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,
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
after losing his mate and two other females, the Toklat alpha male traveled
alone, erratically, far from his home territory and surviving young. A hunter
shot him shortly after this photo was taken. April 2005.
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.
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
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
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