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Lone wolf survivor

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The white color phase of an Alaska wolf/Wikimedia Commons

A white wolf that isn’t supposed to be alive has finally made the news in Alaska’s largest city.

KTUU.com on Friday reported the wolf in Anchorage after television station viewer LeRoy Polk turned over a videotape of wolf reportedly dragging a caribou hide into the woods along an Anchorage street. Where the caribou hide came from is unclear. Caribou are not native to the surrounding Chugach Mountains.

The 10- to 12-year-old wolf herself is identifiable by a radio collar, now inoperative, put around her neck in 2009. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has known of her appearance in the city for some time. She was seen this summer scavenging a moose carcass along Campbell Creek.

Her Anchorage appearance was unexpected and went unreported at first because of fears she might cause something of a panic or become a troublesome attraction or both.

The wolf was supposed to have died in an extermination effort in 2011. That was the year state wildlife officials decided four- to six-wolves called the Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson pack had become dangerously brazen.

After years of preying on loose dogs, they had begun approaching people out with their pets. In May of 2010, two women approached by the wolves while out with a dog took to a tree to escape the animals. The duo stayed up in the tree for two hours afraid to come down.

Dangerous animals

The incident came only months after those of the opinion wolves are never a threat to people suffered a chilling wake up call.

On March 10, 2010, Candice Berger, a special-education teacher visiting the tiny village of Chignik Lake on the Alaska Peninsula about 475 miles southwest of Anchorage, decided to go for a run on a local road.

A 32-year-old, 115-pound fitness buff originally from Slippery Rock, Penn., “she told coworkers that she planned to jog on the only road that leads from the community to the mouth of the Chignik River that evening,” a 46-page state investigation into her death would later report. “Ms. Berner’s last known location was the school office, from where she faxed her timesheet to the district office at 5:10 p.m. Presumably, she then changed into running clothes and left the school before 6 p.m.”

The time is an approximation because by the time Berner was found at 6 p.m., she was dead. Four villagers returning home from an outing on their snowmachines spotted bloody snow along their route and stopped to investigate. They found Berner’s body downhill from the road.

The discovery was reported to Alaska State Troopers (AST) at 7:27 that evening. Troopers asked villagers to guard the scene until investigators could fly in from the nearest trooper post more than 180 miles away in King Salmon to the west.

Three men took up guard duty, but two of them got cold and went back to the village to get warmer clothing, the state report says.

“The remaining guard drove his snowmachine in circles in a clearing approximately 200 feet downhill from the body using the snowmachine’s light to search the brush,” it continues. “When a wolf stepped out of the brush and onto the trail, the man left the site. When he and other residents returned the body had been dragged further down the hill and more of the body had been consumed. When this event was reported to AST, they instructed the residents to move the body to the community for safekeeping until investigators arrived.”

Unbelievable attack

At first, few wanted to believe what had happened. There were suggestions Berner might have died while exercising only to have the wolves scavenge her body as carrion.

“I don’t think there’s any decision yet as to whether it was predated before or after death. In other words, the (woman) might have died of something else and wolves might have found the body,” Bruce Woods, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman told reporter Jame Halpin of the now defunct Anchorage Daily News. 

That would later turn out to be wishful thinking on the part of a government official trying to ease fears that wolves are dangerous killers. That is a stereotype that led people to drive the animals to the edge of extinction in the lower 48 states.

Wolves, like most wildlife, generally try to avoid people, but like bears and moose they have proven themselves deadly. Moose kill the most people in Alaska, primarily in automobile accidents, but they have also stomped some people to death and seriously injured others in that manner.

Banner’s death was the first fully documented Alaska wolf fatality in modern times. The official state reported issued in December 2011 noted the state medical examiner’s conclusion “that Ms. Berner died from ‘multiple injuries due to animal mauling,'” a field investigation indicated she had likely been attacked by wolves, and a “genetic analysis of samples taken from the victim’s clothing and from wolves killed in the lethal removal action positively identified one wolf and implicated others in the attack.”

Re-evaluating risk

The report on the investigation into Berner’s death was issued in December 2010. The state decision to remove the Elmendorf-Richardson Pack came at about the same time. By March of 2011, the state was reporting 10 wolves dead – six caught in traps, three shot and one run down by a motor vehicle.

“The short-term ‘wolf removal effort’ was considered a success by the state,” Zaz Hollander reported for the Alaska Star newspaper in Eagle River that month. “It is wrapping up now.

“(Then area wildlife supervisor Mark) Burch said that while pinpointing wolf numbers is difficult, he believes there are about four animals still left.

“‘We never intended to extirpate wolves entirely,’ he said. Wildlife authorities hope wolves will return to the area, and ‘as they do, we hope people will avoid feeding them or allow them negligently to get pet food or garbage or even pets. Of course, nobody wants to lose a pet.’

“Biologists think people may have been feeding the wolves based on the way some approached vehicles without fear like they figured something tasty would be tossed out.”

Biologist knew then that the collared female was missing from the body count, but she effectively went dead, too, when the batteries in her radio collar died. There was some surprise when she showed up in Anchorage this summer.

No problems

A sighting along the Campbell Creek bike trail south of Anchorage’s Midtown put her deep in the city, but Alaska Fish and Game spokesman Ken Marsh said there have been no reports of problems.

“Marsh,” KTUU reported, “added that our resident wolf, who has not yet been named, has shown no aggressive behavior, (but) he recommends people remember that she’s not a sheep in wolf’s clothing.

“‘People who see her should remember that she is a wild animal. Keep pets leashed and keep a respectful and safe distance from her.”

State wildlife officials have not named the aged wolf for a reason. They have fears “The Wolf of Anchorage,” as KTUU has labeled her, could become another “Romeo.”

Romeo was a wolf that moved into the state’s capital city in Juneau. He made writer Nick Jans some money, caused Fish and Game some headaches, and sparked a huge public uproar and debate when shot by Park Myers III. Myers was charged with hunting illegally.

At his court sentencing, the Juneau Empire reported, he offered the defense that he didn’t know the wolf he shot was Romeo.

District Court Judge Keith “Levy had to silence the courtroom as someone laughed,” the story said. “Another said they would be waiting when Myers got out. Still another called defense attorney (Kevin) Higgins an insulting name.”

Romeo, oh Romeo

By the time Myers went on trial, Romeo had become something of a beloved member of the Juneau community, though things were never quite as good as Jans would later write in his book, “A Wolf Called Romeo.”

As Empire reporter Kate Golden wrote a year before the controversial disappearance, “the wolf, whom some refer to as Romeo, has been suspected in the disappearance of a beagle and a Pomeranian, and he was photographed carrying someone’s pug last year. Whether he harmed the first two dogs is debated, and some said he was baited in the incident of the pug, who survived.

“(Area wildlife biologist Ryan) Scott sent a reminder message out to the public this week after he got a call that someone had been feeding the wolf.”

A group calling itself “Friends of Romeo” formed after a rumor circulated the state wanted to dart the wolf and relocate it to the wild because of concerns about it killing a dog or possibly harming someone. Friends said relocation would be a “death sentence.”

The scientific evidence would indicate the group was probably right. Lone wolves face low odds of survival when they enter the territories of functioning packs. They are usually hunted down and killed by other wolves.

The danger from other packs in the Chugach Mountains surrounding Anchorage is likely why the Wolf of Anchorage has decided to make the populated Bowl her home. As dangerous as people might be, they are less dangerous than other wolves.

Death zone

“In nearly 20 years of wolf research, only one territorial, solitary-living wolf has been found in the (Denali National) park,” write scientists Thomas Meier, John Burch and Layne Adams. “All other ‘lone’ wolves that survived for more than a few months either started new packs, joined existing packs, or dispersed far away and were lost from monitoring.”

Wolf packs do adopt unrelated wolves with some regularity, they noted, but an old wolf on her last legs is not a prime candidate for acceptance into a new pack. Wolves rarely live past age 12 in the wild where life for a wolf is a war zone. 

Lone wolves usually have a better chance of survival when they pair up, the Denali scientists wrote, but even then it is not easy.

“We have observed many cases of new pair and pack formation in Denali. Many of them have been unsuccessful, when a pair of wolves sought to carve out a territory between existing wolf packs, or attempted to live in an area without a year-round food supply,” they wrote.

“Most of these unsuccessful pairs were killed by neighboring packs. Several new packs that did succeed were formed when a large wolf pack killed off a neighboring pack and colonized the vacant area with its own members.”

Nature is a peaceful wonderland only in the minds of some humans. In reality, it is a killing zone. But it’s hard to avoid letting an animal like the wolf of Anchorage tug at your heart-strings.

It’s one of the things that separate humans from wolves.

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4 replies »

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  2. From the article’s content, the evidence of the wolf attack was circumstantial; yes the wolves fed on her; “an animal mauling” as cause of death does not necessarily spell wolf.
    “As dangerous as people might be, they are less dangerous than other wolves.” (to a wolf). Humans are undeniably the top predator on the planet, and I trust wolves more than the average human.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Saw two wolves on November 22 while skating a small lake out Funny River way. One wolf was running on three legs; its right rear leg had been injured. I could guess how. The other wolf would run a bit and stop and wait for the injured one. They seemed confused by a skating human who could move so fast and so quietly. They were definitely checking me out but I never felt threatened. Got the end of the encounter on video on my phone. Just another great day in AK.

    Like

  4. I lived about a mile from the Mendenhall Glacier and saw “Romeo” on several occasions. I’m no wildlife expert, but I got the sense that he was a very lonely “lone wolf.” I lived in the area for nearly 30 years and never saw or heard another wolf. Juneau like most of urban Alaska has more than its fair share of idiots, so there were always lots of unleashed dogs being “walked” in the Mendenhall Glacier Area. I don’t know if Romeo wanted company, sex, or food but he got a few of the loose dogs before that fool got him. I was within 50 feet or so of him a few times and never felt threatened by him, but I also knew he was a wolf, so I was respectful of him. Wolves are like that, if you’re respectful, so are they – unless they’re really hungry anyway. – I never felt threatened by him and on the couple of occasions that I had one of my LEASHED dogs with me, I never felt any threat. Wolves have been around man long enough to know that man is the real “alpha predator,” they don’t look for trouble with us. There isn’t any part of unpaved Alaska that I’d go in unarmed anymore, but that said, I’d never shoot a wolf or a bear unless it directly threatened me. In forty years, I’ve never been threatened by a wild animal but once. I almost never go out of my sedate South Anchorage neighborhood unarmed anymore, but that’s not because I’m concerned about protecting myself from wolves or bears.

    Like

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