Bold wolf taunts park cyclists

Man leaves bike behind at Mile 55 on Denali preserve road; animal uses it as chew toy

Posted: Monday, May 25, 2009

FAIRBANKS - A bold wolf has been surprising bicyclists along the road into Denali National Park and Preserve.

A solo biker on Saturday spotted a wolf at Mile 55 of the park road. The cyclist stopped to talk to park interpreter Casey Merritt, who happened to be sitting in a van.

The man asked Merritt if the wolf was her dog. She told him he should get in the van. The man left his bike behind and the wolf used it as a chew toy.

"Basically, the wolf gnawed on the bike's hand grip," said park spokeswoman Kris Fister. "You could see there were teeth marks on it."

Later that day, a wolf approached three cyclists at the Toklat River bridge at Mile 53, Fister said. The bikers also took refuge in Merritt's van. The wolf walked up to one of the bikes and chewed on a Gatorade bottle before moving off.

The Park Service sent wildlife technicians and rangers to look for the wolf to "throw a little fear into it," said head wildlife biologist Tom Meier.

"It's not a tolerable situation to have a wolf approaching people like that," Meier said. "The wildlife techs are going to try to slam it with some bean bag rounds and put some fear into it.

"Hopefully, we can convince him it's not a good idea," he said.

Yelling at the wolf "did not impress it," Meier said. That's one of the tactics park officials tell hikers and bikers to use if they see wolves at close range.

"We tell people to make themselves look big, yell at them, flare their coat open, try to intimidate them," Meier said. "In the past, we have told them to throw rocks and sticks at them, but that caused a little bit of an uproar."

If the wolf continues its bold behavior despite hazing, park officials would consider relocating the animal to a more remote part of the 6-million-acre park and preserve 130 miles south of Fairbanks.

"As long as it hasn't shown any aggression at all, we'd be hesitant to kill it," Meier said.

The wolf, believed to be a 2-year-old male, is part of the Grant Creek Pack, a group of six wolves that has been seen regularly along the stretch of road near the Toklat River the past few years.

The wolf's bold behavior coincided with the beginning of the tourist season. Shuttle buses Wednesday began carrying tourists as far as the Toklat River at Mile 53.

The park has had past problems with bold or curious wolves. Tent camping at Teklanika Campground at Mile 30 and Igloo Campground at Mile 33 was closed in 2001.

In one instance at the Teklanika campground, three wolves circled a tent with a crying baby and two parents inside. Another time, six wolves approached a man while he walked his dog on the road near the campground. There were also reports of wolves walking through the Igloo campground investigating backpacks and water bottles.

The Teklanika campground was closed to tent camping for seven years before being reopened two summers ago and Igloo campground was reopened last summer after an eight-year closure.

"We don't want to have to do something like that again," Meier said.

There are an estimated 65 wolves in 15 packs in the park, the lowest population since 1987, Meier said.

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