Villagers unnerved by fearless wolves after teacher's death

BOLD: Pack thought to have killed teacher in Chignik Lake seen close to village again.

March 10, 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

Villagers in Chignik Lake were on patrol Wednesday, hunting for wolves they blame in the death of a 32-year-old schoolteacher while she was jogging on an isolated road this week.

Candice Berner was found Monday evening along a road leading out of town just a short time after leaving work. State officials haven't yet determined her cause of death, but those who live in the village feel they know.

Tuesday night and again Wednesday morning, villagers said, an armed group of men was out roaming on snowmachines in search of tracks left by wolves, which people say have been coming too close to town lately.

"We approached them last night, but we ended up losing them," said Fred Shangin, 32, who is among the hunters. "They were right by the village again. They started running, we started chasing them but they came up to a creek we couldn't get across."

Villagers say people are on edge, concerned with the boldness of wolves in the wake of Berner's death.

Berner, who came to Alaska from Slippery Rock, Pa., was a special education teacher for the Lake and Peninsula School District. She was based in Perryville but traveled to different towns teaching. She arrived in Alaska in August, said her father, Bob Berner.

"She's a person of adventure. She likes travel," Berner said. "She wanted to see Alaska, and she thought this would be a good way to do that."

Berner, who stood about 4 feet, 11 inches tall, liked to box, lift weights and run; she was training for a marathon when she was killed.

School district officials say she left work at the end of the day Monday to go for a run on the road out of town.

Four people riding snowmachines along the road came across her body about 6:30 p.m. Monday. Gregory Kalmakoff, 23, said by phone Wednesday he and the others had been out riding at Portage Bay and were on their way back.

"There was a blood spot on the road," he said. "I turned around, looked and there was drag marks going down a little hill."

There were wolf tracks in the new snow and footprints left by a person, he said. It appeared something had been dragged off the road, said Kalmakoff's cousin, 24-year-old Jacob Kalmakoff, who troopers say was among those who discovered the body.

"We seen her gloves on the road where she was running," Kalmakoff said. "She didn't get away too far from them; they took her down pretty fast. You could see a blood trail of her body getting drug down the hill."

They went down the hill to investigate and found Berger's remains not too far down. Berner's arms and head had been mangled, Jacob Kalmakoff said.

The group alerted others in town. Later Monday night, with several people at the scene, wolves were spotted in the area, Jacob Kalmakoff said.

"After the wolves came back, they took her up to the village," he said. "The wolves weren't scared of nothing. They were just circling them down there, trying to look for an opportunity to get back in there."

Alaska State Troopers say there was predation on the body but they haven't concluded whether it was before or after death. Investigators told Berner's family in Pennsylvania that she had been killed in an animal attack, possibly by wolves.

Troopers spokeswoman Beth Ipsen said Wednesday the investigation was continuing and authorities were awaiting the results of an autopsy to determine the cause of death.

Dr. Katherine Raven, the state medical examiner, said the autopsy was scheduled for this morning and the results -- most likely not including what kind of animal might be involved -- will be forwarded to troopers, who will determine what happened.

"You can certainly tell by certain injuries that it's a big animal, small animal," Raven said. "But truly our expertise isn't what kind of animal it is. Our expertise is if it's animal versus something else."

There are plenty of bears on the Alaska Peninsula, but it would be very uncommon for them to be up and moving at this time of year, said Fish and Game spokeswoman Jennifer Yuhas. There have been no recent reports of bears in the area, she said.

Fish and Game has, however, gotten recent reports of wolves, which are common on the Alaska Peninsula, Yuhas said.

"Residents have not expressed concerns about human safety," Yuhas said in an e-mail. "They frequently express concern about the effects of wolf predation on moose and caribou populations. We have also received reports that a few dogs are killed each winter by wolves, but none of the reports came from Chignik."

Fish and Game estimated in 2008 that there were between 200 and 300 wolves in 30 to 50 packs in the Northern Alaska Peninsula Wolf Management Area, with a wolf density estimated at seven animals per 1,000 square kilometers.

Because of the high density and the impact they have had on local caribou, the Board of Game recently took up a proposal that could allow aerial wolf hunting if caribou numbers dwindle. The proposal passed but does not take effect until July 1, Yuhas said.

Johnny Lind, a resident of Chignik Lake and member of the Chignik Advisory Committee to the Board of Game, said there is no doubt wolves are getting bold in the area. There are no caribou and moose numbers are down because of sickness and predators, he said.

"They're just hungry," Lind said. "There's a lot of snow at this time of year and it's hard to find food for them.

"They've been having sightings nearby last year, but not this close though. They're right in town, looking for food."


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

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