FAIRBANKS - Just in time for the start of the Alaska tourist season, a wolf with a taste for Gatorade and mountain bikes is cruising the road in Denali National Park and Preserve.
Two incidents involving what park officials believe to be same wolf on Denali Park Road last weekend have biologists at Denali National Park and Preserve concerned the wolf is too bold for its own good.
In both instances, which occurred within a two-mile stretch between Mile 53 and Mile 55, the wolf approached a cyclist or group of cyclists who ended up taking refuge in the van of a park interpreter who happened to be nearby. The wolf approached the abandoned bikes to investigate. The animal chewed on the handlebars of one bike and punctured a Gatorade bottle on another bike.
Park spokeswoman Kris Fister happened to be walking along the road near Igloo Creek at Mile 33 on Saturday when she bumped into the solo bicyclist who encountered the wolf near Mile 55.
The man told Fister he noticed the wolf when he stopped to talk to park interpreter Casey Merritt, who was sitting in a van. The man asked Merritt if the wolf was her dog. She told him it was a wolf and that he should get in the van, Fister said.
"Basically, the wolf gnawed on the bike's hand grip," she said. "You could see there were teeth marks on it."
The other incident involved three cyclists at the Toklat River bridge at Mile 53, Fister said. The wolf approached the cyclists, who retreated to Merritt's van and watched as the wolf walked up to one of the bikes and chewed on a Gatorade bottle before moving off.
The park service responded by sending a team of wildlife technicians and rangers to look for the wolf to "throw a little fear into it," the park's head wildlife biologist, Tom Meier, said.
"It's not a tolerable situation to have a wolf approaching people like that," Meier said. "The wildlife techs are going to try to slam it with some bean bag rounds and put some fear into it.
"Hopefully, we can convince him it's not a good idea (to approach people)," he said.
Yelling at the wolf "did not impress it," Meier said. That's one of the tactics park officials tell hikers and bikers to use if they encounter wolves in the park at close range.
"We tell people to make themselves look big, yell at them, flare their coat open, try to intimidate them," Meier said. "In the past, we have told them to throw rocks and sticks at them, but that caused a little bit of an uproar."
In addition to shooting the wolf with bean bag rounds from a shotgun, Meier said airhorns will be used to scare the wolf if wildlife technicians and rangers can find it. If the wolf continues its bold behavior despite the hazing, park officials would consider re-locating the animal to a more remote part of the 6-million-acre park and preserve 130 miles south of Fairbanks.
"As long as it hasn't shown any aggression at all, we'd be hesitant to kill it," Meier said.
The wolf, believed to be a 2-year-old male, is part of the Grant Creek Pack, a group of six wolves that has been seen regularly along the stretch of road near the Toklat River the past few years. Meier suspects it might be the same wolf that park officials received reports about last year along the same stretch of road, though it never gave park officials enough reason to take action.
The wolf's bold behavior coincided with the beginning of the tourist season in Denali Park. Shuttle buses began carrying tourists as far as the Toklat River at Mile 53 on Wednesday.
Buses will begin traveling past the Toklat River on June 1, and Fister said park officials will be tracking the wolf's movements and behavior.
"It's something we're concerned about as the road will be opening up to points farther west in less than a week," she said.
The park service has had problems with bold or curious wolves in past years that resulted in the multi-year closures of at least two campgrounds along the park road. Tent camping at Teklanika Campground at Mile 30 and Igloo Campground at Mile 33 was closed during summer 2001 after several close human-wolf encounters in and around the campgrounds.
In one instance at the Teklanika campground, three wolves from a pack of six entered the campground and circled a tent with a crying baby and two parents inside. Another time, six wolves approached a man while he was walking his dog on the road near the Teklanika campground. There were also reports of wolves walking through the Igloo campground investigating backpacks and water bottles.
The Teklanika campground was closed to tent camping for seven years before being re-opened two summers ago and Igloo campground was re-opened last summer after an eight-year closure.
"We don't want to have to do something like that again," Meier said.
There are an estimated 65 wolves in about 15 different packs in the park, which is the lowest population estimate since 1987, Meier said.