Wolf sighting sparks discussion on their role in our world, and our role in theirs

Wolves are controversial. Some folks think they are big, smart, happy dogs. Others believe all wolves should be shot on sight. There are those who would pay thousands of dollars just to see a wolf in the wild. And those who would pay thousands to eliminate the wolf from the landscape.

The middle road is likely the correct course.

A couple of days back, a single wolf meandered its way along the tide line near our boat. It appeared to be searching for washed up salmon on the Kvichak River beach.

This is the first time I have ever seen a wolf in summer along the beach where I fish. In this instance, I stand close with those in the big, happy dog group.

None of my crew had ever seen a wolf outside of a zoo. They were thrilled, but the excitement was tinged with a tiny bit of fear: “I wouldn’t want to meet up with three of those critters on the beach.”

They were all a bit skeptical when I told them that accounts of wolves attacking people are almost nonexistent or unsubstantiated. The only real instance I am aware of, in the last half-dozen decades, happened in 2011 near Chignik Lake on the Alaska Peninsula, where a woman who was jogging was killed by multiple wolves.

It can happen. The odds of being struck by a meteor are similar.

[The life of Riley, former leader of once-mighty Denali wolf pack, reaches its end]

I recall walking home on a snowshoe trapline north of the Yukon late one night. There was a pack wolves around. I had not seen them, though I had heard them howl several times during the day.

I trapped for a living, so I spent part of the day trying to maneuver for a shot at one. It was a very cold moonlit night, north of the Arctic Circle. It was the early 1970s. Wolf hides were valuable, and a couple of wolves would add a lot to my catch of mostly marten.

I was excited to hear wolves howling close behind me. I backtracked a quarter mile and laid in wait. I had a look at two wolves, but no clear shot.

The memory of that moonlit moment is worth far more than a wolf hide to me.

I am not alone when it comes to being stimulated by a wolf sighting. Thousands of people travel to Denali Park with the hope of getting a glimpse of a wolf.

That’s worth a lot of dollars to the state of Alaska. It does not do diddly for the trapper. It doesn’t do much for the general hunting population either.

Those guys are looking for a shot at a caribou. How much does the state of Alaska’s predator control plan do for hunters? There is little question it can provide a few more ungulates for the freezer. However, taking a major predator from the food chain will undoubtedly have a trickle-down effect on the rest of the ecosystem.

Those who are in the woods surely have noticed subtle differences in wildlife. There are fewer ravens and fox and more coyotes in areas with active wolf control.

I’m not judging, I’m just saying. A wolf seen while walking does not provoke the same heightened awareness that a close bear encounter might. Hunters might attempt to position themselves for a shot, others might reach for binoculars.

Either way the binocs will come out. Why are people so enthralled by the wolf? It may be the undefinable relationship between our best friend, the dog, and the undefinable wild that is exemplified by the wolf.

Wolves also are communal. People can relate to that.

The guy who traps a wolf is pleased just to catch one. It is money to him. It is an indication that he has become successful at his trade. A wolf is arguably the toughest animal to catch.

A farmer who has had a wolf kill his livestock has no such illusions. The wolf is just vermin.

These people are anomalies, departures from the general public. For most, we feel we have a bilateral relationship with the wolf. We idolize the wolf and his lifestyle — as we compare him with Fifi on the couch. Reality says different, but we are ruled by our perceptions, not always by fact.

The argument over how to treat this animal at the height of the food chain will not end in Alaska’s foreseeable future. However, the sighting of this impressive animal, on a Kvichak River beach, placidly going about his daily business, should remind us all that this is a discussion well worth carrying forward.

John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and a two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.