Wolf Wars

Nick Jans

On a cold afternoon in 2006, my wife Sherrie and I stood in the foyer outside the Nome, Alaska post office, clipboards in hand. Out on Front Street, snow spattered on a blustery west wind. I’d just come from three days in Kotzebue, where I’d spent hours at a time outside at 15 below, rotating a half dozen pens from an inner pocket, trying to keep each from freezing long enough to scratch a signature. By comparison, this was Miami Beach.
     A steady stream of people, all on missions that didn’t include talking to us, bustled past. A grizzled gold miner type in worn Carharts held my eye and nodded politely—the sort of guy I’d have a beer with. And, for the umpteen hundredth time in two days I nodded back, stepped forward, and said, “Excuse me, would you like to sign a petition to help stop the state’s program of shooting wolves from planes?”
     He stared back incredulously. “Stop it? Jesus, if I had a plane, I’d like to get a few of the bastards myself! They’re eatin’ all our moose!” I stood there, watching the greasy back of his jacket recede, feeling like an idiot. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Sherrie approach a grandmotherly Eskimo woman with an armload of packages. “Have you heard about our petition?” Meanwhile, a young man with a toddler in tow ambled by. I sighed to myself, and heard my voice, tired at the edges, once more. “Excuse me …” The guy stopped, smiled, and took the clipboard from my hand. Thanked me, in fact. One more down. No, two, with Sherrie’s. Three hundred-something more to go in Nome, thirty-some thousand statewide.
     Don’t ask me how I got into doing something I loathed so much. I’m not talking about the cause, but about being political, and the idea of interrupting folks minding their own business and asking them to jump through some hoop. Bad enough in Juneau or Anchorage, but far worse in the bush, where the unwritten code is do-what-you’re-doing-and-mind-your-own.
     Not only was I gathering signatures. I’d somehow ended up co-sponsor of a statewide ballot initiative to limit aerial wolf control for the third time in a decade. Twice a majority of Alaskans had voted against the practice and banned it by law; and twice the governor-appointed Board of Game had reinstated the program as soon as a two-year statutory limit had expired, to be used as a management tool over broad areas. This time around, they were permitting private pilots to do the actual shooting.
     It didn’t take me long to re-confirm what I already knew: I might as well have signed up to sit on a lightning rod. Aerial wolf control has long been Alaska’s most controversial wildlife management issue, the sort of topic that leads to hard feelings, finger-jabbing, nasty letters to the editor, and occasional bar fights.
     Two opposing philosophies define the argument. (Ahem). Ready?
     Position A: wolves constitute a looming predatory menace to the game animals on which the people of Alaska depend—not to mention a threat to human safety. Keeping their numbers under control by whatever means (including shooting, snaring, leg-hold trapping, and shotgunning them from low-flying aircraft) is a common-sense necessity. Left to their own devices, wolves will multiply and Hoover every moose and caribou out of the country. People come first, and Alaskans have a right and a legal mandate to manage wildlife for their own maximum benefit. Any opposition to such a plan obviously comes from greenie-weenie, barely Alaskan, non-hunting city slickers and out-of-state radical, pinhead lackeys of PETA.
     Position B: wolves, as top predators, are a natural part of healthy, complex, self-regulating ecosystems that have evolved over millennia, and removing most of them (the plans call for up to 80 percent in certain management units) is only bound to screw things up. Without wolves, deer and moose numbers explode unsustainably, then crash, over and over. Wolves, too, are a valued resource on which trappers and subsistence hunters depend. Beside that, blasting wolves from airplanes is just plain wrong and reflects hor­ribly on the state’s image. Anyone who doesn’t see things that way is a nearsighted, beetle-browed, knuckle-dragging redneck.
     That’s just the CliffsNotes summary. The unabridged version gets far more nasty and multi-layered, replete with biologists, politicians, wildlife advocates, and hunters flinging mudballs made of statistics and rhetoric in each others’ faces. Add in the real extremists—old-schoolers who consider wolves four-legged cockroaches, and the animal-rights types who worship Canis lupus as imperiled uber-beings, and you have the makings of a full-scale brouhaha that spills over state and even international boundaries. Wolves, by virtue of their innate canine charisma and endangered status through most of their former range, are a big deal. People far away care what happens here—a fact that rankles many Alaskans, who believe wolf control is no one’s business but their own.
     Alaska’s wolves are unique in at least one respect. At the dawn of the 21st century, there’s still plenty of them—statewide, somewhere between seven and eleven thousand, according to state biologists. Thanks to the elusive, no-paparazzi nature of the species and the scale and roughness of the country, these are educated estimates at best, with a huge amount of slack (more than 50 percent the minimum figure) built in. Some biologists figure it’s more like five to seven thousand. But whatever the number, some folks—especially those associated with the big-dollar sport hunt- ing and guiding industry, who consider every bull moose a walking paycheck, and a few thousand rural residents living in relatively game-poor areas—figure it’s too many.
     I could run down the whole time line of Alaska wolf control, from federally sponsored bounties, government hunters and cyanide-laced baits of the territorial days through a period of more enlightened, ecosystem-based wildlife management, to the current tug of scientific evidence and ideologies, but that’s its own convoluted story. Somehow, though, all that led to us and dozens of others standing with clipboards all across the state, gathering signatures that would give voters a chance to reaffirm what they’d already decided twice: shooting wolves from the air wasn’t Alaskan or right.
     My own history with wolves isn’t what you might expect. One of the reasons I headed for Alaska 28 years ago was that wolves still roamed wild there, and I wanted to be part of that landscape. Naturally, I wanted to get close to them, interact somehow—which meant, to a twenty-something kid raised on Outdoor Life magazine, hunting. Not in a systematic, specific way, but wolves along with everything else, from grizzlies to Dall sheep. I launched my education as a packer for a big game guide, then honed my skills along- side the Inupiat hunters who were my friends and neighbors for 20 years. And with time, I got pretty good at hunting most things—enough so that after a few years I lost count of the wolf hides, even though I often passed up fresh trails and easy shots. The skins ended up as parka ruffs, decorations, and gifts to village elders. Meanwhile, I never saw any subsistence hunter who truly needed a moose or cari- bou go without.
     I stopped hunting wolves as a matter of personal choice, mostly because, through long familiarity, I started liking them much better alive. An empty hide didn’t have eyes that flashed yellow fire, didn’t flow across the tundra with effortless, loose-wristed grace, or play with ravens and sticks, howl unseen from a ridge, lead wobbly pups past camp, taunt grizzlies, and sometimes cavort with my dogs. Pull the trigger and all that was gone, reduced to a bloody pile of hair and meat. Dangerous? Potentially, sure. But in dozens of meetings, sometimes as close as 20 feet to healthy, wild, full-grown wolves from the North Slope to Southeast, I’d never had the least hint of trouble. Moose were one hell of a lot more risky.
     Not that I had any illusions about what wolves were, what they could do, and how they lived. I’d seen dozens of kills over the years—moose, caribou, Dall sheep—some so fresh the gutpiles were still steaming. Wild wolves struggled for dominance and often killed each other. They starved, died of mange, got their heads stove in by moose kicks, went days at below zero without eating, and got run down by hunters on snowmachines. The miracle was that they somehow managed to survive at all. And even when they were abundant, they were spread so thin over the land that most Alaskans have never glimpsed a wild wolf, or heard one howl. But they should have that opportunity, and not just in some national park. They and their grandchildren should be able to legally hunt and trap them if they want, too.
     Wolves, even unseen, fill up a landscape with wildness, define it. You’d think, after the mess we made elsewhere that people would know better, learn to value the last places where large-scale ecosystems without boundaries exist, complete with the predators that define and shape them. Am I overreacting? The Position “A” guys would say way worse than that—I’m ranting against nothing, fear-mongering, distorting, and promoting ballot-box biology. They just want to manage wolves, not eliminate them, and their science is good. There will always be wolves in Alaska. Couldn’t get rid of them if they wanted to.
     Sorry, guys, I’m not comforted. You don’t remove 80 percent of a population of social, pack-oriented animals without getting rid of them all. And sure, just in some game management units for now, but the working plan is to expand predator control areas, not reduce them. Check the minutes of recent Board of Game meetings. Think we lack the technology and will to exterminate wolves? Compare a map of former with current wolf range worldwide and get back to me. As for science, there’s plenty of respected biologists on the Position “B” side, specifically questioning that “good science” behind the state’s program, poking holes in faulty data and methods, and pointing to issues of sustainability. I try to imagine big chunks of Alaska essentially wolfless and Pennsylvania-like as some would have it, and three things happen. First I get unspeakably sad. Then comes the anger. And then I head for the post office.
Author’s note: The ballot initiative did make it to the statewide ballot in 2008, but failed by a few percentage points.