As the state and feds go to court over the state Department of Fish and Game's most recent bid to save the Unimak Island herd by killing seven wolves, people in the village of False Pass are equally worried about unprecedented numbers of the predators in their town.
"I've never seen so many wolves," said Terry Murphy, who has lived in False Pass on the east side of the island off and on since 1985. "When I first moved here, on calm winter nights you'd hear a wolf howling in the hills. We used to luck out once in awhile and see one on the hillside, but never in town. Nowadays they come into town, in the daytime, real regular."
Last summer, one took a nap in the sun in Murphy's backyard in broad daylight.
False Pass Mayor Tom Hoblet, 58, was born and raised on the island.
"I've never seen it so bad," he said. "There were wolves going behind the house where the kids are playing out there a couple weeks ago. I assume they're coming looking for food because of the depleting of the caribou herd."
Hoblet's sons recently shot two wolves, one of which was chasing Hoblet's dog in the front yard at two in the afternoon, he said.
"He was growling and snarling right at (the dog's) face," said wife Ruth Hoblet, who was watching out of her living room window.
On a recent day, three of her grandchildren, ages 11, 6 and 10 months, were visiting her house.
"Even if it's nice weather, it's hard to let them go out and play. Pretty much everyone you'd talk to here would say they'd worried about letting anyone roam around outside."
Adults more used to keeping a wary eye out for grizzlies are now also watching out for wolves, calling around on the VHS radio when one is sighted to alert everybody.
"We're used to having wild animals in town," Murphy said. "We get bears in town all the time, that's pretty much the norm. But bears are pretty much predictable, we're used to bears. But this wolf thing, it makes me worry. My son will be 3 pretty soon, it makes me nervous."
Several people interviewed invoked the fate of Perryville school teacher Candice Berner, 32, killed in March while jogging near Chignik Lake airstrip nearby on the Alaska Peninsula. An autopsy confirmed she died from "multiple injuries due to animal mauling," according to the state Medical Examiner's office. Evidence pointed to two or more wolves.
Like False Pass residents, people at Chignik Lake worried about the number of brazen wolves in the area long before someone died.
The False Pass wolves are scrawny, scruffy, and appear to be in poor health, several people said.
"If they're that desperate they'll take what they can to survive" said Cindy Beamer, general manager of Isanotski Corp., the area's village corporation. "They're not afraid of the people here. Usually if you see one they'd run."
She's watched a wolf walk past her house twice recently.
"They had to come by 12 other houses to get to mine," she said.
Like most in town, the corporation supports the state's most current bid to kill wolves to save baby caribou being born this month. State biologists in the area reported the first calf was born June 1.
Some think seven isn't nearly enough.
"It won't make a dent in the wolves around here, that little bit. I don't know why they're making such a big thing out of it," said Gilda Shellikoff, who has lived in the area "going on 60 years."
Caribou as food source
Caribou was the main source of her family's food when she was growing up, in addition to ducks and geese in season, and fish.
"Before the time people had freezers, caribou was a year-round staple. I remember in the '60s before there were houses in the valley, there was a caribou herd up there that stayed all winter. Whenever we ran out, my brother would go up and get one. Everybody left them alone unless they needed one. Even after we got access to store meat, (caribou) was still preferred. I think it's the same with all the families in the village."
She recently bought three packages of shortribs at the village store for $44, she said.
"And they weren't all that big."
No one had taken a caribou on the island for several years even before the state closed caribou hunting in 2008 and 2009, Shellikoff said.
"Even if the season wasn't closed, you couldn't find caribou to hunt."
Unimak Island is home to the nation's only naturally occurring, insular caribou herd, according to a May 28 news release from the state Department of Law announcing a suit against U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for blocking the plan to remove seven wolves directly from the herd's calving grounds beginning on or about June 1. That herd has declined from 1,260 in 2002 down to 400 today.
That's 15 percent to 20 percent a year, said Corey Rossi, director of the Division of Wildlife Conservation for the state Department of Fish and Game.
"Even if we remove wolves and turn it around, best case scenario is we could get the herd to increase at a rate of 5 percent a year. If we wait one year, it could take three or four years just to get back to where we are today."
The herd also numbers about five bulls per 100 cows, Rossi said, making it unlikely that every mature cow will get bred. The state plans to import 15 bulls this fall to improve the breeding rate.
The state Board of Game also recently extended the hunting and trapping season for wolves to June 30.
But most people in False Pass earn their living commercial fishing, so they're gearing up for the season right now and heading out to sea. And the remaining caribou stay on the west end of the island; False Pass is on the east side, 75 or so miles of rough terrain away, without so much as a road in between.
Villagers don't have private airplanes needed to reach the herd and strategically take out wolves preying on calves right now, as the state could, Mayor Hoblet said.
"By the time they study it to death, (the herd is) just not going to survive," Beamer said. "It's dire."
Rose Cox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by phone at 907-348-2419 or 800-770-9830, ext. 419
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