After last winter's spate of dogs being attacked and killed by wolves in the Anchorage area, local wildlife officials are encouraging pet owners to be safety conscious and leash their pets when running or walking around Fort Richardson this winter.
Chris Garner, a natural resource specialist for U.S. Army Garrison Fort Richardson, said the wolves involved in last year's attacks were believed to be from a pack or packs with home ranges in the Fort Richardson and Elmendorf Air Force Base area.
With as few a six and as many as 12 animals, Garner said there is either one large pack or two smaller packs which range from Elmendorf, across northern Fort Richardson, through Eklutna and up to the Palmer Hay Flats.
The threat of wolf attacks on dogs is greatly reduced when owners keep their pets leashed, preventing them from becoming easy prey. (Photo courtesy of the Directorate of Public Works Environmental Department)
While last season's attacks occurred north of the Glenn Highway, Garner noted the area south of the Glenn, which includes Arctic Valley and the Moose Run Golf Course, has plenty of wolf activity.
"There's some discussion as to how many packs are out there, because we've caught, on our cameras, wolves going across the highway back and forth underneath the Ship Creek Bridge," he said. "I'm not certain it's the Elmendorf Pack or the Ship Creek Pack, but certainly the pack that roams Fort Richardson and Elmendorf, whatever pack it is, those are animals that are habituated to human contact whether you are on north post or south post.
"That's an important thing to realize," he said. "Just because you are on south post doesn't mean you can let your dogs run wild, because they may well not come back. Wolves in general have a large home range, but when there's a heavy concentration of food, they'll generally stay in a fairly concentrated area.
"I don't want people to be wolf paranoid, but they definitely need to be aware they're out there, and they're not like wolves you'll see elsewhere," Garner explained. "They're a lot of them not afraid of humans and will obviously, as we've seen, approach humans - particularly if you have a dog."
Garner said the wolf issue on Fort Richardson is mainly reserved for training areas, however, he advises people to exercise caution when walking dogs and jogging around the Loop Road area, along Davis Highway, around Otter Lake and along Arctic Valley Road - all on the fringes of the cantonment area. He said wolves do not, to his knowledge, come into the housing areas and if they have, they have never caused any problems there.
The first of last winter's three reported attacks happened Nov. 28 near Eklutna on the northern edge of the wolves' range. Subsequent attacks Dec. 4 near Chugiak and Dec. 5 on a remote area of Fort Richardson followed similar patterns.
In each instance, owners were walking unleashed dogs when wolves appeared. The dogs either chased after the wolves or were caught off guard. Two of the five dogs involved were killed.
According to an Alaska Department of Fish and Game news release, the Municipality of Anchorage is home to at least four wolf packs. ADF&G biologist Rick Sinnott said wolf attacks on dogs are not unusual, and seem to increase in winters with little snow - like this season. Without deep snow as a disadvantage, it is easier for moose to escape wolves on the prowl for a meal.
The wolves, being opportunistic hunters, then target other food sources.
"I'm not so certain, to be honest, that it's (only) a function of lack of moose," Garner said. "I think it's a function of these guys being habituated to humans and I think they've simply added dogs to their prey list, to their menu.
"I'm certain that the lower population of moose probably plays an effect, but we've got kills and gut piles on north post, and did back then as well. The wolves were utilizing those gut piles, but still taking dogs. I think these guys have just added dog to their repertoire."
Garner said some signs point to the possibility that well-meaning humans may be contributing to the problem.
"Our wolves are a little different from a 'wild wolf,'" he explained. "These wolves are wild, but they are habituated to human activity. They may have been fed.
"I had a report this year from a hunter who was in his car and a wolf approached his car and kind of padded around it, like 'Are you going to give me something?'" he said.
Garner said wildlife officials hope to learn much more about the area's wolf population through a trapping and collaring enterprise scheduled to begin soon in conjunction with Elmendorf Air Force Base and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The plan is to collar up to six wolves.
He said beside the obvious opportunity to learn about the wolves' movements, the program may also give the animals a more natural fear of humans.
"There's evidence to suggest that in handling these animals - even in handling one of the pack - it can aversively condition them to the point they become afraid of people and they revert back to their more normal behavior," he explained.
While any captured animals will be released with global positioning system collars, Garner warned the info cannot be used as a real time wolf detector.
"These wolves will have GPS collars on them, but this is not real-time data. We have to upload the information, and we usually do it every two to four weeks," he explained. "So it's not like we can say 'Don't walk your dog today because there are wolves out around Poleline Road.'"
The opportunistic hazing suggested last year to give the wolves a healthy fear of humans really didn't work out, said Chris McKee, another Fort Richardson natural resource specialist.
"Only because you're talking about a pack of animals that has a huge range of territory," McKee explained. "The chances of running into them and getting an opportunity to haze are very low.
"After those events on the Eagle River entrance (last year) I went out myself looking for them for about a week," he continued. "I saw tracks, but I never actually saw them. I don't think we ever had the opportunity to ever actively haze them. But somebody out walking a dog, with pepper spray, that might be all it takesŠone good blast."
Garner and McKee offered a few safety suggestions for pet owners worried about wolf predation.
"The first thing is never feed wild animals, in particular wild animals that are potentially dangerous like a wolf or a bear," Garner said. "And I would put 'potentially' in big bold letters, because these wolves could have easily attacked the humans if they wanted to in the incidents last year, but they were clearly just going after the dogs.
"What I would suggest is if people are walking their dogs on Fort Richardson, that they absolutely keep them on a leash - particularly on north post," he continued. "I would suggest you keep your dogs on a leash at all times and close to you. If wolves approach you, yell at them and try to scare them off."
Garner also noted that pepper spray is effective on wolves if used properly. He suggested owners should learn to use it correctly, and then carry it with them when out walking Fido.
Post officials suggest anyone thinking about carrying a firearm as added protection should familiarize themselves with U.S. Army Alaska Regulation 190-13, available in PDF format at www.usarak.army.mil/publications/PDF_Pubs/USARAK_Regulations/Regulation%20190-13.pdf.
In part, the regulation states privately owned firearms may be carried outside the Fort Richardson cantonment area, "while engaged in authorized recreational activities."
The regulation also states, "The discharge of these weapons is prohibited except for authorized hunting activities and self-protection from wild animals."
USARAK 190-13 also spells out registration requirements for firearms on the installation, as well as concealed carry stipulations.
Officials say this is not a hunting license to go after wolves or other animals on Fort Richardson, simply an acknowledgement of the potential dangers inherent with living in Alaska.
Garner said any run-ins with wolves on Fort Richardson should be reported as soon after the incident as possible.
"This year we had a hunter that basically they stayed on either side of him for miles and he couldn't get them to move away," he explained. "He finally made it to his car and left, but we didn't find out about that for months."
He said any encounter that involves an attack, or even if wolves show up and can't be chased away, should be immediately reported to the military police dispatch desk at 384-0823. Callers can also request a conservation officer be dispatched to the area.
For other encounters, Garner asked people who run into wolves on the installation to call his work phone at 384-2744 and leave a detailed message including the number and colors of wolves encountered, as well as the location and any behavior the animals displayed.
Post officials also remind the community that anyone wishing to recreate on any of Fort Richardson's training areas must be registered with the U.S. Army Garrison Alaska Recreational Tracking System and have a recreational access permit. Registration can be done at Fort Richardson's visitor center at Checkpoint Pride inside the main gate.
For more information, call 384-0296 or download a USARTRAK brochure from the conservation department Web site at www.usarak.army.mil/conservation/files/FRA_USARTRAK_Summer2008.pdf.