Wolves may have killed village teacher

CHIGNIK: Police unsure whether death happened before, after bite.

March 9, 2010 

The body of Candice Berner was discovered March 8, 2010, off a 7-mile gravel road leading to the Chignik Lake airstrip.

PHOTO COURTESY LAKE AND PENINSULA SCHOOL DISTRICT

Authorities were in an Alaska Peninsula village Tuesday investigating whether a 32-year-old schoolteacher, found dead off a road leading out of town, was killed in a wolf attack, according to state and local officials.

The body of Candice Berner of Slippery Rock, Pa., was discovered Monday evening off a roughly 7-mile gravel road leading to the Chignik Lake airstrip.

Berner's father, Bob Berner, reached in Pennsylvania on Tuesday night, said Alaska State Troopers told the family their daughter had been killed in an "animal attack, possibly a wolf attack." Troopers told him it was highly unusual and still under investigation, with the body on its way to Anchorage for an autopsy, he said.

"They wanted to make sure that nothing happened prior to the animal bite," Berner said. "We're totally shocked. You know, initial denial: This can't be Candice."

Berner described his daughter as "small and mighty," a woman who liked to box, lift weights and run. She was training for a race and could get into a meditative state when running, he said.

Troopers would not comment on the cause of death, saying the investigation is ongoing and that they are awaiting the results of the autopsy. Spokeswoman Megan Peters said the body showed signs of predation but declined to provide further details.

The body was found on regional corporation land within the borders of the Alaska Peninsula Wildlife Refuge and therefore was not in federal jurisdiction, said Bruce Woods, spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"I don't think there's any decision yet as to whether it was predated before or after death," Woods said. "In other words, the (woman) might have died of something else and wolves might have found the body."

An itinerant special education teacher based in Perryville, Berner had just arrived in Chignik this week to work at the school there, said Lake and Peninsula Borough School District Chief Operating Officer Rick Luthi, who is in King Salmon. Berner had been with the district since August.

Her co-workers last saw her alive at the end of the workday Monday, Luthi said.

"She had made the comment that she wanted to get out and get some fresh air," Luthi said. "We assumed that that meant a run for Candice, because she had a habit of doing that whenever she could."

Local residents have been concerned about recent wolf activity in the area, but she probably didn't know that because she had just gotten to town, Luthi said.

Just a few hours later, about 6:30 p.m., someone on a four-wheeler came across some blood along the road and discovered the remains had been pulled into tall brush, maybe 10 to 15 yards off the road, Luthi said. Berner had apparently been killed within the past few hours, he said.

Chignik Lake, with a population of roughly 100, is on the south side of the Alaska Peninsula 13 miles from Chignik and 474 miles southwest of Anchorage.

Unlimited wolf trapping is permitted in the area from Oct. 1 to April 30. Hunting regulations allow 10 wolves per person per day from Aug. 10 to May 25, said Fish and Game spokeswoman Jennifer Yuhas.

"These are regulations set by the Board of Game and the liberal allowance of harvest denotes (an) incentivized program to harvest wolves in that Unit," Yuhas wrote in an e-mail.

Fish and Game officials would not comment on Berner's cause of death or say whether predation by another animal, like a bear, might have been possible.

There is an "extremely high" density of brown bears in the Chignik Lake area, but it is somewhat early for bears to be out, said retired Fish and Game biologist Mark McNay, who has studied wolf attacks in North America.

It is prime mating season for wolves -- a time when a lot of individual wolves could be out looking for mates and when young wolves recently separated from their packs could be wandering, he said.

"Those types of animals may be more likely to attack because they're naive, they haven't ever associated with people," McNay said. "There have been some cases where those types of wolves have chased and bitten people."

Wolf attacks on domestic animals in Alaska are not uncommon. A pack of wolves, at least some of them rabid, killed about a half-dozen sled dogs in Marshall in October 2007. Beginning a month later, Anchorage saw a series of wolf encounters that left three dogs dead and several others wounded. Wildlife officials at the time speculated the pack, led by a hungry leader, was targeting easy meals.

But violent encounters with people are more rare.

Last September, a rabid wolf attacked a hunter along the Kuskokwim River near Kalskag, biting the man in his leg before being shot to death. The hunter lived.

In April 2000, a radio-collared wolf repeatedly bit a 6-year-old boy playing in a grove of alders at a logging camp northwest of Yakutat. The boy was not seriously injured.

Then in July 2006, a wolf attacked a schoolteacher walking off the Dalton Highway, along the Arctic Circle. The woman suffered cuts and gashes to her legs but survived.

McNay, who now lives in Kansas, is the author of a 2002 study published by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game that examined 80 wolf-human encounters in North America, nearly half of which involved elements of aggression among healthy wolves.

The cases in which wolves are most aggressive are the cases involving wolves that have become habituated to people, he said.

"There's only been one other case of a fatal wolf attack by a healthy, wild wolf in North America, and that happened in 2005 in northern Saskatchewan," McNay said. "It is extremely rare. There have been other cases, of course, of wolves behaving aggressively toward people.

"The frequency of these cases seems to have increased in the past decade or so."


Find James Halpin online at adn.com/contact/jhalpin or call him at 257-4589.

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