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Traffic takes unusual toll on city's wolves

Kyle Hopkins
There are four wolves in this picture, the obvious gray one, and to the right a dark wolf. Behind them two sets of eyes reflect light. One or more of the three black wolves in this photo are probably among the six that have been hit by vehicles near the weigh station since last summer.
Photo courtesy of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game
Wolf surveillance photo of a wolf crossing taken shortly after the wolves crossed the Glenn Highway, near the weigh station, from west to east. Only one wolf is in the photo, but others were almost certainly with her.
Photo courtesy of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game

At least six wolves were killed by cars along a roughly half-mile stretch of the Glenn Highway outside of Anchorage last winter and fall, with wolf experts saying they've never seen that kind of carnage in a single season anywhere in Alaska -- much less on the outskirts of the state's biggest city.

"They really got whacked this year," said Rick Sinnott, area wildlife biologist for the state Department of Fish and Game.

The roadkill count began in the fall and continued through the winter, likely hammering a single wolf pack that prowls a broad territory east of the Glenn Highway between Eagle River and Anchorage, Sinnott said. All of the carcasses were reported near a small gap in the Fort Richardson fencing just south of the weigh station.

Gray wolves have long been known to slip across the busy freeway, disappearing in the birch, willows and cottonwood that frame the Glenn. The pack had recently grown to at least a dozen wolves and may have been expanding its hunting grounds, Sinnott said.

"It could be just that the road happens to be here, but they need more territory so they're moving a little bit more than usual across the road," he said.

The carcasses serve as a reminder that while a river of bleary-eyed commuters pours along the six-lane highway each day at 70 miles an hour, the woods on either side remain wild Alaska.

Sometimes a little too wild for homeowners like 65-year-old Beverly Bronner, who lives in the Powder Ridge subdivision of Eagle River, where a wolf ate her dog two years ago.

The 20-pound miniature schnauzer, Punky, disappeared from her yard one night during a string of wolf encounters in the area. A "snatch and dash," Bronner said. Only the leash remained.

Just this month, she saw her first wolf since Punky was eaten. A shaggy, gray specimen loping along a powerline route outside Bronner's house.

The wolf didn't even notice her, she said. "He looked like he had a destination in mind."

SHIP CREEK PACK

As of 2005, there were an estimated 7,000 to 10,000 wolves in Alaska, said Mark McNay, a wolf expert who retired as a Fairbanks region research coordinator for Fish and Game in 2007.

In the Anchorage area, the Glenn Highway separates two packs of gray wolves that roam Fort Richardson, searching for hares, beavers and moose just north of Alaska's largest city.

The species can range in color from nearly white in the arctic to coal-black, Sinnott said. They den in the mountains east of the highway, fanning out like spokes of a wheel to hunt.

In the winter, they band together to kill moose but are happy to scavenge gut piles and bones left behind by hunters, biologists said.

"A pack of eight could devour a full moose carcass in less than two days and then move on and be looking for more food," said Todd Rinaldi, a wildlife biologist for Fish and Game. In late May and early June sheep will be dropping their lambs and moose will be calving -- more food for the wolves.

Those hit by cars likely belong to what Sinnott calls the Ship Creek pack, he said. The exact size of the pack at any given time is hazy, but Sinnott said it was thought to number about six wolves in years past and could have more recently expanded to a dozen.

Up to nine wolves in the pack have been seen at one time, said Jim Wendland, conservation law enforcement supervisor on Fort Richardson.

The pack travels in the Chugach Range and on Army land, sometimes going into Anchorage's Far North Bicentennial Park. Its members are marked by dark-colored coats, except for a breeding female, who is gray, Sinnott said. That could make the wolves harder for nighttime and early morning commuters to see on the highway. Or the younger wolves may not be as savvy about crossing the road, Sinnott said.

CAUGHT ON TAPE

Occasionally, the wolves are caught on tape.

Cameras placed by biologists or Fort Rich conservation officials show a gray wolf standing in the snow alongside the Glenn Highway at 2:28 a.m. on Dec. 14. Another black-and-white photo taken two weeks earlier depicts another light-colored wolf -- the same female of the Ship Creek pack? -- in nearby woods.

The wolf in the picture is seen looking toward the camera. It takes a second to notice the outline of another, darker wolf, at its side. And another moment to recognize two more pairs of glowing eyes in the background.

"One or more of the three black wolves in this photo are probably among the six that have been hit by vehicles near the weigh station since last summer," Sinnott said in an e-mail.

Placed to track animals and catch lawbreakers, the infra-red cameras emit a dull red glow -- spooking the wolves when they take a picture, the biologist said. So in nearly every photo, the wolves are staring directly at the lens.

They're usually gone by the following frame, Sinnott said.

To the west of the highway, toward Knik Arm, is a smaller pack numbering maybe three or four wolves, known as the Elmendorf pack. This was the group suspected at the time of eating Punky the mini-schnauzer -- and stalking or attacking other dogs in 2007. It travels from the Palmer Hayflats to the Air Force base.

Unlike the Ship Creek wolves, the Elmendorf pack seems to stay on their side of the highway. They may be defending their territory against the larger pack, which appears to come as far as two miles into the woods when it crosses the road.

Wolves tend to be jittery when they're on another pack's turf, Sinnott said. So even though there are more wolves in the Ship Creek pack, the westsiders "seem to have a home court advantage" when it comes to holding their ground.

RECLUSIVE AND SHY

About 160 moose are killed by vehicles every year in the Anchorage area, Sinnott said. But wolf roadkill is comparatively rare: Maybe one or two reported cases a year, he said.

Until last winter.

One of the dead wolves was picked up by officials at Fort Rich and is in a freezer at the Army post, Sinnott said. One was picked up by a passerby and made into a tanned pelt, which Fish and Game tracked down and now plans to use as a teaching tool for school kids.

The bodies of two "teenage" wolves that were likely born the previous spring couldn't be salvaged, Sinnott said. Another two reported hit were spotted by police or troopers but disappeared by the time officials came to pick them up, he said.

"There's nothing we could do. People could slow down to half speed, but I wouldn't be stupid enough to propose that on the Glenn highway," Sinnott said. "People got to get to and from work."

The reported collisions began in the fall, with the most recent coming about a month-and-a-half to two months ago, Wendland said. "To my knowledge, none (of the reports) came in from any of the people that actually hit them."

Wolves are reclusive, shy animals and it's relatively uncommon for them to be killed by cars anywhere in Alaska, said McNay, the wolf expert who worked in the state for nearly 30 years.

Multiple kills could arise if a food source such as moose carcasses or other prey animals were near the road, compelling a large pack with young wolves to cross the highway more often, he said.

"To have as many as six in a particular locale, that's really unusual," he said. "I'm only familiar with just an occasional random occurrence of somebody clipping a wolf with a car in the road."

Read The Village, the ADN's blog about rural Alaska, at adn.com/thevillage. Twitter updates: twitter.com/adnvillage. Call Kyle Hopkins at 257-4334.

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By KYLE HOPKINS
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