TWO RIVERS, AK - After a string of dead and injured dogs, presumably attacked by the same pack of increasingly bold wolves, this community stands at a crossroads.
Some want a quick and well-armed attack to pinpoint and kill the wolves before they can do any more harm, while others worry anything too zealous will only make the problem worse.
At a long but civil meeting at the Two Rivers Community Church of the Nazarene on Sunday night, about 100 people turned out to share wolf stories, trade opinions and get advice from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
The department decided to host the meeting after a report that wolves followed an individual near 15 Mile Chena Hot Springs Road. The report hasn't been entirely substantiated, but if true, it would indicate the wolves are becoming more habituated, according to Cathie Harms with the Department of Fish and Game.
That means: too comfortable around humans for human comfort
"Our ears pricked up that it might be a change in behavior," Harms said.
The cases this year began on Halloween, when a pack of wolves killed a 15-year-old black Labrador near the Chena Lakes Recreation Area in North Pole. After a few quiet weeks, wolves struck again around 19.5 Mile Chena Hot Springs Road in Two Rivers. A few days later, wolves attacked and injured, but didn't kill, a small dog in North Pole. Last week, the wolves returned to Two Rivers, killing a dog at about 16.5 Mile Chena Hot Springs Road.
While the four cases seem to zig-zag across a broad region, they actually took place with a three- to four-mile area as seen from above.
"That's what leads us to believe it's most likely one pack," Harms said.
Department biologists flew two planes over the area Saturday looking for clues, but the lack of snow and the heavy cloud cover made it difficult to pick up any leads about the pack.
But even on a snowy day like Sunday, the wolves haven't been any easier to track, according to Tom Seaton, assistant area management biologist for the Department of Fish and Game in Fairbanks.
"Wolves will take the easy way to travel," Seaton said.
Usually that's a river or wind-blown ridge, but in the populated area along Chena Hot Springs Road, the wolves have been using many of the same trails frequented by mushers, skijorers and snowmachiners.
Any wolf tracks are simply being covered up, state wildlife biologist Don Young said.
"It's certainly a lot easier to go out in a pristine environment with fresh snow," Young said.
From the air, Young spotted about 70 moose, suggesting that low moose populations, thought to have caused a similar rash of wolf attacks in the 1970s, are not to blame for the current outbreak. Young wondered if the low snow cover has made it easier for moose to escape wolf attacks, forcing the wolves to look elsewhere for food.
The Department of Fish and Game believes the wolf pack, if it is one pack, comprises one adult and several pups. The attacks have been similar: each occurring early in the morning and all but one involving loose dogs. Young believes the Halloween attack was a chance encounter, but one quickly imprinted on impressionable young wolf minds.
"They learned that dogs are easy prey," Young said.
Many in Two Rivers worry these wolves will move from dogs to people, but the debate revolves around the most effective way of solving the problem.
Bill Blizzard, a longtime Two Rivers resident who lost a dog to the wolves last week, said the state and the community need to get "proactive" about killing the wolves before they harm a child. He suggested a hotline and Internet exchanges to gather information, followed by helicopters and a bounty for a swift and precise attack.
While his comment got applause, some worried about the backlash from any drastic action.
"The last thing we need is for everyone to go overboard," said Brendan Wolff, a musher who lives near 14 Mile Chena Hot Springs Road.
Leroy Shank, a member of the Alaska Trappers Association, called these "citified wolves" with enough street smarts to evade even an experienced trapper. He worried about droves of amateurs setting snares along popular trails.
"If you do that, you're going to kill more dogs than the wolves are killing," Shank said.
The Department of Fish and Game is working with a flood of hard-to-verify information. Reported citings from 20 Mile Chena Hot Springs Road to Goldstream Road have been pouring in since the attacks. State officials don't know what efforts are being taken to trap the wolves, and hunters don't have to report their catch until April. It's entirely possible some of the wolves have been caught already, as was suggested by Val Mackler.
"We would feel a lot better if we knew two of these already bit the dust," Mackler said.
For now, Harms said people need to start taking precautions and sharing what works and what doesn't. While the state does not have any confirmed research about proven ways to keep wolves at bay, she suggested some common sense solutions: building fences when possible, carrying an air horn and pepper spray, supervising children outside and cleaning up yards.
At the behest of the crowd, she said the state will consider taking a wolf safety lesson to area schools, but she had one quick lesson for the audience. Remembering a woman who was attacked by a wolf along the Dalton Highway last year, Harms reminded the crowd about the first rule of wolf encounters.
"Do not run," Harms said.
Contact staff writer Eric Lidji at 459-7504.