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Off the Beaten Path: Living in wolf country

Posted: March 20, 2014 - 11:01pm
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A desperate wolf in Gustavus pauses moments after giving up chasing a Jack Russel Terrier.  Photo by Bjorn Dihle
Photo by Bjorn Dihle
A desperate wolf in Gustavus pauses moments after giving up chasing a Jack Russel Terrier.

This Monday, during a hike with my brothers, we came across fresh tracks of wolves. Three or four had milled around the trail before heading off into the dark woods. There was something electric knowing they were nearby, perhaps watching and listening. When we returned an hour later the tracks had nearly been erased by the falling snow.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game estimates there’s between 7,000 and 11,000 wolves in the state. The densest populations are in Southeast where deer, by and large, make up their main food source. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates there’s around 5,400 gray wolves in the lower 48. According to the International Wolf Center there are between 53,600 and 57,600 wolves in Canada.

One of many reasons I love living in Juneau is because all I have to do is go outside and I’m in wolf country. Their range stretches from the edge of suburbia to the Juneau Icefield — I’ve seen tracks on the upper stretches of the Mendenhall Glacier, in Death Valley and on the Meade Glacier. Many of us have encountered tracks, kills and if, we’re lucky, wolves in the woods and mountains surrounding town. Watching a pack moving along an alpine ridge, or listening to howling in deep forest is something you don’t easily forget. While healthy wolves almost always avoid people, sometimes if they’re sick, old, starving or if there’s a lot of deer near a residential area, they may come to the edge of a town. Out of desperation or irritation, they’ll occasionally turn to attacking dogs.

In North America attacks on humans are very rare. You’re more likely to be trampled by pigs while vacationing in Iowa. The few attacks that have occurred usually involved habituated, injured, starving or sick animals. There’s been one verified fatal attack in Alaska since statehood. Most people living in wolf country know this, but due to movies like The Grey, the misperception of North American wolves having a penchant for hunting humans is still being perpetuated.

According to ADF&G each year in Alaska around 1,300 wolves are killed by hunters and a trappers, and up to an additional 200 or so are taken in state sponsored control programs. Populations remain stable and in some areas, according to many locals who compete with wolves for moose and caribou, they’re too abundant. With the ability to breed at two years of age and having several pups in a litter, wolf numbers rebound quickly if prey populations are healthy.

In the last month there’s been reports of two wolf attacks on dogs in northern Southeast Alaska. One dog, as reported in the Chilkat Valley News, north of Haines was killed and eaten. The dog’s owner, Hannah Bochart, when interviewed, despite having what for most would be a very traumatizing experience, spoke of the attacking wolf with compassion. She described it approaching her while she was walking four dogs, and looking “weak and wobbly” and “scared and exhausted”. Though it killed one of her dogs, Bochart stated she “wouldn’t want this to end with the wolf being shot”.

Living in wolf country is a gift to some, a curse to others and for some it’s just normal. Many people have strong and sometimes irrational opinions of wolves that frequently tell more about human nature than the actual wolves. No other creature has been as villianized and, in contemporary times, as romanticized.

A while back I had conversation with an older man, a lifelong hunter and fisherman, who offered one of the best opinions on wolves I’ve heard.

“Wolves are perfect,” he said with a twinkle In his eyes, “at being wolves.”

I can’t imagine living anywhere without wolves. A hike would be a lot less interesting. The woods would feel empty. The mountains would seem lonesome.

Thankfully, living in Juneau, wolves are never too far away.

 

• Bjorn Dihle is a writer based out of Juneau. He can be reached at bjorndihle@yahoo.com.

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