The Alaska Wolf Debate: Q&A with Tracy Ross

Author Tracy Ross discusses her feature story "Dogs of War" devoted to the debate raging in Alaska over the famed Toklat wolf pack.

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For the January 2009 feature story “Dogs of War” senior editor Tracy Ross tackled one of the most controversial battles raging in the wilds of Alaska: the future of the famed Denali National Park Tolkat wolf pack. Anthony Cerretani spoke to Ross about the challenges of reporting from both sides of the fence, what it was like spending time with wolf advocate Gordon Haber, and hunter Coke Wallace, and how she dealt with seeing the skinning of a wolf in Alaska.

The Tolkat pack has been around for hundreds of years. Why was it time for this story?

A 91-square-mile protective buffer—put in place years ago along the northeast boundary of the park to stop trappers from lining their snares and traps on the very edge of Denali—is up for debate in 2010.

Already, trappers and environmentalists are gearing up for the fight.

If the Alaska Board of Game decides to roll the buffer back, the wolves—which have been studied for 70 years and are extremely visible to park visitors—could run the risk of being wiped out.

And you were right in the crossfire with Gordon Haber and Coke Wallace. How did that happen?

I worked as a backcountry ranger in Denali in ’97 and ’98, and saw the Toklat wolves — and Gordon Haber — way back then. Both intrigued me to no end; the wolves because they were so cool and wild-seeming and Haber because he had a reputation of being really intense.

My ranger friends and I would see Haber stopped along the side of the park road waving this mysterious antenna around, listening to something we couldn’t hear. Eccentric people fascinate me, and his face and name stuck with me until I finally met him.

Then, in 2005, I was reporting another story in Denali and ran into Haber in Fairbanks. The three key Toklat wolves had just been killed and he was visibly distraught. I remember thinking, “this could be the biggest story of my life.”

And Wallace?

I didn’t know about him until Gordon told me that he was responsible for killing the Toklat alpha female in 2005.

Then I became very interested, not just because he’d trapped the wolf, but because I saw in him a way to learn about trapping and trappers—what motivates them, how they do the actual trapping, how they feel about trapping the seemingly important Denali wolves.

What did it take for you to get in contact with them and eventually follow them both into the field?

With Coke, it took very little convincing. He’s a neighbor of a family I know from my ranger days, and he was very interested in getting his side of the story told. I wouldn’t say he jumped at the chance when I told him I wanted to come shadow him in the field, but he certainly wasn’t reluctant.

It took a bit more to convince Gordon to let me go out into the field with him. He’s a scientist, for one thing, and looks at things very analytically. He couldn’t understand why I wanted to write about HIM instead of, or in addition to, the wolves. And he was not at all happy when I mentioned that I was talking to Coke too.

Let’s talk about the different sides of the argument here. What’s Wallace’s take on the wolf pack?

To Coke, the Denali wolves are no different than any other wolves. Like many of the trappers in the area, he thinks they shouldn’t be afforded any special protection because, he says, there’s no way to tell if they’re the same genetic strain of wolves as the ones famed biologist Adolph Murie began studying in 1939 and Haber later took over studying. Once they leave the park boundary, says Coke, they should be considered, literally, fair game.

What about Haber. How is his view so radically different?

Haber believes that these wolves are descended from the same ones Murie studied.

He believes they have inherited very special, specific traits, such as how to hunt sheep on high rocky ledges using incredible non-instinctive tactics, and that these traits have been passed down through a long line of specific wolves. This view is very controversial within the scientific community. But at the same time, Gordon has been watching these wolves more than any other living person. He knows them pretty intimately.

Do they ever encounter each other? Do they hate each other?

They rarely come in contact, although Coke does sometimes attend presentations where Gordon is speaking about wolves. And the Healy/Denali area, where both live (at least during the summer, in Gordon’s case) is very small. So they do have run-ins from time to time. As for them hating each other…well, based on what they’ve said about each other, I think it’s safe to say they share a fair bit of animosity.

You’ve reported stories all over the world, from Ecuador to Iran, covering everything from autism to sexual abuse. How was this story different? What were the challenges?

I was juggling a lot at once—and that was different for me. I had two complex, colorful characters that I wanted to present as fully as possible, an animal group that BACKPACKER readers care about deeply—and who are now potentially at risk— a complicated back story just to explain the history of the buffer of wolf control in Alaska, and of the relationship between Coke and Gordon, my own personal experience with the wolves, and the challenge of treating all the players in the story fairly.

That’s a lot to pack into 6,000 words. And then there’s the issue of the wolf skinning…

What was that experience like for you?

Very, very strange. I had no idea what I was walking into when I went to visit Al Barrette at his tannery in Fairbanks. I thought I was just going to talk to him about trapping and building traps. But when I walked in the door, and saw a wolf hanging by the ceiling from its back leg, I was blown away. As a reporter, I realized this was an incredible opportunity to witness and record something few people outside the trapping world ever get to see, so I felt fortunate in that way. But man, you should have smelled it when Al cut the wolf’s stomach open. Julia Vandenoever (BACKPACKER’s photo editor) and I couldn’t get the smell off our clothes for a week.

What do you think the future holds for the Toklat wolf pack?

I really can’t say. I think the wolves are incredibly resilient and that they’ve continued to rebound from near devastation time and again. If the current Toklat pack were to be wiped out, another group of wolves would likely re-colonize their territory, possibly using their den and hunting in the same range they hunted in.

To tourists who don’t know the story, the new “Toklat” wolves could look very similar to the old Toklat wolves. But to Gordon Haber, their destruction would mean the end of a lifetime of passionate study.