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Another Bad Year For Alaska's Wolves

By Gordon C. Haber - Winter 2005 - 2006

Copper Creek Wolf Family
The Copper Creek family of wolves studies a wooded valley for hunting possibilities. The radio-collared alpha male is at the lower left, his grayish radio-collared mate second from right. The other are offspring of various ages. A month later, an aerial hunter killed the male and four of the offspring. December, 2004.

Wolves were again killed in large numbers throughout Alaska in 2005. The state issued permits for more airplane shooting, there was much other killing statewide, and even the world-famous Toklat family group was devastated by trapping and hunting.

Three large areas were added to the state’s formal aerial wolf control program in winter 2004-05. These areas and the two where the program began in winter 2003-04 add up to some 35,000 square miles, about six percent of Alaska and roughly the size of Maine. The same five areas remain active as the aerial shooting resumes this winter, possibly with other areas to be added. A total of 420 wolves have been killed as of this writing (October 2005), including 273 last winter.

One of the new aerial control initiatives, covering some 6,500 square miles of the Fortymile region in east-central Alaska, brought the reality of the killing home for me. I have been studying Fortymile wolves since 1993. A wolf sterilization-relocation effort in 1997-2001 was to have been the last control program in the area, but the state reneged on this promise. The 1997-2001 program was designed to increase the number of caribou for human hunters; it was frivolous and unwarranted in many of the same ways as the current program is.

Aerial Hunter Hits Copper Creek

Among the Fortymile groups I have followed closely is an extended family referred to as “Copper Creek.” Over recent years, Copper Creek maintained a late-winter size of about a dozen wolves. It ranged across much of the Fortymile region and southeastern areas of adjacent Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, often on distant winter migrations to hunt caribou. I began studying the Copper Creek family in 1993, apparently early in its history. Since then, I have observed it through a series of natural and human-caused disruptions, behavioral responses, and related changes in its territory, movements, and use of prey.

The established Copper Creek alpha male died in a snare in March 2000. Two unrelated males essentially took the group over within the next few months. One of the newcomers, the new alpha male, helped the mother raise the dead male’s seven pups; the following year they produced their own young, with some of her yearlings present as helpers.

Copper Creek Wolf Family
The Copper Creek family travelling in the single-file manner characteristic of wolves. Open terrain such as this making it relatively easy for aerial hunters to kill wolves.

This provided a rare field opportunity, alongside my similar research on the Toklat wolves of Denali National Park, to gain important insights about reciprocity and other underpinnings of vertebrate cooperative behavior. I had come to know Copper Creek well, not only as a family whose trials and tribulations I had followed for 12 years, but also through the way it stirred my sense of wonder as a scientist.

On January 27, six days after the Fortymile control program began, an aerial hunter found the unsuspecting Copper Creek wolves on an open, snow-covered ridge. He was able to shotgun five of the 11 family members - the alpha male and four offspring.

The alpha female became separated during the shooting. For almost two weeks she searched for her family, until finally reuniting with the five surviving young. Aerial hunters continued to look for these six Copper Creek wolves. Four or five were still alive and together as of April 23, after the last tracking snow had melted and just prior to the denning period.

I hoped that the survival of the alpha female and likely at least one mature male would be enough to keep the group and its territorial and perhaps other traditions going. I also hoped they and any new offspring would be lucky enough to elude aerial hunters in succeeding winters.

But there may never be a clear ending to the Copper Creek story. Throughout summer and fall 2005, the alpha female’s radio collar transmitted from a single location, out of view in brush near a denning area. The collar had either detached or she died there from a natural or human cause. It has not yet been possible to get to this remote location for a closer look on the ground. There was no obvious activity at the nearby den or any other of Copper Creek’s known dens. This was the last Copper Creek radio collar, so it will be difficult at best to find and identify any remaining survivors.

Efforts to stop the state’s aerial wolf-shooting program continue. They are led by a lawsuit in which Friends of Animals challenges this program from various biological and procedural standpoints. A full trial will likely be held in Anchorage Superior Court this winter.

Key Toklat Wolves Trapped

Winter 2004-05 was also fateful for the Toklat family, a group that has survived for at least the 40 years of my research in Denali National Park and probably dates back to 1938 or earlier. Toklat’s losses were not associated with the formal control program described above. They provide an example of the killing that results in an additional 1,000-1,500 or more dead wolves each year throughout Alaska under state and federal almost-anything-goes trapping-hunting regulations and from hidden control efforts. In this case, the trapping and shooting took place just outside the park boundaries.

Coke Wallace
Coke Wallace hauls the frozen, snow-dusted Toklat alpha female away after trapping and snaring her, The trap and snare are behind her on the snowmobile sled. February 2005.

Toklat began winter 2004-05 with the alpha male and female, their four pups of 2003 (17-month-olds), their six new pups of 2004 (five-month-olds), and an unrelated young female of unknown origin who joined the group in July 2004, probably as a 14-month-old, in thin, undernourished condition. She was readily accepted by the alpha pair but endured a week of rough treatment from several of the young adults, particularly the dominant female. But within a couple of weeks she was fully accepted, had returned to good physical condition, and became the primary attendant of the six new pups.

All 13 were still together on October 17, 2004. Two of the pups disappeared from unknown causes by November 21, leaving 11. My pilot and I left the 11 on January 30, 2005 to monitor Copper Creek’s problems in the Fortymile region. We returned on February 11 to take a break from those depressing observations only to be depressed by others.

Our first observation upon returning was of local trapper Coke Wallace and his partner removing the dead Toklat alpha female from a trap and a snare just outside the northeast park boundary. Wallace had just shot her. The alpha male was departing the trapping area with the nine others. He was about to begin two months of erratic behavior related to this loss.

howling Toklat male

The Toklat alpha male howls for his mate from a snowy plateau near the trapping area, the day after the trapper took her away.

First, he took the others 13 miles straight to the established natal den, arriving later that day. They cleaned out the den even though it was under two feet of snow. Dens are not normally prepared for use until sometime after the annual courtship and mating activities in March, and they are not occupied until just before the pups are born in May. The Toklat wolves most likely visited this den on February 11 because it was a place they closely associated with the dead female as mate and mother.

The next morning, the Toklat alpha male retraced the 13 miles straight back to the trapping area. This began a series of at least a half-dozen returns, during which it was obvious he was focused on finding his mate and little else. He no longer seemed concerned about the surviving family members, who could barely keep up with his rapid, determined pace and repeatedly lagged well behind.

Two more wolves were soon trapped on these returns - the young female who joined the family in summer 2004 and a 2004 pup. The young female died in her trap, but the pup eventually broke free with the trap still on a front foot. The pup made it 20 miles back to the central portion of the Toklat territory, alone and still dragging the trap, but was never seen again.

By late February, the alpha male had essentially abandoned six of his seven surviving offspring - three 22-month-olds and three 10-month-olds (his pups of 2003 and 2004, all now adult-sized). They continued ranging together, in good condition, within a central portion of the Toklat territory. The seventh young wolf, probably a 22-month-old daughter, still accompanied the male.

Toklat male

He mated with this female on March 9 and likely for a few days before and after (successful inbreeding is not uncommon for Denali and other wolves). Still, he seemed focused on his dead mate. Overnight on March 12, after the mating, he left the established Toklat territory and went 20 miles straight back to the trapping area, paying little attention to the young female as she struggled to keep up.

Final Throes

The alpha male and young female became separated in the trapping area on March 15; the cause of this separation was unclear. They never saw each other again or reunited with the six others. She ended up 50 miles westward. He began a final series of erratic travels, mostly along the east park boundary, 20 miles east of the established Toklat territory.

Within two weeks he was with an unrelated young female near one of the state’s aerial wolf control areas, just southeast of Denali; she may have been a survivor from a group decimated recently in that control program. Shortly afterward, a snowmobile hunter shot her. The male escaped.

Three days later, on April 12, he returned to the established Toklat territory for the first time in a month, to the area where his six young were ranging. But he left again, alone, on April 15, and soon went back to the area 20 miles to the southeast where he had met and then lost the unrelated female. Two hunters in a pickup truck shot him there, near a highway, on April 17. Like his original mate, he died in his prime.

Even though he lost two more females soon after his original mate was trapped, it was clearly her loss that caused him to become erratic in the extreme, to the point of dissolving his two strongest remaining bonds - with his surviving young and his home territory. Sad as this outcome was, it is perhaps understandable. She had been central to his entire history with the Toklat family. It was as if her death completely erased that chapter of his life.

Readers will recall my earlier accounts of his arrival as a three- or four-year-old newcomer to the Toklat family in 2001, just after being taken from his original family and dumped 240 miles away in the 1997-2001 Fortymile sterilization-relocation control program. Over the next few weeks he found his way, coincidentally, 180 miles southeastward to Denali, shortly after the established Toklat alpha male was killed in his prime during careless Park Service radio collaring.

This female - two or three years old at the time - was instrumental in introducing him to the family, at the natal den where her mother had just produced the alpha male’s (her dead father’s) new pups. The bond the newcomer had already formed with her helped him establish a cooperative relationship with her five- or six-year-old mother. Within a few weeks, he was essentially controlling the group.

The mother maintained a more-or-less equal though standoffish relationship with the newcomer. She never seemed to recover from the loss of her mate. Ten months later she went off on her own and starved to death in her prime. Her daughter and the newcomer were now the Toklat alpha pair.

Losing a mate so integral to his four-year Toklat identity could, by itself, explain the male’s 2005 departure from the group. But it was worse than that.

A Park Service necropsy and satellite radio-tracking data later indicated that she was caught on about January 30-31, just after my pilot and I went to the Fortymile to follow Copper Creek’s ordeal. She had struggled in the trap and snare for 10-12 days until the trapper shot her on February 11. This struggle left her completely emaciated with nothing but dirt and other trap debris in her stomach and all of her teeth broken or badly damaged from chewing on the trap.

The male and rest of the family were probably with her during most if not all of this prolonged struggle and suffering. I have observed the traumatic effects that this can have on mates and offspring in other trapping incidents. The agony and desperation on their expressive faces as they try to help is obvious even from a circling airplane.

Siblings Carry On

The six young Toklat siblings continued to do well and in May produced eight new pups at the same natal den where they were born in 2003 and 2004. Their story involves one sexually mature (two-year-old) male, multiple nursing females, and possibly one or two pseudo-pregnancies. There was never much doubt that wolves - survivors or recolonizers - would rebound quickly in the Toklat territory. But this numerical recovery does not mean that what happened to Toklat can be dismissed as being of little consequence.

First, no biologist, manager, policymaker, trapper, hunter, or anyone else is excused from feeling shame and disgust for the kind of unethical, senseless killing and suffering to which the Toklat wolves were subjected. Unfortunately, much the same and worse is done regularly to wolves throughout Alaska.

Second, the Toklat killings converted a vibrant, extended family with a seven- or eight-year span of ages, and all the experience and accumulated learning that embodied, to a sibling family structure consisting of only one- and two-year-olds and their new pups. Regardless of the number of wolves that may survive, this portends major short- and long-term scientific, ecological, viewing, and other losses. The scientific losses are especially significant in view of Toklat’s unique, decades-long research history.

The trapping that triggered Toklat’s problems just outside the northeast park boundary is still allowed. While a few trappers and hunters did the actual killing, the real culprits are the state and National Park Service biologists, managers, and policymakers who for the last 15 years have refused to support an adequate protective buffer zone in this area and continue to lobby against it.

The consequences of this inadequate buffer were predictable. And what happened to Toklat in that area last winter will happen again to Toklat and other Denali wolves unless adequate protection is provided soon.

Gordon Haber, Ph.D., is an independent wildlife scientist who has studied wolves in the Denali region since 1966 and in the Fortymile region and other areas of Alaska since 1993. Friends of Animals provides the funding for his research.

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