Wolves Linked to Moose Deaths Along Turnagain Arm Trail

Bill Sherwonit / Wild Anchorage / Outdoors / Anchorage Daily News / May 2, 2004

The ravens tipped me off.

Their presence and behavior suggested something unusual in the woods that border the Turnagain Arm Trail. As I rounded a bend, three of the large black birds left their perches and flapped, cawing, across the trail. Though I didn't see their exact positions on liftoff, it seemed at least one of the ravens had been on or near the ground.

This woodland path at the southern end of the Anchorage Bowl is a place I visit regularly throughout the year. In spring and fall, when the forest is busy with change, I may hike the trail three or four times a week; in summer, when I'm often exploring other parts of Alaska, or winter, when the forest is largely dormant, weeks may pass between walks.

With the days lengthening and warming, I've been coming here more frequently again. Still, more than a week had passed since my last visit.

I often see or hear ravens during these walks, but usually they're flying above the canopy, headed up or down Turnagain Arm. In the hundreds of times I've hiked here, I've seen gatherings of perched ravens only a few times.

The ravens and I watched each other a minute or so, then two of them departed. The one that lingered followed me with its intense, shining eyes as I resumed my walk and passed beneath its cottonwood perch. When I'd gone another 50 feet or so, the raven flew back across the trail to where I'd first spotted the birds, now joined by a loudly yakking magpie. Something was making the raven reluctant to leave.

My first thought: It's got to be food. Maybe there's a carcass up there in the woods. Putting binoculars to eyes, I scanned the forest but couldn't see any sign of blood or body. I then thought about going to check, but the idea of post-holing through wet soft snow in low-cut walking shoes held me back. I mentally marked the spot and resumed my walk, telling myself I'd return and check it out but not really being sure I would.

That was yesterday. Today no ravens are present. But the air is cooler, the snowpack not so punchy, and I've got backpacking boots on. I'm ready to go off-trail. Slogging and weaving among spruce, birch and cottonwood trees, I look left and right and ahead, searching for signs.

The last week has been warm during the day and cold at night; any tracks have been softened and blurred by the freeze-thaw cycle. Still I see some moose and canine prints in the snow. Then I start seeing small, scattered patches of moose hair. But there's no blood, no bones, no evidence of a kill.

I'm just about ready to give up. But before leaving, I take one last look around. And there, 70 or 80 feet uphill from me, is a bright splash of red. My binoculars confirm the sighting: There's a large patch of blood in the snow.

Moving slowly and cautiously, I decide to clap my hands, make some noise. The calendar says it's still too early for bears to be out of hibernation, but you never know for sure. The closer I get, the more tracks I see: bird, canine, moose and at least one set of boot prints.

Finally I reach the kill site. A large circle of snow has been stamped down. And within that circle is a skull, the jawbones, some patches of hair, yellow- and red-stained snow, and a large pile of what looks like peat moss. That's the rumen, undigested remains from the moose's belly.

Beyond the first circle of death is a second. Here are the remains of the ribs and backbone and legs and the moose's emptied hide. I'm amazed by how thoroughly the moose has been scavenged. The skull and ribs and other bones have been completely cleaned of meat. Even one of the legs is bare bone down to the hoof.

I wonder how long ago the moose died. I walked this trail just over a week ago and saw no evidence of the kill then, no sign of scavengers. I'm not an expert on "reading" moose remains, but the skull and hooves and hide suggest an adult. How fast would a moose carcass be cleaned of its meat?

Given the season (late winter) and the absence of any bear sign, I assume the animal died from starvation and was then scavenged by all manner of critters: coyotes, ravens, magpies, certainly. And what about foxes, weasels, lynx, squirrels, and rodents?

I briefly consider the possibility that wolves were involved, but dismiss that notion since I've never noticed sign of wolves along this trail.

Back home, I contact Fish and Game biologist Rick Sinnott, briefly describing what I found and ask if he's heard anything about a moose kill along the Turnagain Arm Trail.

Larry Aumiller found a moose carcass during a recent walk, Sinnott says. And Aumiller (who manages the McNeil bear sanctuary) thinks the moose may have been killed by wolves. Sinnott adds, "Larry's pretty good at this stuff, and I think he uses that trail a lot, so I believe it."

I'm surprised by the mention of wolves. But like Sinnott, I trust Aumiller's knowledge and instincts. I arrange a meeting to learn more.

Over coffee drinks at a south Anchorage cafe, Larry recounts his discovery.

Unlike me, he was hiking the trail after a recent snowfall that left 3 or 4 inches of powder over a hardened crust -- perfect tracking conditions.

The first thing he noticed was a large splotch of blood on the trail, plus a bunch of tracks. Looking closely, he saw a trail of blood and moose hair heading off into the forest, accompanied by at least two sets of wolf tracks.

There may have been more than two wolves, Larry tells me, but at least two sets were distinctly different in size. And the trail of blood and tracks suggested that the wolves had been hounding the moose, harassing and injuring it, until finally going in for the kill.

The carcass itself was about 150 feet downhill and had already been largely cleaned of meat. From the size of the skull, it appeared to be a yearling.

"Wait a minute," I interrupt. "Did you say downhill?"

"Yeah, it was downhill from the trail, not real easy to see until you were right on top of it."

"So where exactly was this?" I ask.

"You know the Christmas tree (a spruce tree someone decorated with Christmas balls during the holiday season)? A little ways beyond that."

I can't believe it. Larry had found a different carcass, about a half mile (as the raven flies) from the one I discovered. From all appearances, both had died within the last couple of weeks. Wolves had killed at least one of the animals, perhaps both, yet they'd nearly gone undetected.

Only Larry's attentiveness and curiosity had led to their "discovery." I wonder if anyone else noticed the blood or tracks.

I know that wolves roam the eastern edges of Anchorage. I've heard stories from homeowners who've seen them and even seen their tracks while walking Chugach State Park's Middle Fork Loop Trail. Yet for some reason I've never imagined them here along this path. Perhaps I've assumed that they wouldn't come this close.

Anchorage outdoors writer Bill Sherwonit does a column on Anchorage wildness.

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