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.

Photo: Darrell Gulin / The Images Bank via Getty Images

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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.

Coke Wallace and Gordon Haber first locked horns over the Toklat in 2001. Bitter enemies who frequent the contested buffer, they’ve been sparring ever since.

“I remember the day Gordy became a nuisance to me,” says Coke, 44, whose face is a smashup of Woody Harrelson and Sean Penn. Alaska-raised and proud of it, Coke lives with his wife and son in the Wolf Townships, where he’s been laying his traps and snares for more than 20 years.

“There were wolves over here and wolves over there,” says Coke, remembering the brisk October day his buddy Brent Keith called him to say it sounded like every wolf in central Alaska was carrying on in his backyard. “It was, as we say in the guide-hunting business, a target-rich environment.”

Heading out, Coke and Brent found 12 wolves sunning themselves on an outcropping, their distended bellies full of moose. The men crawled up and opened fire, killing seven.

Almost immediately, Haber, who monitors multiple wolf packs from the air using radio telemetry, zeroed in on the carnage. “A couple days later,” Coke recalls, “people were calling me at home inflicting me shit over something I do that’s completely legal: state land, state license, state-sanctioned season, state animals.”

Coke also claims that Haber buzzed his house several times a week in a small plane: “It got so bad my 4-year-old wouldn’t go outside because of the scary man in the sky.”

Tensions between the men ran high for weeks, then settled into an uneasy détente. But the word was already out. In 1992 and 1993, Friends of Animals had taken out full-page ads calling for a tourism boycott until aerial wolf killing stopped. Little came of them, except to put the Board of Game on notice that it could no longer operate in a vacuum.

Thanks to Haber, the scrutiny increased again. Nothing happened immediately, but in March 2004 the board surprised everyone with a decision to maintain–rather than reduce–the buffer’s boundaries. At least one member admitted to the Associated Press that the vote was motivated by a desire to make wolf hunting elsewhere in Alaska more palatable.

Coke and other hunters roared in protest, but this time Coke’s anger was directed at Governor Frank Murkowski, who he accused of capitulation to “ecoterrorists,” and at animal lovers who fell for what he calls Haber’s “false biology.”

The fragile peace between Wallace and Haber held until the bitter-cold morning of February 11, 2005, when Coke had had enough. With his buddy Adam, he was out in the Wolf Townships checking the wire snares and metal leg traps he had scattered in the willow around a frozen horse carcass. The snares hung snout-high on a wolf, and the leg traps lay concealed in the snow beside Coke’s snowmobile trail.

Coke didn’t know he had a wolf in his trap that morning, but he’d brought his trailer anyway. If he had gotten lucky, he’d need to get the wolf–or lynx or moose or caribou–back to the small outbuilding on his property where he skins what he catches, the place he calls “the petting zoo.” But he did have a wolf, an adult the color of river stones that happened to be the Toklat’s alpha female, easily identified by her park- service collar. And he shot her, swiftly and cleanly, just like he always does, with his favorite gun, a Ruger MK II.

Then Coke did something he’d never done. Haber’s Cessna 185 came into view, and Coke acted out. Maybe it was frustration, or hatred, or overheated rivalry. As Haber circled, Coke pulled his black balaclava over his face, put on his sunglasses, and stuck the barrel of his pistol in the dead wolf’s mouth. “When I saw Gordy up there with his camera, I said, ‘This is gonna cost me a shitload of grief,'” says Coke. “‘So I’m gonna make it worth it.'”

Coke knew that within days, animal rights activists would be calling his home, threatening to poison him and his family if he didn’t stop killing park wolves. He knew the hostile letters would arrive, calling him an “asshole dirtbag murdering son-of-a-bitch,” from people threatening to hunt him.

With his free hand, Coke gave Adam his camera, telling him to take a picture. Then they coaxed their Ski-Doos to 20 miles per hour, pulling the dead wolf down the Stampede Road. Back at the shed, Coke unloaded the wolf’s body; he’d remove her collar later and turn it in to the park service biologist, following federal regulations, like he always did. But first, he had a call to make–to a T-shirt company.

Coke still smirks when he thinks about the message he had silk-screened above the picture of himself, looking like an Alaskan Sandinista, holding Gordon Haber’s prized Toklat wolf by the throat. He likes to imagine the gash it must have torn in Gordon’s oozy, wolf-loving heart. “Haber has violated my civil liberties,” he declares, “and I can’t get the government to do anything about it because he has a herd of attorneys behind him.”

Coke’s T-shirts come in heather gray and olive green, in a full size run, so you can buy one for your kid. The slogan, printed in square black letters, reads: Visit Alaska This Summer or the Wolf Gets It!

Gordon Haber first met the Toklat wolves in 1966, when he started working summers as a seasonal ranger in Denali. A graduate student in biology at Northern Michigan University, he sought out Murie, who lived in a cabin overlooking the East Fork of the Toklat River, 47 miles into the park.

Few people had explored the East Fork, and Gordon swelled with the raw beauty. From Murie, he learned that the wolves ranging the East Fork and Teklanika Rivers were descended from the same line Murie had first studied almost 30 years earlier.

A drying rack. (Photo: Julia Vandenoever)

Four decades later, Gordon, who now holds a Ph.D in zoology, is still watching wolves. He has sacrificed everything in that pursuit. Never married, he has no family and few hobbies. When snow closes the park in October, he holes up in a cheap motel in Fairbanks (which he didn’t want revealed because of “security reasons”), waiting for the next break in the weather, when he can catch the faint beeping of signals emitting from the radio-tracking collars on Denali wolves. He owns no fancy hiking gear and spends nearly every dime he gets from his sponsor, Friends of Animals, on flight time.

I met Gordon in March 2005, shortly after Coke Wallace trapped and killed the alpha female. He was standing at the counter of his motel, and seemed overburdened, like a man who had just felt gravity for the first time. A former hockey player, Gordon is stout but not chubby, with plum-colored bags under his eyes. He’s also awkward, intense, and terse, mostly because he’s always thinking about wolves.

His routine is compulsively ascetic. In winter, he dehydrates himself so he and his pilot can circle a wolf pack for hours without stopping to pee. Every other day during every single summer, he hikes the same distance at the same pace to the same remote hillside to watch his “critters” loafing around their den. When they emerge, he documents every footstep, lip curl, and howl, his notes filling 155 weatherproof books.

Gordon’s years of research have led to some interesting theories. In the mid-1970s, he followed the Toklat family group (as he insists they be called) for 2,700 miles over a five-winter period, recording every kill, den site, and meal. That research, he boasts, is the most detailed analysis of wolf-prey interactions ever published. It also fed his belief in the wolf’s extraordinary sociability and, in his mind, elevated their social organization to near-equal standing with humans.

“Sophisticated family groups are what set wolves apart,” he says. “Their social organization represents the ultimate of any vertebrate. They have high levels of altruism, successful inbreeding, cross-generation learning, and genetic transfer. It’s a more sophisticated form of social organization than human societies. Which is why it burns me up when people say it’s the population, not individual wolves, that matters.”

But scientific arguments, especially controversial ones, take years to wind through academia, and most wolf biologists continue to question his theory of cross-generation learning, the idea that wolves pass on specific behaviors. Still, Gordon’s greatest achievement came in 1980, when federal officials designated 80 million acres in Alaska as wilderness based in part on his paper, “Socio-ecological Dynamics of Wolves and Prey in a Subarctic Ecosystem.” The so-called Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act enlarged Denali alone by 4 million acres. And yet, ironically, it excluded the area Gordon pressed hardest for–the Wolf Townships.

Because of his ongoing research–and bullheadedness–Gordon has become a permanent fixture in the park. Operating under a special research permit, he comes and goes with few restrictions. During the summer, he drives to an unnamed spot on the road and hikes exactly 41 minutes to the Toklat den. Come winter, he flies over the silent, whitewashed valleys listening to state-owned radio frequencies that he sued the Federal Communications Commission for access to.

On that fateful day in February 2005, Gordon’s signal began beeping long before he reached the park’s northeastern boundary. He and his pilot had just returned from the Fortymile River, where they’d watched another of Gordon’s study groups, the Copper Creek pack, get gunned down by state-sanctioned aerial hunters. When they realized the signal was coming from the Wolf Townships, their hearts sank.

A necropsy revealed that the alpha female sat in Coke’s trap for 10 days to two weeks, eating dirt and rocks. She lost 15 percent of her body weight and broke all of her teeth.

Surprisingly, Gordon harbors little overt animosity for Wallace. To him, the trapper is a pawn, a hit man for biased scientists and pandering politicians. “While a few trappers and hunters did the actual killing,” Gordon wrote on his website, “the real culprits are the state and National Park Service biologists, managers, and policymakers who for the last 15 years have refused to support an adequate protective buffer zone and continue to lobby against it.” (Go to for more on Haber’s research.)
Gordon often wonders what tourists would think if they knew that taxpayer-funded scientists were allowing Coke Wallace to starve and shoot Denali wolves just seven miles from the park. He wonders if they know that the killing could be prevented by expanding the buffer or, better yet, by closing the entire Wolf Townships to trapping and hunting.

Just in case they don’t, he says, he’s taking measures into his own hands. “I’m watching one of the most valuable biological goldmines on Earth being treated like it’s not worth 10 cents by a bunch of ignorant, ill-trained state biologists who, quite frankly, are guilty of scientific misconduct,” he told me. “I’ve had it. I’m going to hold these guys accountable. I hope they understand I’m their worst nightmare.”

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.

“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 shit 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?'”

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.

Gordon Haber (Photo: Julia Vandenoever)

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.”

By the time this story goes to print, the Toklat puppies I watched last summer will be 6 months old. It will be winter in Alaska, and the ground will be covered in snow.

The adult wolves will continue to provide for the puppies, until their legs are long enough to hunt for moose and sheep. If they survive, that is.

According to Haber, when Coke and two other hunters killed the Toklat alpha members in 2005, they erased years of sophisticated–and specialized–hunting practices. Toklat subsists on moose and, more importantly, an abundant sheep population. Only in lean years has it turned to caribou.

“But hunting sheep isn’t something you can just do,” Gordon says. “It takes two to three years to learn that stuff.”
The orphaned wolves have been lucky so far. Shortly after their parents died, the park’s snowshoe hare population exploded. Biologists estimate it peaked at 50 percent above average, and Gordon recalls spotting as many as 70 hares jumping around within feet of the wolves.

But now that explosion is dying off, and the wolves will be forced to test their skills on the treacherous slopes where sheep hang out. At 4 years old, the more mature wolves have begun to show some proficiency. But the next two years will be critical to their–and the puppies’–survival.

If the game board rolls the buffer back to the park boundary, the Toklat pack will be seven miles closer to the hunters’ traps and snares. Without hares, and faced with the difficulties of sheep hunting, they will likely turn to the Denali caribou herd for sustenance.

When the buffer comes up for review, state biologists will once again claim that the Toklat wolves are no more important than any other wolves in Alaska. Like Cliff Judkins, they’ll say the environmentalists will never stop, no matter how big the buffer gets.
“I think this controversy will go on until there’s no hunting in Alaska at all,” Judkins says. “Those people will never be happy. It’s nice to have wolves that come up to tourist buses, but that’s not what a wolf really is. [Denali] is like a zoo without a fence.”

In the past, the NPS has taken a hands-off approach to the buffer. But Assistant Superintendent Hooge says that hunters are increasingly targeting the park boundary, putting greater pressure than ever on the wildlife.

He tells me the park will likely come out in support of the buffer if the increased pressure continues. “The East Fork [aka Toklat] and Jenny Creek wolves are going to be real close to these areas,” he explains. “We don’t want the buffer to expand forever, but we do feel strongly that it is an essential wildlife habitat for the park.”

Last year alone, 13 collared wolves were trapped by 13 different people, six of them within a few miles of the buffer. In February, a visiting trapper caught six wolves in snares set near its border, and six Toklat members disappeared from the same area.
According to Al Barrette, the game board has already decided to roll the buffer back. Judkins says he’ll wait to hear public testimony, but adds that there’s simply too much opposition to limiting trapping in the area–and no practical way to protect just the Toklat pack. If there were, he says, the outcry would probably cease, and both sides could claim victory. “But you can’t put a halo over each wolf,” he tells me.

Barrette thinks there’s ample cause for removing the buffer. “The wolves went outside of it and still got caught,” he says. “The preservationists claimed that closing off this section would keep trappers from catching Denali wolves. It didn’t work.”

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.

From 2023