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Wolves killed Alaska teacher in 2010, state says

Craig Medred
Aaron Jansen illustration

More than a year and a half after a young, Alaska teacher was found dead -- apparently killed by wolves -- the state Department of Fish and Game has officially concluded that wolves indeed killed her. A report the agency released Tuesday said there is conclusive evidence 32-year-old Candice Berner was attacked and killed by two or more wolves while jogging near the village of Chignik Lake on the Alaska Peninsula.

Berner's death left the village terrified for days. She had come to Chignik to teach children with special needs. Originally from Slippery Rock, Penn., she was an avid runner who stood only 4 feet, 11 inches.

She went for a March run near the remote community about 450 miles southwest of Anchorage. Fish and Game biologist Lem Butler concluded she was jogging down a road less than two miles from the rough cluster of homes when she met wolves coming toward Chignik. What happened next remains unknown. 

Butler said it was impossible to tell if the wolves were hunting Berner or if she surprised them and they attacked. There is little doubt, however, that the wolves killed her and then fed on her body.

Butler said wolf DNA that was recovered from Berner's clothing matched DNA from wolves later shot in the area. The forensic evidence was consistent with the injuries to Berner and the wolf tracks found around her body. "DNA test results provided by the U.S. Geological Survey lab in Anchorage indicated that two to four wolves were most likely involved ... (The tests) connected one of the wolves killed by (Fish and Game) to the incident," according to a Fish and Game press release.

The state agency killed two wolves shortly after the attack on Berner. Trappers under contract with Fish and Game  later killed another six wolves within 15 miles of the village. Though it was not known why the wolves attacked Berner, Butler said, the animals clearly treated the dead woman as prey after the attack.

There was speculation at the time the wolves might have been sick or starving. That does not appear to have been the case. State veterinarian Dr. Kimberlee Beckmen examined the wolves killed after the attack and found all but two in good to excellent condition. One of the eight wolves directly linked to Berner by DNA evidence "was in apparent good health with very large fat reserves,'' according to the state. The two wolves in poor condition could not be linked to the attack. None of the wolves were suffering from rabies or other disease.

Butler reported he was unable to find any evidence the wolves were defending a food source or had become habituated to human food. Habituation has been linked to other wolf attacks. Wolves conditioned to hang around villages or camps because food is available have been known to lose their wariness and confront -- or even attack -- people.

A 6-year-old boy was injured in a wolf attack near Icy Bay along the Gulf of Alaska coast south of Anchorage in 2000. That attack was linked to habituation by former state biologist Vic Van Ballenberghe, who had studied moose and wolves in the area. He reported the wolf at Icy Bay was fed several times and lived near a logging camp for weeks before the attack.

Several attacks by wolves on humans in Canada were also linked to habituation. It has long been debated whether healthy, unhabituated wolves would attack people. The state study appears to have put an end to that argument.

But Butler stressed there is no need to panic.

"...Wolf attacks on humans are rare and people should not be unnecessarily fearful,'' he said in a press release "People should always maintain a safe distance and healthy respect when encountering wolves or other wild animals."

The complete Fish and Game report, "Findings Related to the March 2010 Fatal Wolf Attack Near Chignik Lake, Alaska," can be found here. Additional information on safety in wolf country is available here.

Even before the report on the Chignik wolf attack was made official, new fears about the danger wolves can pose to people helped fuel a decision by Fish and Game to exterminate a pack of wolves living on the edge of Anchorage earlier this year. Those animals never attacked anyone, but they had followed a number of people and appeared to have developed a fascination with people and their pets. They paid the ultimate price. Over the course of the 2010-11 winter, nine of them were exterminated.

Unlike most other states, Alaska has a large and healthy population of wolves. The animals regularly range into all but the most urban areas of the 49th state, and only a speck of the state is urban.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com