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Outrage visited on Alaska wolf trapper misplaced

Craig Medred
Alaska Dispatch

There are now people who want Coke Wallace executed, and for what crime? He killed a wolf. Every wildlife scientist who has studied wolves in Alaska considers the death of this wolf meaningless. The wolf was one of thousands to die last winter in the 49th state. Most succumbed to the weather, hunger, accident or each other. Wolves live in a combat zone. Always have.

What Wallace, a Healy trapper, did was what wolves do to each other all the time. He killed one. He wanted the hide. The wolves have no such utilitarian goals when they kill each other. They just want power. They want to rule a territory. They go about it the way humans did hundreds of years ago when tribes -- be they Native American, European, African or Asian -- warred constantly almost everywhere on the planet.

Few in the world today understand this, most particularly when it comes to wolves. They see wolves as friendly, cuddly creatures with families they nourish, some of which is true. Many of the worst of the Nazis had families, too. They loved their families. It did not in anyway diminish their evil or their ruthlessness. Wolves are not evil, but they are ruthless by design. Their natural beauty is that they are killing machines.

Wallace probably understands this better than Rick Steiner, who put a target on Wallace's back by making an issue of one dead wolf.  If you have any doubt about this, go read some of the comments being posted on the website of Friends of Animals, one of Steiner's supporters:

• "On May 18, 2012, Pete wrote: Forget jail time! That guy deserves the death penalty!"

• "On May 18, 2012, Kevin Railsback wrote: Adding Coke Wallace to the list of people I wish the most horribly gruesome death imaginable!"

• "On May 20, 2012, Franz Nahani wrote: …send him to my place and I will feed him to the wildlife here…and any other trapper/hunter…"

I have no idea who Railsback or Nahani are, if in fact they are real people. This is the Internet after all, and on many a website people can claim any name they want or simply hide behind an avatar. But the comments of Railsback and Nahani and "Pete'' are representative of the hate Steiner has managed to generate at Friends of Animals.

Habituated wolves

All of this because Wallace killed a wolf -- but not just any wolf. This was a "special'' wolf in the view of Steiner and a few others. It was what wildlife biologists call a "habituated" wolf. It was, in other words, more akin to a dog, the domestic cousin of the wolf. It tolerated people being close and taking its photograph. And it had in recent years taken to spending its summers near Grant Creek in Denali National Park and Preserve.

Denali officials should probably thank Wallace for killing this wolf. Denali's experience with habituated wolves has not been good. The park had to close one campground and ban tent camping in another in 2001 after members of the Toklat pack began stealing people's gear.

Habituated wolves, unfortunately, have a nasty history of biting people. A 2003 management plan for wolves in Yellowstone National Park, where the animals were reintroduced and now thrive thanks to help from Alaska wildlife biologists, notes the dangers of habituated wolves. 

No matter how friendly wolves might appear, they remain dangerous animals. They have killed hundreds of people around the world. Two years ago, they killed a petite, 32-year-old woman who moved to Alaska from the Lower 48 to teach children with special needs living in remote areas.

Park service officials have long known wolves capable of this sort of thing. When the Toklat wolves became a problem, Denali superintendent Paul Anderson asked rangers to tell people to get aggressive with the animals and throw rocks at any that got within rock-throwing range -- a reminder that people aren't prey.

This, of course, didn't sit well with Friends of Animals or their mouthpiece at the time, the late Gordon Haber. Haber was a one-time scientist who let his love of wolves consume his professional credentials. He and his friends at Friends immediately bit back at the park service.

"Is this a prelude to even more serious measures, especially for the well known Toklat (East Fork) family, whose use of a traditional denning area near the Teklanika campground has been the focus of NPS’s concerns?'' Haber asked. "What about the devastating impacts on this decades-old family and the world-class viewing and research opportunities it provides if NPS decides to relocate “problem” wolves or deter the use of traditional dens to put more distance between these hubs of summertime wolf activity and certain campgrounds?"

Wolf families 

The people who know Denali's wolves best -- scientists like David Mech and Layne Adams and Tom Meier, now the chief wildlife biologist for Denali -- say the talk about a "decades-old family'' of wolves in Denali is nonsense. Mech and the rest studied the wolves and their DNA. What they learned is that while the wolves might look like a decades-long family and seem to be resident in an area because they use an old den site, the reality is that the makeup of the family is constantly changing. New wolves come and go.

The wolves of Denali, Mech observed after some pioneering genetic research, are the wolves of Alaska. By that he meant that the genetic mixing is such that there are no distinctly Denali wolves.

Friends of Animals, and those who buy into what Friends is selling, don't care about any of this. What they care about is people seeing wolves and buying into whatever it is people buy into with wolves these days. "The pack’s home territory is eastern Denali, and as it is one of the packs most viewed from the Denali park road, it is considered a high-value resource for the several hundred thousand visitors that visit the park each summer,'' said Steiner, who shares the widely held view that Denali really shouldn't be a wilderness so much as an open-air zoo.

Knowledgeable people can debate at length whether that is a good thing or a bad thing. Year by year, Denali has become increasingly zoo like. Some people like zoos; some don't. Talk among yourselves. On this one, Steiner, a former professor of marine conservation at the University of Alaska who now bills himself as a "Professor and Conservation Biologist (for) Oasis Earth, Anchorage,'' is entitled to his opinion.

On another claim he is not:  "Park service surveys show that Denali wolf populations are significantly reduced from what they were several years ago, and one of the likely reasons is the continued take by hunters and trappers along the northeast boundary of the park."

Why are wolf numbers down?

Not even Vic Van Ballenberghe, a wildlife biologist who has spent three decades working at Denali, buys that. Van Ballenberghe is a guy who decades ago got in a big fight over wolf control with his bosses at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game before leaving to take another wildlife research job. He has long been known as something of a wolf lover. But he concedes that Denali wolf numbers are down because prey populations -- moose, caribou and Dall sheep -- are down.

Wolf numbers might, in fact, be down a lot more if not for Alaska's abundant salmon runs in recent years. Wolves cannot live on ground squirrels or ptarmigan for long, but they can do quite well for months on salmon. And research by Adams has shown that in the parts of Denali where wolves have access to salmon, they are doing quite nicely despite major declines in the number of big ungulates, what wolves normally eat.

Wolves are big-game killers. That's what they do. That's how they make their living. That's how they survive. They’re cold-blooded killers.

Coke Wallace did to one of them what they do to other wildlife and each other. Coke Wallace became a participant in the world of the wolves, not just a person stealing pictures to fuel their dream that nature is somehow Eden. And for that, a bunch of people who know nothing whatsoever about ecosystems and how they function want him dead.

It's a strange world in which we live today.

Craig Medred's views are his own. Contact him at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com

CORRECTION:  The organization Friends of Animals supports the work of conservation biologist Rick Steiner, but does not sponsor it.  There is no financial connection between the two.