DNA samples confirm wolves killed Southwest Alaska teacher

"Aggressive, predatory attack" was brief, lethal.

Associated PressDecember 6, 2011 

Candice Berner

LAKE AND PENINSULA SCHOOL DISTRICT

At least two wolves chased down and killed a teacher who was jogging on a road last year outside a rural Alaska village, according to a report released Tuesday by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

The body of Candice Berner, 32, a special education teacher originally from Slippery Rock, Pa., was found March 8, 2010, two miles outside Chignik Lake. The village is 474 miles southwest of Anchorage, on the Alaska Peninsula.

Biologists ruled out reasons for the attack other than aggression. Investigators found no evidence that the wolves had acted defensively or that Berner was carrying food. They found no kill site that wolves may have been defending, no indication that the wolves had become habituated to people and no evidence of rabies.

"This appears to have been an aggressive, predatory attack that was relatively short in duration," the report concluded.

Berner's death by wolves was unprecedented in Alaska but the animals were immediately suspected. The state medical examiner concluded that Berner died from animal mauling. Alaska State Trooper investigators found drag marks and wolf tracks around the body.

Eight wolves were culled in the aftermath. DNA from two wolves was confirmed on Berner's body and clothing, including from one wolf not killed.

Chignik Lake, a village with just 73 residents, including 17 students, is off the road system; primary access is by airplane. Berner, a former gymnast, was hired by the Lake and Peninsula Borough School District to teach in multiple communities. She flew to Chignik Lake on the day of her death and spent time with students.

At 4 foot 10 inches and 115 pounds, Berner was fit and active. After school, she faxed her time sheet to the district, apparently changed into running clothes and jogged down the only road out of the community.

The road runs west along the side of a hill. A witness said her tracks made an abrupt reversal as the road curved, according to the state report.

Those tracks had been wiped out by the time investigators reached the village but they said she may have started running back when she noticed the wolves traveling in the opposite direction or became alarmed at their behavior. The wind was blowing from the west and the wolves may have detected her scent.

One or two wolves gave chase along the edge of the road, while another ran above the road and intercepted her. A depression in the snow with traces of blood on the road showed where Berner was first knocked down or fell. Investigators found a second depression 10 feet away, indicating she was knocked down or fell a second time.

Tracks suggested Berner struggled and crawled away, then was pulled downhill. The amount of blood suggested that by then, she was severely wounded. Investigators concluded she died in a clearing 30 feet from the road at a spot where snow melted in a 3-foot circle and a large bloodstain was found.

"Tracks and markings in the snow indicated that the struggle with the wolves was brief and death occurred quickly," the report said.

Her body was subsequently dragged out of the clearing 83 feet downhill into brush.

Four Chignik Lake residents returning home on snowmobiles saw blood on the road and a man who walked off the road spotted Berner's body. Later that night, a man who went to guard the body spotted a wolf nearby and saw that the body had been dragged 70 more feet downhill and that more of it had been eaten.

Alaska State Troopers told villagers to move the body to the village for safekeeping.

A Fish and Game Department biologist found nine sets of wolf tracks within a 30-foot radius of the body but the department concluded that four or fewer wolves were directly associated with the attack.

After the tragedy, when residents were unable to kill wolves, the Fish and Game Department decided to cull wolves within 30 miles of the village and killed eight. One adult female was killed March 26 within a mile of the village and DNA from that animal, as well as from at least one other wolf, was found on Berner's body and clothing.

"The other wolf is unknown, as it was not one of the wolves culled near Chignik Lake," the report said.

As many as three or four wolves may have left DNA evidence but that could not be confirmed by biologists.

Berner likely was listening to a portable music player as she ran but that was not considered a factor contributing to her death because wolves travel almost silently and wind would have masked sounds.

If she suddenly reversed course after spotting wolves, the report said, a flight response or the appearance of one "could have elicited a predatory response by the wolves."

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