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NW Anchorage wolf pack targeted by state, feds

0131-elmendorf-wolvesThe first of the Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson wolf pack to die was shot by an employee of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in January. It is hoped a state-sanctioned trapper will in the weeks ahead be able to discreetly eliminate the other four to six wolves in the pack. If not, a first-of-its-kind aerial wolf hunt could possibly be under way by spring on the outskirts of Anchorage, Alaska's largest city.

Aerial wolf hunts have become almost the norm in the 49th state over the past decade as attitudes toward predators have shifted away from the post-Earth Day "love fest" of the 1980s and 1990s. Even the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is now proposing an aerial hunt in the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge to aid the struggling Unimak Island caribou herd.

On Unimak, as has been the case elsewhere in Alaska, scientists propose to kill wolves because of what they do. Wonderfully adapted killing machines, wolves in Alaska prey on moose or, in the case of Unimak, caribou. And they are not always selective about how they do it. Wolves answer to their stomachs, not to any human-devised principles of conservation. Hungry wolves do not worry that if they kill too many caribou this winter there might be too few caribou left alive come spring to ensure the survival of the species.

Wolves do not contemplate the future. Wolves function in the here and now. When they are hungry, they try to kill. And if they are lucky and make a kill, they feast.

Elmendorf wolf pack to be eliminated with 'extreme prejudice'

At Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson on the northern edge of Anchorage, however, this is not the problem with wolves. There are plenty of surplus moose for the wolves to eat. But the Elmendorf pack seems to have developed a taste for a somewhat smaller, easier-to-kill prey -- man's best friend, the dog. And it is the danger inherent in wolves hunting dogs that has pushed Alaska Fish and Game and the Department of Defense to the conclusion that the Elmendorf pack should be eliminated, as the military might say, "with extreme prejudice."

The death warrant for the four to six wolves believed to be in the pack was sealed not because of what wolves do or what these wolves might actually have done, but because of what they might do. There is, confessed Fish and Game area regional wildlife supervisor Mark Burch, a legitimate fear that one of these wolves could attack and kill a human, possibly because someone tried to protect their dog. But possibly, too, because killing is what wolves do.

Popular perception in the United States circa 2011 is that "wolves don't kill people," and in North America, they usually do not. Wolves were persecuted on the continent for more than 100 years. Hunted to the edge of extinction, they learned to fear and avoid humans.

All of that began to change in the 1970s, however. Wolves came to be be appreciated for their natural role in fully functioning ecosystems, and organized efforts were begun to rebuild struggling wolf populations. In the Lower 48, the species was brought back from the edge of extinction.

In Alaska, where wolves had never been close to extinction, biologists began to worry about the dangers the animals posed to humans influenced by new attitudes.

Rick Sinnott, a former Fish and Game wildlife biologist for the Anchorage area, was worrying by the 1990s that some misguided, new resident of the city some like to call "Los Anchorage" might try to show their love for a wolf by feeding or embracing it, and subsequently get injured or worse. That never happened. But the state did eventually see its first wolf fatality.

On March 8, 2010, 32-year-old Candice Berner went for a run on the roads near Chignik, a village on the Alaska Peninsula 450 miles southwest of Anchorage. A visiting teacher, the petite woman -- just under 5-feet tall and originally from Slippery Rock, Penn. -- had come to Chignik to work with children with special needs. Berner was training for a marathon when she headed out on the road toward the village airport. She never came back.

Alaska State Troopers eventually found where wolves had killed and partially eaten her.

The incident was a wake-up call for state and federal officials, who had been aware of the increasingly aggressive behavior of the Elmendorf wolf pack since the winter of 2007, when pack members attacked a dog and terrorized the two women who were walking with it.

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Sinnott, who has since retired from Fish and Game, warned last year of indications that the Elmendorf pack had figured out there were a lot of dogs in Anchorage -- and that they are easier targets than 1,000-pound moose with flailing hooves.

Wolves kill moose more often than moose kill wolves, but the hooves of the big animals have been known to prove deadly for their attackers. Attacking a moose poses risks for a 100-pound wolf. The same animal can take down a friendly Labrador retriever with one chomp of its jaws.

Wolves are smart, Sinnott said; "They figure out that a dog is easy to kill."

The wolves are known to have killed at least three dogs in the Chugiak-Eagle River-JBER area in late 2007 and early 2008. How many the wolves really took down is harder to know. Dogs get loose; their owners never see them again. Who knows what happens to them. There were enough problems, however, that Fish and Game took note.

"We started keeping records," Burch said.

State: 22 Anchorage-area wolf encounters in 3 years

Over time, the data started to show a troubling pattern. Dogs were eaten by wolves. People were followed by wolves. Sometimes wolves appeared to be interested in dogs, sometimes people. A pair of women were treed by wolves in May 2010 and spent two hours up there before concluding it was safe to come down.

"Since 2007, we have documented 22 incidents of wolf encounters that cause concern," Burch summarized in an e-mail. "Eleven of those were encounters where wolves were aggressive toward people and pets. Eleven were cases where wolves exhibited clear habituation and decreased fear of humans. I would also add that the frequency of aggressive encounters toward humans has increased recently."

Acting Anchorage-area wildlife biologist Jessy Coltrane said all of the incidents could be traced back to the Elmendorf pack, but whether all involve the same wolves "is hard to know." It is, however, reasonable to believe that wolves that became accustomed to hunting dogs for food would teach such hunting behavior to their pups. Likewise for their behavior toward the risks -- or lack thereof -- posed by people.

Privately, some state wildlife officials speculate that if 22 incidents were reported, there were probably dozens that actually took place. Burch admitted that "there are likely other events that have gone unreported.''

The Department of Defense, which manages Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson (formerly Elmendorf Air Force Base and Fort Richardson), at first didn't want to take any of this seriously, reportedly out of concerns about possible public-relations fall out. Sources in Juneau said base personnel seemed to consider the subject of killing wolves potentially more explosive than that of hunting terrorists in Pakistan with drones.

Wolves are revered by some in the environmental movement. Environmentalists have repeatedly sued to try to stop wolf hunts in Alaska, and engaged in extensive public relations targeting those who support such hunts. Half-term Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, though now long-gone from the governor's mansion, is still vilified as a "wolf killer," though she's never killed a wolf herself.

Environmentalists last year tried to organize a boycott of her TV show "Sarah Palin's Alaska" because she supported wolf management in Alaska.

Burch said he couldn't talk about what eventually went on in meetings between base officials and Corey Rossi, the director of the state Division of Wildlife. Other agency employees said they weren't allowed to talk. Rossi did not respond to a request for comment. Deputy Wildlife director Dale Rabe said "I really don't have the history."

Wolf packs roaming across northeast Anchorage

Something clearly happened in that winter meeting, because only two months ago JBER was warning base residents to be on the alert for wolves with nary a mention of any plan to remove potentially dangerous animals. A Nov. 11, 2010 story on the base's news website said nothing about any plan to eliminate the Elmendorf pack.

The story instead warned base residents "to increase their personal safety measures and responsibilities regarding safety from wolf (sic). According to wildlife agents, due to past incidents with local wolf packs there is a need for those venturing outdoors to take safety precautions."

Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson residents were advised to avoid remote trails, travel in groups, carry air horns or pepper-spray for protection and stay observant. Sometime after that story appeared, however, the decision was made to remove the wolves. A spokeswoman for the base's public affairs office, contacted for this story, said, "Fish and Game came to us and said, 'We have a problem.' The decision was made by Fish and Game."

Herman Griese, a wildlife biologist who works for the 673d Civil Engineer Group later confirmed that the situation wasn't quite that simple. There was a meeting between state wildlife personnel and the base command, he said, and everyone agreed the Elmendorf pack needed to be eliminated before someone got hurt or killed.

Unfortunately, Griese added, killing the wolves is not all that easy. The pack ranges an area from JBER north toward Chugiak and east toward Muldoon, Anchorage's Bicenntennial Park, Eagle River and the Ship Creek valley of Chugach State Park, where the range of the Elmendorf pack abuts that of the Ship Creek pack.

Because of the size of the range occupied by the Elmendorf pack, Griese said, the wolves are not easy to find. Hunting them is difficult, and trapping them is complicated by large parts of JBER being used for training. The military doesn't want snaring or trapping going on in areas where soldiers are engaged in military exercises.

Aerial hunting with the use of helicopters would be the easiest way to remove the wolves, but that is complicated by the already heavy air traffic in and around JBER.

The lone wolf killed to date, a young female, simply got unlucky. She was one of what appeared to be five wolves spotted by a state biologist working on a remote part of the base. He had a rifle, but he managed to kill only one of the pack.

Fish and Game and JBER personnel remain on the watch for the rest. They are now considered targets of opportunity.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com