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The Toklat Wolves are not The Waltons

Tim Mowry / Outdoors Editor / Fairbanks Daily News-Miner / March 11, 2005

One man from Iowa called and told Healy trapper Coke Wallace that he was going to "ruin his life." A woman from Washington phoned to call him "a wolf killing #$%*&@%."

You can use your imagination to fill in the blank.

Ever since Wallace got "lucky" last month and trapped the alpha female in the world's most visible wolf packs, the Toklat pack that roams in and out of Denali National Park and Preserve, his life has been a roller coaster.

He has been persecuted and praised. He has been bastardized and bronzed. He has been vilified and venerated.

He has received nasty e-mails and phone calls from folks in the Lower 48 who worship wolves and he has received supportive messages from hunters who think the only good wolf is a dead wolf.

(In fact, Wallace, a big-game hunting guide by trade, has booked three wolf-hunting trips as a result of his recent notoriety, which, thanks to the Internet, continues to grow.)

But I'm here to tell you that Coke Wallace is just an ordinary Alaska guy who likes to hunt and trap. Actually, he probably likes to hunt and trap more than your ordinary Alaska guy, considering that's his livelihood.

I'm also of the belief that the media hung Wallace out to dry like the Sunday laundry a month ago when he was named as the trapper who snared the Toklat wolf after Gordon Haber ran crying to The Associated Press, his most cooperative mouthpiece in Alaska.

Anyone who has lived in Alaska for any length of time has heard of Haber, who Wallace affectionately refers to as "Gordie." He is well known as Alaska's biggest champion of wolves. If there is a wolf in trouble anywhere in the state, Haber, like Underdog, will jump into a Super Cub and fly to its rescue.

Billed as the world's most viewed wolf pack--an estimated 20,000 tourists saw Toklat wolves in the park last year--the Toklat pack is Haber's bread and butter.

He calls himself an "independent wildlife biologist" but Haber's work is funded almost solely by the animal-rights group Friends of Animals. Much of that money goes to studying the Toklat wolves, which Haber has been doing for 40 years.

While Haber expounds on the genetic importance and scientific value of the Toklat pack, the bottom line is that it is just another wolf pack in Alaska; it just happens to be located in the middle of Alaska's No. 1 tourist trap, pun intended.

The Toklat wolves of today may indeed still have some blood running through their veins that dates back 60 years, as Haber claims, but they've also got a bunch of other blood mixed in there.

In other words, Toklat wolves do not have pedigrees. They aren't the canine equivalent of The Waltons.

"These aren't line-bred retrievers," Wallace said over the phone on Tuesday when I reached him. "They're wild animals that come and go with the ebb and flow."

Do you think tourists crammed onto Denali's tour buses care about the genealogy of the Toklat wolves?

The buffer zone protecting Denali's wolf packs is a sore subject with Wallace and other Healy trappers, who view it as throwing animal-rights groups a bone to keep them happy at the expense of local trappers and hunters.

"It's not biologically sound but they're doing it anyhow to appease these zealots," he said.

Contrary to what some people might believe, Wallace doesn't trap wolves on the edge of the buffer zone to goad Haber and Friends of Animals. He does it because he lives there. The spot where he trapped the Toklat wolf is 12 miles from his house.

Being able to live on the road system and trap wolves right out your back door is a luxury most trappers don't have. Of course, most trappers don't live on the edge of a 6-million-acre game preserve.

"I like where I live," said Wallace. "I'm not going to quit what I've been doing most of my life just to please those people."

Wallace will be the first to tell you he's pushing the envelope when it comes to the buffer zone.

"I'm close," Wallace said when asked how far he sets traps from the buffer zone boundary. "I could take three strides and pee in the buffer zone.

"But," Wallace is quick to add, "I'm legal."

Asked how many wolves he's trapped this year, Wallace replied "Not enough."

"I take my 0 to 5 a year and it's never a problem unless it's one of these coveted dogs," said Wallace, employing a term he uses to irk Haber and the folks at Friends of Animals.

If the wolf he trapped really was 6 or 7 years old as the experts estimated, "she was at end of her run anyway," said Wallace.

"Wolves don't live much past 7, Fish and Game will tell you that," he said. "She was about to become chow for the pack."

What Wallace meant by that is that wolves kill more wolves than trappers or hunters do in Alaska. While wolves may signify the epitome of wilderness to some folks, they also represent the harsh cruelty that is Mother Nature.

Wolf packs are not a four-legged version of the Brady Bunch, as some would have you believe. Cannibalism among wolves is common. As Wallace would say, it's a dog-eat-dog world out there.

Ironically, Haber has done as much, if not more, damage to the future of the Toklat pack than he has, Wallace asserted.

"Gordie's airplane activity trying to keep those creatures pushed into the park has them stirred up as much as anything," Wallace said.

In addition, Haber practically pinpointed the location of the pack when he told The Associated Press with his story, which has resulted in a significant increase in snowmachine traffic on the Stampede Trail, said Wallace.

"When you see a pickup truck with a snowmachine in the back that has a gun boot on it, it's easy to figure out what they're after," he said. "The bummer for me is they're running up my marked trapline trail popping all my traps."

What it boils down to is that Wallace is just as passionate about his cause as Haber and his cohorts at Friends of Animals are about theirs. He's a hunter and a trapper. That's what he likes to do. He'd rather spend time in the woods trapping wolves than sitting behind a computer surfing the Internet.

There's nothing wrong with that, as long as he's abiding by the law.

Ironically, since Haber first told The Associated Press three weeks ago claiming that Wallace had single-handedly wiped out the Toklat pack by killing the alpha female, a few things have come to light.

Despite Haber's published claim that Wallace and other trappers had decimated the pack, park service biologist Tom Meier said it appears only two of the pack's 11 wolves have been caught and the pack has simply split up, which often happens when the alpha female is killed.

On Monday, Meier radiotracked the alpha male in the Toklat pack and found it had already paired up with a female that wasn't part of the pack. The female was in heat and the two wolves will likely breed this spring, Meier said.

That sure doesn't sound like something John Boy would do after losing his girlfriend.

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


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