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Help the McNeil Bear Sanctuary off linmits to hunting

Search Under Way for Missing Aircraft with Noted Alaskan Wolf Biologist on Board

Andrew Hinkelman, Jennifer Castro and Leyla Santiago / KTUU-TV / October 15, 2009

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- A search is under way for an overdue aircraft inside Denali National Park and Preserve, according to the Army National Guard.

Alaska State Troopers received a report Wednesday night of an overdue white and blue Cessna 185 with a pilot and biologist on board. The biologist was tracking a wolf pack.

The Associated Press reported Thursday afternoon that noted wolf biologist Gordon Haber and pilot Daniel McGregor are the two men on board.

According to an FAA search of the plane's tail number provided by the National Transportation Safety Board to KTUU, the Cessna is registered to McGregor of Denali Park.

McGregor did not file a flight plan, according to the National Guard.

The dangers of aerial tracking are well-known to Alaskan biologists.

"There have been several biologists involved in plane crashes over the years," said Vic Van Ballenberghe, a retired U.S. Forest Service employee who has known Haber for 30-plus years. "Anytime they go out and do low-level radio tracking or low-level surveys it's always a risk."

The search is being conducted on the north side of the park, because that's where wolves frequent, according to an AST spokesperson. It's an area of hundreds of miles with overcast skies and light snow.

"The winds in that area can be accessibly bad for aircraft," Van Ballenberghe said. "Winds in the mountains can be very strong and you can get into downdrafts and a small plane under those circumstances can get into trouble in a hurry."

An aircraft flew over the search area trying to pick up the Cessna's emergency locator transmitter signal, but was not immediately successful.

McGregor and Haber took off at noon Wednesday and were supposed to land by nightfall. AST contacted the Rescue Coordination Center at 1a.m. Thursday to initiate a search.

RCC in turn contacted the Alaska Air National Guard and an expedition by the 211th and 212th Rescue Squadrons found nothing.

Later Thursday morning the National Guard, National Parks Service, an AST airplane and four civil aircraft flew search missions near a border of Denali.

Haber is an "independent wildlife scientist" who has studied wolf behavior in Alaska since 1966, according to his Twitter biography. He also runs the Web site AlaskaWolves.org. Both sites were last updated Oct. 1.

"He's done some extensive wolf work here ever since the mid-1960s and for about the last 15 years or so he's done extensive radio tracking," Van Ballenberghe said. "He's spent thousands of hours in airplanes following wolf tracks doing his research."

Recently Haber has been an outspoken critic of the state's wolf management policies, particularly the practice of aerial hunting.
"He's funded by an organization called Friends of Animals, a nationwide group that is very protective of wolves and very much against wolf control programs that are going on out here, so they have funded his research for about the last 15 years," Van Ballenberghe said.


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