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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

Soon wolves will be just myth like dragons and griffins...in a few hundred years people probably won't believe in them anymore...because of these hunters...you can't even eat a wolf! And it's not like they're a threat or anything. I mean, I can see people getting upset if wolves were eating people up there, but they don't eat people! They mind their own businesses and we should mind ours and stay out of their lives

I believed Alaska to be the last frontier, environmental and wildlife friendly. NOT.. That was the dream i had. ITS MORE THE LAND OF BARBARIC ANTI ENVIRONMENTAL AND WILDLIFE. I beg the people of Alaska get this idiot Murkowski the hell out of there before him and his gun toting fools unnecessarily murder more wolves. When leaders like Bush, Norton and Murkowski you can count on Artic drilling (bush is an oil man) Norton, her beliefs are right there w/ bush and she calls herselft Secretary of Interior? HAHAHAHAHA. Then this guy with his lines about population control and his park service kroonies regurgataing the same? PLEASE STOP!

I don't understand. Let me repeat: I just don't understand. 1.) I've lived amongst a wolf-shepard for almost a decade now. His name is Thor. Thor has shown me that the wolf within him is loyal, protective and has a strong sense of emotion (I'd go as far to call it love) and caring for the family (his pack). Thor has shown me wolves are much like us humans. I think the Toklat pack is a great example of this on a greater scale. Thor has introduced me to a wolf-loving community where I learned wolves are not dangerous unless diseased or scared (again, like us humans). So again, I just don't understand the "mental processes" of the people who would murder an animal so sentient. 2. While I condone sport hunting for, say, venison (kill for food type of thing), I must point out the word "sport." The word "sport" indicates, to me, a fair compeition. Shooting wolves from planes is not fair competition. It may sound crude, but I think these people got to get off the planes, put down their fire arms, and fight it out like a wolf would. Let's see who really is the stronger species! My stomache turned upside down when I heard the Toklat pack has been scattered. (Possibly TMI -- but I actually dry heaved.) How would these people feel if a stranger came and killed the one couple in their family, who kept their family together. Where's the empathy?

Wow, that's sad. My cousin is now a veggie because she saw this and cried! And now she won't eat meat.

How sad and disturbing news, it also shows the pervasive ignorance and stupidity of unfortunately too many people who don't understand the significant role the wolf plays in the sometimes delicate balance of a natural environment. I'm also extremely disapointed at the apparent ignorance of some of the Park Service officials as well. Perhaps we should investigate the possibility of firing these incompetent Park Service workers. Some of the Park Service officials aren't performing the job they were hired to do, either out of laziness, ignorance, or incompetence. Either way they have failed to perform their duties that hunting licenses and conservationist classes funds are paying them to do, to protect the appropriate amount of species of which the wolf is one, within the habitat that they are responsible for. If it were not for the appropriate number of wolves, some of the larger animals that require greater amounts of food, such as the moose, deer, and caribou in some places would damage the forest by overpopulation and destruction of the plants, trees, and natural habitat. Alot of research has shown that when wolves have been removed from an environment alot of the remaining big game suffer starvation, and disease. The wolf plays an integral part in the check and balance of a thriving ecosystem. To eliminate the wolf in their natural habitat in appropriate numbers is sheer stupidity. Perhaps we should call for the resignation or elimination of the iresponsible, incompetent Park Service officials who are supposed to be protecting the animals under their watch from illegal poaching, and unfair trapping. When will we learn? Only when a wolf is injured or diseased is it a threat to humans. When was the last time you heard of a healthy wolf killing a person? A healthy wolf isn't a threat to people, but our own stupidity will be our own downfall. Park Rangers are supposed to fulfill their duties to protect the correct number of species within their habitat (those wolf numbers need to be increased as well), and prevent some of the people who fancy calling themselves hunters from doing stupid things. If the Park Service officials can not, or will not perform their duties, prosecute poachers, and enforce the regulations, they deserve to be replaced.

I have read this article, and let me tell you,IT SICKENS ME.I mean,really.For the love of woves,people,YOU ARE MORE LIKELY TO BE HIT BY A METEOR THAN ATTACKED BY A WOLF!!!They are slaughtered,MURDERED 900 at a time!!!!Wolves are a very important part of our ecosystem.Did you know that the Lakota Indians called wolves shunk-manitu tanka?It means ''animal that looks like a dog but is a powerful spirit."THAT NAME IS ABSOLUTELY RIGHT!(I have Indian blood,I should know.)When you look into the eyes of a wolf,you see your soul,you know.The blood of wolves should no longer stain the snow.OK,WIERDO HUNTERS?

I really am sickened by the killing of wolves,and I hate the ways of the hunters that do it.Most of my characters that I draw are wolves,also.Wolves should not be faered and killed,but respected.

why are people killing wolves and dingos -- they mean us no harm

I, like so many others, am sickened and brokenhearted over the killings of wolves in all the states that are involved in the corrupt killings of innocent wolves and their families. Humans have used them for research and study for decades, just to turn around and participate in the brutal murders of what they call sport or for tourism. Man has caused an imbalance in the animal kingdom through his own greediness and selfishness and hurridness...if only man would slow down long enough to look ahead to separate his neediness from his greediness perhaps then balance in this world we were all meant to share, would come back into existence.And if a law were stricktly enforced to punish all those who exercise their greediness rather than their neediness, perhaps then balance would come back into play in the circle of life where we can once again live together in co-existence.

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