With a pack of bold, hungry wolves running around the outskirts of Fairbanks snacking on pet dogs, some residents in Alaska's second-largest city are getting skittish.
"It's not a common situation," Cathie Harms, spokeswoman for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Fairbanks, said of the wolf pack that has been lurking around residential areas of North Pole and Two Rivers for the past month. "Everybody is used to seeing moose on the road, but not everybody is used to seeing wolves in their yard."
Two dogs have been killed by what state wildlife officials suspect is the same pack of wolves -- one in North Pole on Oct. 31 on the edge of the Chena Lake Recreation Area and one at 19.5 Mile Chena Hot Springs Road on Nov. 22 -- while a third dog escaped the jaws of death when its owner chased down a wolf in his truck after it grabbed his 20-pound schipperke/dachshund mix from his yard on Nov. 27.
In the past week, the Department of Fish and Game has received several calls from people reporting wolf sightings along the first 20 miles of Chena Hot Springs Road, as well as residents worried about their dogs and children. Everywhere Harms goes, people ask her about the wolves.
"Everybody is talking about it, wanting to know what's happening," she said.
As far as posing a threat to humans, Harms said these wolves haven't done anything to indicate they will approach people. Wolves generally try to avoid humans, and instances of human-wolf encounters are rare in Alaska, even though the state has thousands of wolves. Even so, Harms said it's better to be safe than sorry.
"We don't have any evidence these wolves are a danger to humans, but I would encourage people to be careful," she said. "I'm not going to tell them to panic, but I would certainly be careful."
Biologists suspect the pack roaming along Chena Hot Springs Road consists of two adults and four or five yearlings, Harms said. Judging from recent reports, it appears the pack may have split up and spread out.
Alaska State Troopers received a 911 call at 3:20 a.m. on Friday from a woman at 14 Mile Chena Hot Springs Road who said she had wolves in her yard. The woman was worried the wolves might try to come inside and kill her cats, said Lt. Lantz Dahlke with fish and wildlife troopers in Fairbanks.
"She was directed to keep her doors closed, and they eventually left," Dahlke said.
Don Moore, who lives on Rainbow Drive at the corner of the Steese Highway and Chena Hot Springs Road, reported seeing three wolves trotting down Chena Hot Springs Road at 2:30 a.m. Sunday near Curry's Corner at 0.5 Mile Chena Hot Springs Road.
"I got up to (use the restroom) early in the morning and looked out the window and there they were, walking right down the middle of Chena Hot Springs Road like they owned it," Moore said.
He has no doubt what he was looking at.
"I know what a wolf is," Moore said.
Those may have been the same three wolves that Dave Miller reported seeing off Herning Hills Road at 5.5 Mile Chena Hot Springs Road on Monday just before noon. Miller, 65, was walking his dog, Bitsy, when he saw the wolves on a trail about a mile from his house.
"I happened to look in front of me and about 200 yards ahead of me I saw one standing there," said Miller, a hunter and pilot who claims to have seen "millions" of wolves. "At first I thought it was a dog, but all of a sudden it bolted and went straight across the trail and two others followed it."
Like Moore, Miller is sure they were wolves.
"You can tell by the way they carry their tail," said Miller. "The tail on a dog is usually up and the tail on a wolf is usually down."
Meanwhile, Lori Lawless reported seeing three wolves near 20 Mile Chena Hot Springs Road on Monday morning around 6:15.
"We were just leaving to take my husband to work, and there were three wolves in our driveway," said Lawless, who lives on Pheasant Farm Road. "We turned a corner, and there they were. It was kind of creepy."
Two of the wolves bolted into the woods while the other one stayed on the road for a short distance.
"They were really big," Lawless said.
There were wolves reported about a mile farther up the road two or three days prior to her sighting, Lawless said.
A dog was reportedly killed by wolves in a ditch next to the road at 15 Mile last Wednesday, but it appears that dog was hit by a car and scavenged, not killed by wolves, Harms said.
A lot of people have asked what Fish and Game plans to do about the wolves but Harms said, "there's not much we can do." The wolves haven't threatened any humans and have carried out their attacks on dogs in the middle of the night under the cover of darkness.
KEEPING THEM OUT
When it comes to discouraging wolves from entering your yard, department officials don't know what to tell people.
"We haven't done any research on how to keep wolves away so we don't know what works and what doesn't work," Harms said.
The best way to make sure your pet dog doesn't get eaten is not to let it run loose, even if you're just letting it out in the yard to go to the bathroom, Harms said.
"Keep them in a fenced yard. Keep them on a long leash. Keep them somewhere under immediate control," she said. "The best bet is a fenced yard with a fence at least 6, and preferably 8, feet tall."
If a fence isn't an option and your dog is not a house dog, keep it tethered as close as possible to the house in a lighted area, she said.
"Lights probably wouldn't hurt but the fact these wolves are already approaching residences means lights might not be effective," Harms said, adding that playing a radio might not be a bad idea, either.
If anyone has ideas on how to dissuade wolves from approaching a residence the department would love to hear them, she said.
Wolves snatching dogs from yards on the outskirts of Fairbanks isn't common but it happens every few years and some years are worse than others, Harms said. She recalled the early 1970s when the moose population around Fairbanks declined rapidly as a result of harsh winters and several dogs were killed by wolves in the Goldstream Valley and along Farmer's Loop.
It's probably just a matter of time before the wolves make a fatal mistake or pick the wrong house to visit, said Tom Seaton, assistant area management biologist for Fish and Game in Fairbanks.
"They seem to be getting bolder and bolder," he said. "At some point they're probably going to make a mistake by taking something in the daylight and showing up some place where somebody's got a gun.
"Once a few of them are killed, I think they'll slow down or stop what they're doing," he said.