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Toklat Alpha Male Killed

April 20, 2005 | Wolves

By Tim Mowry
*Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, Fairbanks, Alaska (Published: April 20, 2005)*

The fate of Alaska's most famous wolf pack is uncertain after a hunter shot and killed its alpha male Sunday a few miles south of Cantwell.

The reigning patriarch of what is known as the East Fork or Toklat wolf pack in Denali National Park and Preserve was legally shot in the Pass Creek area.

It was the third Toklat wolf to be killed in two months, including the alpha female, which was caught in a trap in February just outside a buffer zone established to protect the wolves for tourists to see.

With only six young wolves remaining, some say this likely will mean the end of the decades-old Toklat pack, which was first studied by the legendary Adolph Murie in 1939.

"It represents a complete social breakdown," said Gordon Haber, an independent wildlife biologist who has studied the Toklat wolves for almost 40 years. "All the key wolves are gone."

Haber, who is funded by and reports to the Connecticut-based animal-rights group Friends of Animals, said this likely will reduce the number of wolves tourists see in Denali Park this summer and in future years. While there is little doubt another pack of wolves will recolonize the area if the remaining Toklat wolves split up, they probably won't display the same tolerance of tourists that the Toklat wolves did.

"What influences how much wolves are seen by visitors are the specific ways they use the established territory," Haber said. "That's all been blown away, at least most of it."

But Park Service officials say they're not worried about the demise of one particular pack of wolves, even one as well-studied as the Toklat pack, as long as the number of wolves in the 6-million-acre park remains within biological limits.

"We manage for population levels, not individuals," spokeswoman Kris Fister said.

There are approximately 70 wolves in the park. While that's in the low end of the acceptable range, it doesn't represent any kind of emergency, Fister said.

Debate over how much protection wolves that stray outside park boundaries should receive has been a topic of debate for several years in Alaska.

The death of the alpha male also illustrates why the buffer zone to protect wolves that stray out of the park should be bigger, said John Toppenberg, director of the Alaska Wildlife Alliance in Anchorage, which has long advocated for a larger buffer.

The current buffer zone, which measures about 55 square miles in the northeast corner of the park near Healy, is a "symbolic measure" that does little to protect wolves like the Toklat pack from hunters and trappers, he said. Wildlife viewing advocates have asked the state Board of Game to expand the buffer zone several times but have been rebuffed.

"What we have now is totally inadequate," Toppenberg said.

The Toklat wolves are valuable and should be protected for several reasons, Haber said. The fact the same bloodline has been studied for decades is reason alone to protect them.

"One of the greatest values is providing information about the characteristics of how successful vertebrae societies other than humans work," he said. "It's a rare biological treasure."

The wolves are also important from a naturalist viewpoint, Haber said.

"If you're simply worrying about the presence or absence of animals, that's what you do when you're managing a zoo," he said. "When you're managing a national park, your primary concern should be the integrity of underlying ecological relationships."

The Toklat wolves also offer tourists a better chance of seeing a wolf in Denali Park than anywhere else in the world, Haber said. Thousands of tourists see wolves in the park each year and up until last year, when another pack denned close to the road, it was mostly the Toklat wolves that were visible.

The Toklat pack has been threatened before but there has always been at least one experienced alpha male or female to maintain the hierarchy, Haber said. The young wolves rely on the older wolves to teach them the ins and outs of living in an area.

"It's a combination of genetic and learned information," Haber said of a pack's family structure. "Those young wolves haven't had the opportunity to acquire that learned information. Things like denning sites, hunting areas, hunting routes and even hunting methods."

What will happen to the remaining six Toklat wolves remains to be seen. They could move out of the area and join or form another pack or they could remain. They could also be killed by other wolves.

"Some might stay but I'd be surprised if all six stayed," Park Service biologist Tom Meier said. "It's not a good social system when the young ones are left without adults. Things don't go smoothly for them and they usually split up."

Whether that will mean fewer wolf sightings for tourists this summer remains to be seen.

Park officials say many of the wolves seen in the park last year actually belonged to the Grant Creek pack, an offshoot of the Toklat pack that roams further west but has started to encroach on the Toklat territory.

The alpha male in that pack, which consists of eight wolves, was trapped and moved from the upper Chena River as part of a predator- control program to help boost the Fortymile Caribou Herd. He joined the Toklat pack briefly four years ago before hooking up with a female and forming another pack. The pack denned next to the Toklat River last year and was regularly seen from the road. There's a chance the Grant Creek pack could assume control of the territory used by the Toklat wolves.

"We'll just have to wait and see," Fister said.

If the Grant Creek or another pack moves into the area, Meier doesn't think it would be long before tourists start seeing them.

"Personally, I think wolves catch on pretty quick and they'd quickly figure out how to live in the area," he said.

The demise of the Toklat pack began Feb. 11 when a Healy trapper caught the alpha female just outside the buffer zone.

Though the alpha male took the loss of his mate hard, he hooked up with and bred another female a week later, said Haber, who radio-tracks the wolves by air.

But those two wolves split up and the male began making erratic movements to and from the area the first alpha female was trapped.

"He pretty well abandoned the territory," Haber said. "He was clearly focused on the loss of that female."

The wolf shot Sunday was another Fortymile transfer that joined the Toklat pack in May 2001. The previous alpha male in the pack died a month or two earlier when Park Service biologists tranquilized it to check its radio collar.

"He just showed up at the right place at the right time," Haber said. "He just kind of took over."

The only hope now is that the impregnated female returns to the area to have her pups, Haber said. Even then, the question of who will care for them remains. Typically, several wolves in a pack share responsibility for feeding and raising the pups.

"Until (the loss of the alphas) happened, I was pretty confident there would be two litters this year," Haber said. "It would have been a beehive of activity."

News-Miner staff writer Tim Mowry can be reached at tmowry@newsminer.com or at 459-7587.

Comments

hunters are evil. [Blog editors' note: Some 99% of the U.S. human population consumes other animals. Most likely, that includes people in all of our families, many of our co-workers, etc. Do you believe they are all evil? How does calling someone "evil" inspire them to broaden their moral community?]

While I found the entire article extremely disturbing, I was most disturbed by the line "The previous Alpha male in the pack died a month or two earlier when Park Service biologists tranqilized it to check its radio collar". Does this mean the Park Service biologists killed this wolf?

When are we going to learn our lesson regarding hunting and killing animals? I guess we won't understand it until one day a lone wolf howls long and mournful...and there is only silence.

All wolves, not just ones who are of "added value" from human enjoyment warrant such articles and concern. That being said, examples like this can prove to others that no wolf is spared a bullet in Alaska. No matter the value - ecologically or economically, every wolf is persecuted. We must all work at changing the understandings of people before we can ever hope to protect any animal in Alaska. And, unfortunately the chances of that ever happening in AK are slim to none. Most Alaskans support hunting and killing as a heritage and time-honored pastime. As a matter of fact, this hunter from Pennsylvania (outsider?) most likely attends church - another heritage - even though the bible clearly instructs people not to kill, and to have compassion for all of God's creatures. There is a massive double-standard going on, and many people excersize it in the name of 'conservation.' When the fat is boiled off, though it isn't about conservation, heritage, or even faith. It's a matter of deep-rooted American mentalities of killing that have manifested through recreation and a false sense of 'conservation.' Just as an ax-wielding tree cutter cannot be called a conservationist, neither can these killers - purveyors of the finest lies and deceit in Alaska... Scott

It is useless for this close-minded people to understand the value of what nature has given us unless every one of us does something with our own hands. I don't think Governor Murkowski is going to do something because greed is what rules in all governments. I have since my childhood admired the way wolves are, and now that I have come of age I feel outraged to see this massacre. I don't think our ancestors would approve this, they will be ashamed of this. I just hope it doesn't get too late before this killing ends, otherwise our grandchildren will only know these incredible and mythical animals through books.

My husband and I have lived in Anchorage since 1970, our three children were raised here, and my daughter and I visited Denali Park when she was in junior high for three years in a row. Although we have never seen the "Toklat wolves" every member of our family felt heart-sick by the news of this shooting. We count on the park service to protect these animals so that the wildlife viewing experience can be as rich as it was when we first visited the park in 1970. Even more than the mountain, the wildlife is what people get excited about. I have called park headquarters and expressed to a representative in the superintendent's office (he not being available) my dismay over the callous response (as quoted in our newspaper)from both his office and the park service biologist. I also tried to reach Gordon Haber, but wasn't able to get him on the telephone. Would you please forward this request to him? I would like to suggest that he or someone he trusts take his tracking records from the radio collars on both the male and female wolves killed - and record them in writing. Then publish this record as widely as possible through organizations such as yours. A diary of their movements could make an impression on people who don't have any emotional connection to wolves. As for the millions of dog-lovers, and by association, wolf-lovers in this country, such a diary could be a very moving testament to the loss. Something which we are all having a hard time expressing. Also, a protest from Friends of Animals regarding the shooting of a collared wild animal could be made with Fish and Game up here. When a spokeswoman for Alaska Fish and Game says - "the loss of a single wolf is not a biological problem, - that seems to ignore the inestimable value to biologists of radio-collared animals. I am a member of Alaska Wildlife Alliance and hope to encourage them as well as Defenders of Wildlife - both with offices up here - to lodge a protest with Alaska Fish and Game regarding the shooting of a collared animal. Thank you for reading and caring. Harriet Shaftel Anchorage, Alaska P.S. If Gordon gets this message, he can respond to my suggestion via e-mail. I also know Bill Sherwonit, and would like to suggest that he would be an excellent choice for writing the story of the last days of the alpha male and female - as contained on the radio collar records.

70 wolves left in a 6 million acre park? Did I read this correctly? The spokeswoman who made the statement that this is an acceptable range, must not realize just how ludicrous this statement actually is. Added to that the position she takes on the unimportance of killing individual wolves. Each individual wolf is what sustains the pack as a whole. Maybe she should study how wolves survive as a species before speaking out of her rear end.

People are so bombarded by the visuals of war and strife in the media and movies, as well as the drama in their own personal lives that maybe they can be numb to this story....but when I heard this morning on NPR the story of the killing of a black Alpha wolf from Denali Toklat pack [by a "fierce" hunter from the luxury of a roadside into the park--aka a legal shooting...for a pelt!], I was sickened. After losing his alpha female in February, the grieving black wolf appears to have committed "suicide by hunter." My rest of the day has been spent researching the wolves and the abysmal situation these creatures have under the auspices of protection. The various officials can try, but there are no justifications for any of this. It is the same reasoning used in "collateral damage" arguments in war. I feel grief and believe this is a further extension of the war of man...... mankind will not realize until it is too late that the decimation of the earth whether trough killing or pollution will ultimately be the end of mankind itself.

WHEN ARE WE GOING TO LEARN TO STOP KILLING ANIMALS!! WE SHOULD ALL LIVE IN PEACE!!WHY ARE WE EVEN DOING THIS WE ARE JUST KILLING NATURE POEPLE!!!THINK BEFORE YOU DO THIS KIND OF STUFF.LOTS OF ANIMAL ARE DIE LIKE SEALS,BEARS,AND OTHER ANIMALS.WHAT ARE THEY DOING TO US AND THEY ARE FURRY INNOCENT CREATURES!THEY ARE NOT DOING ANY HARM TO US!SO PLEASE STOP KILLING THESE POOR LITTLE INNOCENT CREATURES THAT ARE OUR FRIENDS AND WE SHOULD LOVE THEM BACK LIKE THEY LOVE THEM.

This disgusts me. Humans are being so disgustingly blind to nature. We hunt for 'food, fun, and population control' but the problem lies within the last two and sommat in the first. Have any of you ever heard of the time when we worked our 'population control' in Australia? We killed off dingos I believe it was, and out popped a hoard of kangaroos which destroyed the echosystem. We stink at trying to help our planet, and these idiots are obviously fools enough to be blind at their own jobs. If it isn't enough to think about the fact that this beautiful creature was in mourning, and out popped a hunter thinking "Ooh look, pretty coated robot! BANG". How stupid was that guy? I do not believe in hunting for fur or fun. It's sickening to see heads raised up on plaques and men dancing around thinking "Oooh look at me, big macho man for killing helpless beautiful animal". I mean, they have families, feelings and lives too! I'm deeply saddened by this, and even though I'm only 13 I'm going to try and find a way to help out up there.. Peace, Liz

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