Wolf Song of Alaska News

Attacks Evoke Memories of Canine Carnage 30 Years Ago

Tim Mowry / Fairbanks Daily News-Miner / December 12, 2007

Shirley Liss remembers well the winter of 1974-75.

A wolf pack spent the entire winter stalking the Goldstream Valley, killing dozens of dogs as residents armed with guns kept nightly vigils for the wolves.

"People were watching out for their dogs," recalled Liss, a long-time dog musher who still lives in the same Goldstream Road cabin today that she did more than 30 years ago. "Everybody was armed and if they saw one they were going to take it out."

"More than once, I heard my dogs barking and saw eyes in the woods and had to move them into the barn for the night," she said. "I had a shotgun but never could get a shot off. If there had been two of us, one person to hold the light and one to shoot, I think I could have got some."

Liss, now 63, lost three of her six sled dogs to the wolves - one, Daisy, disappeared in October, another, Molly, was eaten in November and the third, Fuzzbutt, she found at the end of her driveway in March, still alive but partially eviscerated after a neighbor evidently interrupted the wolves before they could finish the job.

Wolves killed 165 dogs that winter and residents killed 13 wolves, according to Liss.

"They got a lot of them in the Goldstream Valley," said Liss, referring to both dogs and wolves.

While the Department of Fish and Game documented only 29 dog killings and another 10 or so that went missing in the Goldstream Valley that winter, state wildlife biologist Bob Stephenson, who was around then and still is now, said the actual number of dogs killed was probably closer to Liss' number. Some people didn't report kills and others may have just thought their dogs ran off, he said.

"She's probably more right than we are," Stephenson said of Liss.

Recent wolf attacks on dogs in Two Rivers and North Pole have evoked memories of that winter more than 30 years ago, though the current situation pales in comparison to what transpired in the Goldstream Valley over the course of six months.

Three dogs have been killed and eaten in the past six weeks by what state wildlife officials believe is the same pack of wolves roaming the Two Rivers/North Pole area. The Department of Fish and Game held a public meeting in Two Rivers on Sunday and more than 100 people showed up. Some urged the agency to take action before the wolves attack a child. There was talk of using helicopters or airplanes to track down and shoot the wolves, as well as putting a bounty on the wolves.

That wasn't the case during the winter of 1974-75. Residents took matters into their own hands, Liss said.

"I don't remember anyone saying the government should go out and shoot them," Liss said.

Actually, there were mixed feelings on the matter, judging from two petitions submitted to Fish and Game that winter that Stephenson dug out from an old file this week. One of the petitions, signed by only a handful of people, requested Fish and Game use helicopters to shoot the wolves from the air. Another petition directing Fish and Game not to use aerial shooting was signed by more than 100 people.

"It was quite the uproar," Stephenson said.

Living in wolf country

Sverre Pedersen and his wife, Fran, lost three of their 16 dogs to wolves that winter.

"Two were killed in late October and one was killed at Christmas time," said Pedersen, who lived off Murphy Dome Road at the time while attending graduate school at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. "I've still got pictures of them. There was not much left of them."

The two dogs killed in October were loose, young dogs while the one killed in December was chained, he said.

"We had heard people were having problems out there but we figured we had enough dogs here and those young, loose dogs would run into the dog yard and be safe if wolves showed up," said Pedersen, now a subsistence resource specialist for the Department of Fish and Game.

He never reported the killings to Fish and Game and his signature was on the petition that opposed aerial shooting of the wolves.

"It was not a big issue to me," said Pedersen, whose neighbor shot one of the wolves. "I thought it was too bad, but we were living on the edge of wolf country and that's part of it. It was a small price to pay for living in the wilderness."

At one point, Pedersen, now 60, tried putting some traps a friend gave him out to catch the wolves but he gave up after catching his neighbor's dog and one of his own in the traps.

The wolves were also seen on the mushing trails throughout the winter. One night Pedersen was mushing down the trail and turned around to see several wolves following close behind him.

"It was one of those dark, moonless, cloudy nights," Pedersen recalled as if it was yesterday. "I had eight or nine dogs. We were running along and the dogs were acting really weird, smelling things in the air and really running hard.

"I happened to glance behind me and saw a lot of eyes looking at me," he said. "There were four or five wolves maybe 10 feet behind me. They were just loping behind me. I think my hair lifted my hat off my head about 3 inches."

No match for wolves

Whether or not the situation in Two Rivers will escalate and wolves will continue killing dogs remains to be seen, but as Stephenson noted of the popular dog mushing enclave east of Fairbanks, "There's plenty of dogs (along Chena Hot Springs Road)."

The one big difference between now and then, state wildlife officials said, is that there is plenty for wolves to eat now. That wasn't the case in the winter of 1974-75, which coincided with a crash in the local moose population due to several harsh winters, as well as a crash in the snowshoe hare cycle.

"It was tight times for wolves," said Stephenson.

Dogs are easy prey for wolves, especially when they are tethered by chains, said Stephenson.

"It's gift-wrapped food for them," he said.

All three of the dogs Liss lost to wolves during the winter of 1974-75 were big dogs, she said. One of them was a 125-pound malamute that had a reputation as "the terror of the Goldstream Valley," Liss said.

"Those dogs could fight," she said.

A domesticated dog, no matter how big or mean, is no match for a pack of wolves, or even a lone wolf, said Stephenson.

"Newfies, great Danes, it doesn't matter," he said, rattling off two of the biggest dogs you will find. "Wolves know how to kill like nobody's business.

"When they're hungry and their aggression level is up Š once they're in that mode they're very effective," Stephenson said, noting that cannibalism is not uncommon among wolves.

The attacks back then were much like those that have occurred in Two Rivers. They occurred late at night and the wolves often consumed entire dogs, leaving only a chewed collar and some fur behind.

Not all bad

Dick and Mary Bishop, who lived on Jones Road that deadly winter of 1974-75, heard through the grapevine that people were losing dogs so they tied their sled dogs around their garden fence under a yard light, said Dick Bishop, who worked as a biologist at Fish and Game at the time.

"We kept the yard light on all the time," he said.

The Bishops, who still live in the Goldstream Valley, didn't lose any dogs to wolves but Dick Bishop remembers the night a lone wolf paid them a visit.

"One night a lone wolf came into the yard and the dogs raised a ruckus," he said. "I looked out the window and it and my lead dogs were looking at each other wagging their tails.

"I thought, 'Geez, that's a big dog' and then realized it was a wolf," he said.

Bishop, now 70, grabbed a gun that he kept handy and ran outside but the wolf was gone before he could shoot at it. As for the number of dogs killed by wolves that year, Bishop said it was significant.

"I do remember there was a noticeable absence of loose dogs at the end of the winter," he said.

Much like today, parents were concerned about their kids walking to and from the school bus, Bishop said, himself included.

"It did get to the point where we either drove them to school or walked out and met them," said Bishop, who was the father of three small boys at the time.

The wolves hung around all winter and it wasn't until several of the wolves were shot or trapped in February and March that the attacks subsided. Most of the wolves that were killed were young wolves, said Bishop. Biologists suspect the pack responsible for the dog killings in the Two Rivers/North Pole area is also comprised of mostly young wolves who have discovered dogs as a source of food.

Despite losing three dogs in the canine carnage of 1974-75, Liss said there was an upside. At the time, she had malamutes, which are known for their aggressive behavior. After losing three of her six dogs, all females, Liss was forced to get some different dogs.

"It got me into a decent line of dogs that weren't nearly as aggressive," said Liss, who still owns seven sled dogs. "I wouldn't have had the heart to kill those dogs.

"It was sort of a good thing for me," she said.
Contact staff writer Tim Mowry at 459-7587.

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