their den site, is an army of hunters that targets the trusting Denali wolf.
One of them, a guide named Coke Wallace, makes no apologies for killing Denali’s wolves. Not only is it legal, he argues, it’s essential to safeguard moose and caribou populations, which hunters kill for sport and food.
The only thing stopping Wallace from decimating the pack is the no-hunting zone, a controversial 90-square-mile buffer fiercely defended by his longtime nemesis, wildlife scientist Gordon Haber. A student of the Toklat for 43 years, Haber has spent thousands of days in Denali recording pack behavior. He insists the safety zone is far too small, and bitterly contests any call to roll it back.
But that is exactly what could happen in March 2010, when the buffer comes up for renewal. Already, advocacy groups are gearing up for a battle that will pit hunters against hikers, state biologists against national park officials, and two obdurate, obsessive men against each other.
For Wallace, the next year is a chance to preserve traditional ways. For Haber, it’s a fight to save the world’s most beloved family of wolves. For the pups I saw frolicking above the Teklanika, it’s life or death. The clock is ticking.
Toklat. If you’ve been to Denali, you know this pack, these wolves. Adolph Murie came here in 1939 to study their impact on Dall sheep, and biologists–and tourists–have been watching them ever since. The subject of Murie’s book, The Wolves of Mount McKinley, the Toklat (or East Fork) pack is the longest-studied group of large social vertebrates in the wild, outdating Jane Goodall’s chimps by 30 years.
I saw them often when I worked in Denali as a backcountry ranger in the late 1990s. It was a difficult time for wolves across the park; hunters and trappers were targeting them more aggressively, often setting snares and traps just inches from park boundaries, and shooting them on sight.
Wolf hunting itself wasn’t new–Eskimos baited wolves with whale blubber 10,000 years ago–but it was getting noticed. Protests poured in about Alaska’s bounties and lax regulations. Questions were being raised about the sanctity of Denali’s wildlife. Concerned about the wolves–and the tourism dollars they generated–the Denali Citizens Council asked the Alaska Board of Game to establish safety buffers where the Toklat and Savage wolf groups left federal land.
The board initially balked, but in November 2000, with controversial predator-control programs on tap elsewhere in the state, it conceded a 19-square-mile corridor along the park’s northeastern boundary. In the years since, the zone has grown and shrunk, depending on which political party held sway. At 90 square miles, the current buffer covers half of the windswept valley where the Toklat and other wolf packs congregate to prey on wintering caribou. Called the Wolf Townships, it is the epicenter of Alaska’s wolf wars.