Donning a pair of rubber gloves, state wildlife veterinarian Kimberlee Beckmen laid two freshly-skinned wolf pelts side by side on a stainless steel counter in the lab at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
The hide on the left came from a lice-infested gray wolf trapped in the Matanuska Valley. Much of the underfur on the hide was gone and what remained was a matted mess, with only a thin layer of broken guard hairs. The pelt had a rank odor that filled the room.
"We haven't seen a wolf this bad from the Interior," Beckmen said.
The hide on the right, meanwhile, belonged to a wolf caught by a trapper in the Alaska Range foothills south of Fairbanks earlier this month. It also had lice, but at first glance looked like a normal wolf hide. The hair was thicker and darker.
"I know this hide has lice, but I can look through here and I'm hard pressed to find it," Beckmen said, digging through the hair with her fingers.
She flipped the hide over.
"The other place to look for them is in the groin area because the hair is so thin," Beckmen said, pulling hair back to expose the skin.
"There's one," Beckmen said, pointing to a dark speck on the skin.
Then she found another, and another, and another.
To find out just how badly infested the wolf was, Beckmen and two graduate students from the University of Alaska Fairbanks will cut the hide into pieces and soak each in potassium hydroxide. The solution dissolves the skin and leaves the lice behind.
"See all the lice coming to the surface?" Beckmen said, holding out a beaker that had been used to dissolve a small slice of the Mat-Su wolf's hide.
Floating on top were what looked like a few dozen carrot seeds.
"We can run this through a filter and count how many lice are in that section," Beckmen said. "The only way to know it's lice is to see lice."
State wildlife officials are scratching their heads trying to come up with a way to halt the spread of lice in Alaska wolves. They admit it might be a losing battle.
"We already know lice is part of Interior Alaska now, but can it be managed? That's the question," said Craig Gardner, a biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Fairbanks. "I think it's going to be tough."
Lice has been spreading in Alaska's wolf population since the parasites were first detected on wolves on the Kenai Peninsula in the early 1980s. They were probably passed from sled dogs. Though canine lice was passed to wolves, it does not infest in human hair.
The lice showed up on wolves in the Matanuska Valley in the late 1990s. Last year, biologists confirmed the first case of lice in wolves north of the Alaska Range. A trapper brought in an infested wolf that he had caught about 50 miles south of Fairbanks.
Lice bite a wolf's skin and cause it to ooze fluid that makes the bite itchy and irritating. Wolves rub and scratch the bites, damaging their fur and decreasing the insulation and monetary value of the pelt. Some of the infested wolves Beckmen has examined from Southcentral have lesions and sores.
The fact that lice made it this far north surprised some experts.
"It was speculated it wouldn't get past the Alaska Range because wolves wouldn't be able to survive because it would be too cold," Beckmen said. "We've had some wolves with hair loss and you could see lice on them but they certainly aren't dying."
But they might as well be dead as far as trappers are concerned.
When the Department of Fish and Game announced last year that lice had been found on a wolf trapped in the Alaska Range 50 miles south of Fairbanks, the Alaska Trappers Association sent a letter to Gov. Frank Murkowski urging him to eradicate lice in Alaska wolves.
"Lousy wolves," as they are called, are worthless to trappers because the fur is no good, said ATA president Randy Zarnke.
Most of the wolves now caught on the Kenai Peninsula are unusable, Zarnke said. The ATA doesn't want to see the same thing happen in the Interior, or the rest of the state.
"With wildlife diseases and parasites, you either want to control it or eradicate it," said Zarnke, who worked as a disease specialist for the Department of Fish and Game for more than 20 years. "Ideally we'd like to eradicate it from the Interior and if not eradicate it, control it."
That's easier said than done.
When lice were first detected in three packs of wolves on the Kenai Peninsula in the early 1980s, there was a push for eradication, according to Gino Del Frate, the Department of Fish and Game's management coordinator for the Southcentral region.
One option was to kill the infested wolves to assure the lice didn't spread. But that plan caused a public uproar and the department backed off.
"Nobody was excited about taking all those wolves out," Del Frate said.
Instead, the department treated wolves by dropping bait injected with medicine to packs they knew had lice. The effort failed.
"Over time, the lousy wolves spread across Kenai and occurred peninsula-wide," said Del Frate.
It's now suspected that most, if not all, wolf packs on the Kenai are lousy, he said.
A similar eradication effort occurred when lice showed up in wolves in the Mat-Su Valley in 1998. Three packs containing a total of 29 wolves were identified as being lousy. Biologists treated 28 of the wolves and a trapper caught the other.
"We thought we got them all," said Del Frate.
The department didn't receive any reports of lousy wolves for a couple years, but the problem eventually resurfaced. At least four packs of Valley wolves are infested with lice and there may be more, said Del Frate.
"This year we had four lousy wolves reported in the Valley out of two separate packs," he said.
Zarnke said the state erred by not killing off the infested Kenai wolves when it had the chance.
"It was an opportunity 25 years ago for people to let wildlife management agencies do what they do and now we're faced with this problem," he said. "We would have had a good chance of eradicating the problem."
The Department of Fish and Game in Fairbanks has had some success treating lice-infested wolves in the Alaska Range, albeit on a small scale.
Last April, biologists captured and treated the pack of five wolves they knew were infested with lice by injecting them with Ivermectin, a cattle dewormer commonly used in dogs. The goal was to keep the wolves free of lice during denning so the pups would be born into a lice-free environment, said Gardner. The biologists also put radio collars on the five wolves.
After a litter of seven pups was born in May, biologists continued treating the pack by dropping pieces of beaver and lynx meat treated with Ivermectin from planes. They repeated the drop three times over several weeks.
"We saw the pups run over and scarf them up," Gardner said of the treated baits.
When biologists recaptured four of the pups in November to inspect them and take skin and blood samples, tests showed them to be lice free. Trappers caught two additional pups from the pack and the department purchased those pelts from the trappers so they could be tested. Those wolves were also lice free.
"We know treatment has worked for at least a year now," Gardner said.
Gardner suspects that at least one more pack in the Alaska Range has lice and there are probably more, he said. The goal is to put radio collars on wolves in those packs so they can track, monitor and treat them.
If they can do that, biologists can repeat the process of dropping medicine-filled baits to the wolves and their pups at their dens. The state can't afford to go out and capture all the individual wolves in infested packs and treat them, Gardner said.
"We're just trying to see if we can manage lice and keep the wolves' pelts looking good going into winter so trappers will want to trap them," said Beckmen.
But cleansing lice from a pack of wolves doesn't mean it will stay louse free. Young wolves disperse each year and join other packs or form their own. All it takes is one lice-infested wolf to infect a whole pack, said Gardner.
"Let's say a wolf disperses and gets with a pack that was treated and is clean, boom you've got lice again," said Gardner.
Interestingly, the hides of the few lice-infested wolves that have been caught in the Interior are in better shape than those of wolves in the Valley or on the Kenai Peninsula.
"The wolves up here can have pretty poor hair quality but they don't develop the secondary infections that make them smell real bad," said Beckmen. "We've never had any of the ones up here look like the ones in Mat-Su or on the Kenai, where their entire pelt is just disgusting."
There are several questions Beckmen would like to answer but she doesn't have the funding to do so. For example, there may be genetic differences between Southcentral and Interior wolves that make wolves in the northern part of the state less susceptible to lice, she said. Beckmen would also like to test the lice themselves, to see if the lice in Southcentral are the same as those found in the Interior.
There's also a chance the louse found in wolves here are "super lice." According to her research, Beckmen said dog lice aren't supposed to be able to survive long if they are removed from their host.
"Textbooks will tell you lice can't survive off a dog for very long," she said. "I picked a louse off a wolf that we had live captured and that louse lived for three days at my office temperature.
"I don't know if that means lice are arctic adaptive but it did survive longer at room temperature than the textbooks indicated," she said.
News-Miner staff writer Tim Mowry can be reached at 459-7587 or firstname.lastname@example.org .