The Green Fire – Wolves and the Essence of Wilderness - Part II

By Jessica Shepherd

We’re the ones who write the stories, and so what else can a wolf be except a symbol for everything good and bad about us, everything we want, everything we’ve lost.

Sherry Simpson - The Way Winter Comes

Click here to read Part I of this blog.

I last saw wolves in Denali in the fall of 2000. I was on a park bus when the driver rounded a corner and slowed to a stop. There, trotting down the gravel road, was a lone wolf. The slim, half-grown animal, silvery in color, stopped below our open window, tipped back his head, and howled. An answering howl not far away indicated a second wolf. I was glad to see her, glad for the people on the bus who crowded together, cameras clicking. But I couldn’t help but feel that this wolf, breathing in the exhaust of the bus, tail between her legs and ears back in apprehension, was somehow less feral, less miraculous. She was probably part of the Riley Creek pack which was subsequently hunted to extinction.

Hunting and trapping on state land outside the park’s northeast boundary directly impacts the park’s wolf population. While the bag limit for hunters is 10 animals, there is no limit for trapping. The wholesale value for a wolf pelt of good quality is about $300. That seems meager compared to the tourist dollars from a half million park visitors annually who come specifically to see wolves and other megafauna.

 An estimated 1,300 wolf hides are tagged annually in Alaska and another 200 or so animals are killed through the state’s predator control program. That doesn’t include untagged animals– which may be twice that number or more. This equates a harvest of roughly 30 percent of Alaska’s wolves annually. Is that a sustainable number? And what would the carrying capacity be if, like Yellowstone, wolves were respected as integral to the natural balance of the state’s game population?

I am not opposed to trapping per se. Throughout Alaska’s history, trapping has provided clothing, food, and income. Like whale hunts, or walrus harvests, the tradition of trapping entails skill in reading the landscape, the weather, and most of all, an understanding of animal behaviors and instincts. Most trappers respect the animals they trap, know better than anyone how many animals are out there, and strive to maintain healthy population levels.

Motorized hunting, especially aerial hunting, is another matter. It doesn’t take cunning or skill to run down a pack of wolves with a snow machine and plug away with an automatic rifle. The same goes for leaning out of a helicopter picking off wolves as they attempt to dive for cover, or climbing into a wolf den with a halogen spotlight to exterminate a female with pups. That isn’t sportsmanship, it’s bloodsport.

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My most recent wolf sighting was in 2017 on a brown bear viewing trip across Cook Inlet. I had been gifted the trip by a friend and, despite 25 years in Alaska, I was giddy with excitement. We made the short flight from Homer to Silver Salmon Creek as storm clouds lifted to reveal the teal waters of the inlet, and touched down on an expanse of sandy beach. Nearby, a mother brown bear, paying us no mind, was teaching a trio of half-grown cubs to dig for razor clams. Departing the plane, we walked in a tight group over a rise and down into a clearing overlooking the creek. We sat on drift logs with a good view of a massive boar feeding on sedges, as it was too early in the season for salmon. We watched, curious, as a distant female bear hurried in our direction through the tall grass. She stood frequently to look behind her. Drawing closer, she veered toward a stand of spruce trees, and that’s when we saw her two tiny cubs, no bigger than 30-pound puppies and just as endearing. At her bidding, they scrambled up a spruce tree for safe-keeping. We soon saw why she had hurried them along. A lone ginger-colored wolf, thwarted in his efforts to relieve her of one or both cubs, circled us and loped along a rise, the wind ruffling his fur, before he dropped out of sight.

Here on the Kenai Peninsula in South-central Alaska wolves are rare. There are only 35 – 50 in an area the size of Massachusetts and Connecticut combined. Despite this, in Jan 2017, the Alaska Board of Game authorized aerial wolf control on the area in an effort to increase the annual moose harvest. Nine wolves were taken the following year.

In Homer, where we live, the closest I’ve come to seeing a wolf was a set of footprints in freshly fallen snow behind our house. They were far larger than the tracks laid down by my 60-pound dog, and they led, unerringly, from the wilds of McNeil Canyon toward the headwaters of the Anchor River. Finding those tracks was a validation of sorts – of the place I’ve chosen to live, the way I look at the world, and the hope that wolves will continue to survive around us and after us, forever filling the night air with their eerie, lonely cries.