Since August, biologists with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the military have been looking to kill off or drastically thin two packs of wolves -- maybe 12 animals in all -- that roam Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson and around the edges of Eagle River. They say the animals have become increasingly aggressive with humans and dogs.
One wolf has been shot so far. A trapping effort began a few weeks ago. There are plans to possibly shoot the wolves from helicopters if other efforts fail.
To some people, that might sound extreme. I talked to a number of Eagle River neighbors who liked seeing wolves where they live. But as I learned more about some close encounters with the animals, it became clear that these aren't ordinary wolves.
Wolf aggression is rare, but the wolves that roam base land and some of Eagle River's neighborhoods are different, biologists say. They have been rewarded for coming into contact with people because they've found food, including dog food, trash and sometimes pets, which are a much easier kill than moose. At least one dog has been killed, others have been attacked and some pets have disappeared. Wolves are smart, social animals that learn behaviors from each other, biologists say. These wolves have become more brash with each generation.
"It really can't be undone," said Mark Burch, regional supervisor of Fish and Game's Division of Wildlife Conservation.
Biologists worry most about evidence the wolves have taken an interest in people, especially on the base.
In November, the military reported that a man walking his dog on one of the trails on base was surrounded briefly by four wolves. Joggers on Artillery Road have reported being stalked. David Battle, wildlife biologist on the base, told me that one of his techs had a wolf trot straight toward him, stopping at about 50 yards. Another wolf came right up to Battle's car. Wolves have appeared in driveways and on porches in Eagle River. Last summer they began making regular visits to the base housing areas, Battle said. Base housing is packed with children.
"They've just lost their fear, and that's a dangerous thing for any animal," he said.
It will be hard to wipe out all the wolves, Burch said. They are difficult to track and kill. The surrounding wild areas are home to other wolves. It's likely they will take over the vacant territory.
NOT INTERESTED IN THE DOG
A friend on Facebook put me in touch with a woman who was treed by wolves last summer while running on the military land. She agreed to take me out to the spot to show me what happened, on the condition I wouldn't use her name in my column. She was worried people would blame her for the wolf kill and that she would be harassed.
She met me at the base entrance one afternoon last week and we drove into a wooded recreational area of the military land west of Eagle River, passing lakes and crossing a creek. We drove for 20 minutes and saw only a couple of military vehicles.
The woman is an avid outdoor runner who trained alone for years on a 10-mile loop of road through wooded land off Artillery Road. She knew there had been wolf sightings on the loop, but most of the ones she'd heard of were in the winter. She's lived in Alaska for 20 years and has seen lots of wildlife on her runs. None had been aggressive.
The morning of May 29, she told me, she met a girlfriend and her dog for the 10-mile run. They had been running close to an hour when a fuzzy shape showed up ahead, sitting in the road. At first they thought it was a bear cub. They slowed to a walk, trying to get a sense of what it was. Soon they made out a wolf about the length of a football field away.
The wolf started walking toward them. They assumed it was curious. The dog, a well-trained Lab mix, was off leash but stayed between the woman and her friend.
The wolf kept coming. The woman and her friend got uncomfortable. They started yelling and throwing small rocks. The wolf didn't change course. They waved their arms and a big stick. The wolf zig-zagged but continued walking toward them. The woman grabbed a big rock and ran toward the wolf, hollering. She threw the rock. The wolf didn't stop.
"It was so white, with a big ruff around him," she said.
It was bigger than any dog she'd ever seen. Bigger than her. Easily more than 100 pounds, she said. And it was getting closer, maybe 40 feet away. They started to back up. It must be after the dog, they thought. About then, a second wolf, maybe 30 feet away, stepped out of the woods. It began walking toward them too.
The women kept backing up with the dog between them. They had no cell phones, no weapons, no bear spray. They knew that running away wasn't a good idea. They decided to look for a tree to climb.
The wolves trailed them and dropped out of sight as the women climbed a hill, taking a shortcut from one part of the road to another. A moment later, the animals were 15 feet away.
The women scrambled downhill off the road to reach the foot of a 40-foot spruce tree. Its lowest branch was about 7 feet off the ground. The woman boosted her friend into the tree. The woman looked up toward the road. One of the wolves was crouched on the embankment, maybe 10 feet away, its head low.
"It was all teeth," she said.
The dog ran between her and the wolf. As she pulled herself up into the branches, she heard the dog and one of the wolves tussle. The dog whimpered, then went quiet. She and her friend couldn't see it. They thought the worst.
"It's okay. Shh. You've been a good girl," her friend said in goodbye to the dog.
A few minutes passed. They didn't know where the wolves were. They heard the dog whimper again and scratch at the tree. It was alive. They tried to calm it to keep it from making noise, sure the wolves would be back any moment to kill it.
The wolves appeared up in the road. Their eyes were fixed on the tree.
"At some point it just dawned on me," the woman said. "They aren't interested in the dog."
Nearly two hours passed before the wolves finally left, she said. Another pair of runners found the two women in the tree. The four of them flagged down a passing fisherman and rode out. The dog was uninjured.
LARGEST URBAN WOLF KILL
The woman doesn't run alone much now. And she never runs with ear buds in. She always carries a cell phone. She's a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association, she told me. In remote spots, she runs armed. She said she wouldn't recommend that, though, unless you're very practiced with a firearm.
Fish and Game has killed wolves in other parts of the state, both to boost moose and caribou populations and, as happened out on the Alaska Peninsula recently, to protect people from animals thought to be aggressive and dangerous. But this will be the biggest Anchorage-area wolf kill effort in history and, if it comes to it, the only one conducted from the air.
I asked the woman how she felt about the idea of killing the packs. She was mixed about it. She appreciates seeing wildlife and doesn't like the idea of killing all the wolves around the base. At the same time, as she saw, at least some of the wolves on base appear to be dangerous. She wishes there were a way to identify the more habituated animals.
We drove by base housing. Children's toys sat on the back porches. I don't like the idea of killing all the wolves, either, but it's clear at this point doing nothing isn't an option.