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Wolves exterminated on Anchorage military bases

Craig Medred
Aaron Jansen illustration

The wolves of Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in north Anchorage have paid the ultimate price for their fascination with people and their pets.

Officials of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game says state wildlife biologists, with help from a state-sanctioned trapper and military personnel, have over the course of the winter managed to kill nine of the animals. They are thought to be members or former members of a pack that had developed a taste for dogs.

Dogs, unfortunately for the wolves, are often accompanied by dog owners. Some of them became frightened when wolves threatened their pets, and state wildlife officials began to get increasingly nervous about the lack of respect wolves were showing the pet owners.

Two women runners treed by wolves told wildlife officials they got the impression the animals seemed almost as interested in making a meal of them as in trying to catch their dogs. That was a red flag for wildlife biologists in the wake of what happened in Western Alaska a year ago. On March 8, 2010, 32-year-old teacher Candice Berner went for a run on the roads near Chignik, a village on the Alaska Peninsula 450 miles southwest of Anchorage. A petite woman originally from Slippery Rock, Penn., she was met by a pack of wolves that killed her. Some began to wonder if a similar attack could take place on the northern edge of Alaska's largest city, given the boldness the wolves were displaying there.

"The wolves were considered a significant threat to public safety on the military installation and in surrounding residential areas,'' noted a Friday press release from Fish and Game announcing the wolf kill.

The announcement heralded the official belief that all those wolves were exterminated.

"The effort was successful. We feel confident we have minimized public safety risks by removing specific wolves and significantly reducing wolf numbers in the area," said Mark Burch, a Division of Wildlife regional supervisor. But he did ask people on the bases, especially those engaged in recreation in the remote and still quite wild back corners of the bases, to be alert for wildlife.

Had dogs become a dietary staple for Anchorage wolves?

The wolves now appear gone, but it won't be long before the bears are emerging in Alaska, and northern bears -- both grizzlies and black -- have killed far more people than wolves.

"People should enjoy outdoor pursuits, but recognize risks and take precautions when recreating in wolf and bear country,'' the state cautioned. "Children should always be accompanied by an adult and dogs should be on a leash."

Tissue, bone and hair samples from the wolves killed over the winter are now being analyzed. That should help state biologists determine the dietary habits of the animals.

Wolves living on the outskirts of Anchorage predominately feed on moose, Dall sheep and -- in the summer -- salmon. There is some curiosity as to how large a part of the diet dogs had become for some of these wolves. Loose dogs are a pretty easy target, and untold numbers of them disappear in the Anchorage area every year. There are also some questions as to what else the wolves might have been eating.

Some have wondered whether they might have become habituated to humans on the bases as much because of easy access to garbage as the access to dogs. Fish and Game did warn base residents that "to prevent future problems, area residents must take precautions not to leave out garbage, pet food, or other attractants that might draw wolves near homes and into neighborhoods."

It is against the law to feed wolves, bears or most other large wildlife in Alaska, a press released noted. Prosecutions, however, are rare. Still, they have been known to happen. The most notable involved bear man Charlie Vandergaw, a retired Anchorage teacher, who had used dog food to entice dozens of bears onto his homestead west of Anchorage.

Vandergaw tamed many of them. They were his pets until the state put his bear farm out of business.

More information about staying safe in wolf country -- coexisting with wolves and preventing their habituation -- was available at the state Department of Fish and Wildlife website.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com