Wolf Song of Alaska News

Wildlife and Wildlands in Alaska [and Elsewhere] 

Part Seven:  The Emotional Lives Of Wolves

AK Voices / Anchorage Daily News /June 23, 2010

Reader Comments:  http://community.adn.com/adn/node/152174

Rudy Wittshirk


The most notable fact about the Mendenhall Wolf of Juneau, Alaska is that he survived for five years in precarious but friendly proximity to Humans. Given the name “Romeo,” the Mendenhall Wolf was last seen September 18, 2009.

According to the USDA Forest Service - Tongass National Forest website, February 10, 2009:

“In April, 2003 a female black wolf was struck and killed by a car within a quarter mile of the US Forest Service’s Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center in Juneau, Alaska. The wolf was pregnant with four pups. In November of that year a solitary wolf’s howl could be heard frequently on the opposite side of the lake from the visitor center. Within a few weeks, local cross-country skiers were noticing a lone black wolf standing, and sometimes howling, at the edge of the forest. The wolf began showing a playful interest in the pet dogs that accompanied skiers on frozen, snow-covered Mendenhall Lake. The wolf…soon approached the dogs to engage in socialized behavior. The black wolf rarely made physical contact with the pets and generally did not seem to regard them as prey.
“It was speculated the lone male wolf might have been somehow related to the female wolf killed earlier that year. The male wolf did not join or establish a wolf pack of his own but found occasional canine companionship with local dogs. Juneau residents kind of adopted the animal and nicknamed the lone black wolf ‘Romeo.’”

For five years the Mendenhall Wolf had been a popular living icon in Juneau, thrilling locals and visitors alike (“Juneau residents remember ‘friend’,” Anchorage Daily News, June 6, 2010). It is a tribute to fine people of Juneau, Alaska that a wild wolf was allowed to live nearby for five years before disappearing in 2009 and most likely getting shot illegally by a pair of serial-poaching varmints now under indictment for illegal bear bait stations and the illegal taking of two bears along with the illegal shooting of the wolf in question.

Any wild animal who makes regular appearances before Humans in easily-accessible places such as Mendenhall Glacier is probably doomed---I'm surprised the black wolf lasted as long as he did. The Mendenhall Wolf brought numerous hours of pleasure and insight to countless numbers of people. It’s hard to say whether Fish and Game ought to have sent him packing with some well-placed rubber bullets and put the fear of man in him. If the illegally shot animal is indeed the Mendenhall Wolf, it was his habituation to Humans that probably cost him his life. According to an affidavit, when one of the two poaching yahoos shot “instinctively” at the one wolf in a group of three that hesitated too long in the gun sights, it could well have been because he was “habituated” to Humans. "It just stopped in front of them," says the affidavit.

The irony is that the black wolf (if it was the same one illegally shot) was killed in the company of two other wolves---something observers believed he had been seeking all along since he was not part of a pack; why he was playing with domestic dogs; and why he was given his romantic nickname.

Apparently, driving wild animals clinically insane---making them easy targets for hunters and trappers---is part of Alaska’s “intensive” predator control program. How else to explain the manner of the Toklat Wolf’s “demise?”

“According to longtime wolf biologist, Gordon Haber,” the Denali National Park alpha wolf “had been behaving erratically and wandering mostly alone ever since his mate, the pack’s breeding alpha female, was killed in February by a trapper just outside park boundaries” (“Toklat wolf’s demise triggers emotional backlash,” Anchorage Daily News, 4-20-05).

The Toklat Wolf had good reason to behave erratically. When the world you grew up in consists of machines, traps, snares and guns---all out to get you---it can be unsettling no matter what kind of animal you are. During his epic journey to Denali Park and taking over a pack, the Toklat Wolf had already been darted, captured and relocated. Who knows how many potshots had been taken at him or how many times he had slipped snares or avoided traps. It is quite likely he was nearby when his alpha mate was killed and hauled off in a sled behind a snowmachine.
“Everything about his behavior just went wacko,” said Haber, “I’ve never quite seen anything so erratic in my 40 years of studying wolves.”

We’ll never be sure if the Toklat Wolf was truly mad---or desperately in search of a suitable alpha female to replace the one he had lost.

Also “observing” this disoriented creature was the guide who guided a Pennsylvania hunter to shoot the disoriented Toklat Wolf, and who considered the animal “fair game.” No wolf in his right mind would regularly present himself so he could be shot by some dude from back East. But the guide figured he might as well make a few extra bucks off this pathetic animal‘s last misery by “guiding” some rich sport to the easy kill. A nice pelt for a guy on a guided bear hunt.

"It's wildlife, it's fair game and it's conservation," said Ray Atkins, a longtime master guide from Cantwell who had escorted the hunter who shot the Toklat Wolf. "A mama wolf can produce a dozen wolves in six weeks, and in six months she can have them hunting. In the whole scheme of things, this is about as significant as one grain of sand in the Pacific Ocean." Atkins would not identify the hunter. [Pennsylvania is a big state but one can’t help wondering if the unnamed “hunter” wasn’t the same as the other Pennsylvania guy involved in the shooting of the Mendenhall Wolf.]

This was just another instance of utter contempt for wildlife---and by a “master” guide at that. Ho-hum…another day, another pelt, another dollar. Insignificant as a grain of sand. Why, it's even "conservation!" And Alaskans wonder why their wildlife is disappearing---perhaps because wild animals are regarded as nothing more than a commodity for businessmen to turn into cash. I can’t help but contrast this shallow, mercantile attitude with the true respect shown the animals by those Alaska Natives and some others who also use wildlife---but not for fun and profit.

Taking an opposite view was Karen Deatherage, Alaska representative for Defenders of Wildlife. "That one person can truly destroy one animal that means so much to thousands of others is wrong---it certainly has devastated me," she said… "He just was a pretty incredible animal that led a very challenging life, and it's just very sad that it had to end this way, particularly when there were just 13 days left in the hunting season."

Perhaps the poor Toklat Wolf was just lucky to be put out of its misery. But for the Humans who loved him, the manner of the demise of the last of the Toklat pack’s established alpha males provides ample justification for an “emotional backlash.” But it has happened many times before.

“Wild Animals I have Known,” a book by Ernest Thompson Seton, has a section about Lobo and Blanco, his mate, in Northern New Mexico in the late 1800s. Lobo was one of the most clever, brazen and confident livestock killers of all time---and probably the most adept at avoiding getting shot, trapped, captured, poisoned or killed by the very best hunters and trappers of the time. The description of this remarkable wolf and his ability to spot and disable traps, eat around the poisoned parts of bait, etc., is fascinating reading.

Following the failure of the very best hunters and trappers to catch Lobo, Ernest Thompson Seton, a leading wolf trapper among other things, was called in. The descriptions of his trapping methods---and his initial failures---are utterly fascinating and enlightening. Long story short, Seton finally managed to trap Lobo’s mate, Blanco, the alpha female.

He dragged the white female wolf’s body around the site of other, meticulously-set traps and finally caught old Lobo (four traps, one on each leg) who had lost his normal caution after the death of his mate, the alpha female. Seton tried to keep Lobo alive but the wolf died overnight. Seton was never the same. He went from master trapper to a defender of wolves at a time when poisoning large numbers of animals just to get at the wolves was routine.

One thing became apparent from reading the book, “Wild animals I Have Known”---any wild animals in any kind of “relationship” with Humans are almost inevitably killed by Humans. The reasons are clear enough right here in Alaska. For many Alaskans, the logical sequence of wolf behaviors doesn’t count for squat or make them any more understandable or comprehensible to Humans who think and believe they are somehow fundamentally “different“ from, and vastly superior to, other animals---especially when fun and profits are to be had.

Nevertheless, wolves are highly social creatures. My Hopi Indian friends in Northern Arizona recounted a legend passed down by word of mouth, telling how their ancestors were at first, primitive and confused “mudheads.” But they learned how to live in harmonious family and social groups, in part by studying how wolves organized their family groups. I understand other tribes hold these traditions as well.

Scientists and naturalists have, of course, thoroughly documented the family structures and behaviors of intact wolf packs that have not been completely demoralized by indiscriminate killings. In any case, an awareness and understanding of the wolf as a social and family-oriented creature makes the tales of the Mendenhall Wolf, The Toklat Wolf and Lobo all the more poignant.

There is a legend among some Indians called “The Last Circle.”
There once were Indians who could understand the language of the wolves. For a certain Tribe there was a time when the wolves actually sat in council with the Humans. The Humans sat in a circle around their fire and, forming an outer circle around them, the eyes of wolves could be seen in the surrounding darkness, glistening in the light from the central fire. This primal image forms the core of the remembrance of this time of communion and communication between Humans and wild animals.

Among the Humans---at least among some of the medicine men---were those who could actually understand the wolves and communicate with them. Or so the legend goes. The wolves told them when caribou were near, where they were located and where they were heading. The Humans and wolves probably shared the meat. After all, that’s how wolves first came into Human habitations and became domestic dogs---because there was stuff to eat in the Human encampments. And, undoubtedly, the wolves came in handy to act as “watchdogs” on the perimeters of these fortunate encampments.

Part of this Indian legend is a story of the last great council between the wolves and the Humans---”The Last Circle.” It marked the moment when the wolves served notice they would no longer sit in council with the Two-Leggers and marked the moment when the Two-Leggers began to lose the ability to understand the language of the wolves. And from that time on, the wolves no longer sat in council with the Humans.

Who knows why? Maybe the wolves killed a Human child. Maybe the Humans took too many wolves in their need for fur ruffs. Maybe the Humans would no longer share the kills to which the wolves had directed them. Perhaps it had to do with the presence of Anglo-Europeans in the Americas. The newcomers didn‘t even have to appear on the scene to exert a profound influence with the introduction of gunpowder and other trade items which immediately affected many of the more subtle aspects of Native culture, which are now lost to memory.

Anyway, it’s just a legend. Though it makes just about as much or more sense as modern wolf-myths told by motorized Two-Leggers to justify the technological slaughter of wolves. We are still fighting with wolves over caribou---though the vast majority of Humans no longer need the meat to survive. Most of the Two-Leggers today have forgotten all past knowledge; forgotten that there even was past knowledge; and now willfully disparage and ignore the only knowledge we do have---wildlife science.
Rudy Wittshirk

Wolf Song of Alaska

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