‘Among wolves’ offers window to wild — New book profiles enigmatic biologist and his long-term career of field study

Redoubt Reporter file photo by Joseph Robertia. A wolf in Denali National Park and Preserve carries a meal from a caribou kill. Wolf sightings have become far less frequent over recent years in the park, from about 44 percent of visitors in 2010 seeing wolves to 4 percent in 2013.

Redoubt Reporter file photo by Joseph Robertia. A wolf in Denali National Park and Preserve carries a meal from a caribou kill. Wolf sightings have become far less frequent over recent years in the park, from about 44 percent of visitors in 2010 seeing wolves to 4 percent in 2013.

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

To Marybeth Holleman, author of “Among Wolves,” the question she most wanted to answer in writing her book about Alaska wolf biologist Dr. Gordon Haber wasn’t what sparked his 43-year, single-minded, life-consuming career studying wolves in the wilds of Alaska. That part was obvious from a mere glance at his field notes, which offer a captivating window into the behaviors, adaptations and interactions of these fascinating and controversial creatures.

Haber explains his interest himself in one of the passages of the book, which is a combination of Haber’s research notes, reports and writings compiled and edited by Holleman, and Holleman’s own interviews and research about her subject.

Wolves enhance, “The ability of our surroundings to evoke the sense of wonder that helps us not just to live, but to be alive,” Haber once wrote.

“I was struck not just by his knowledge of wolves but also by his passion for wolves. He had been studying them for so long but he never lost that initial sense of wonder and that passion for his research, and that really struck me,” Holleman said during a presentation about her book at Kenai Peninsula College’s Kenai River Campus on April 2.

That drive struck early. In high school Haber wrote an essay on his life goals, saying, “‘I have decided on one factor, this being that I intend to live a major portion of my life either in or near the outdoors,’” Holleman said. “And that he did.”

Haber began his wolf research in Alaska in 1966 and continued it until his death when his research plane crashed in Denali in 2009. Summer and winter found Haber backpacking into Denali National Park and Preserve, via skis, snowshoes or hiking boots, spending thousands of hours observing his subjects. Once radio collaring began, Haber contracted a pilot and conducted much farther-reaching surveys from above, observing up to 18 wolf groups in the 6-million-acre park and preserve, as well as the Yukon–Charley Rivers National Preserve, Fortymile region and other areas where the state conducted predator control programs.

All the while he remained an independent scientist with private backers funding his research — such as the Friends of Animals — but eschewing any limitations or directions placed on his work, Holleman said.

“All that time gives him unassailable, experiential authority to tell us something about wolves,” she said.

Colleagues thought him meticulous, with a depth of knowledge to match his wealth of experience — and also enigmatic, being somewhat of a lone wolf himself. When he came to Alaska from Michigan in the 1960s, Haber met with pioneer wolf researcher Adolph Murie, who had turned his studies into the landmark book, “The Wolves of Mount McKinley.” Haber took up observation of the same wolves, the Toklats, that Murie had been studying since the 1920s, creating 70 years of continuous research. That makes the Toklats, along with Jane Goodall’s chimpanzees, the oldest known, longest-studied, large-animal social group in the world, Holleman said.

“Which is, as you can imagine, of inestimable scientific value,” she said.

Among Wolves book coverHe worked to bring to light new information about wolves, and also to dispel some common myths. Wolves are not, for instance, indiscriminate killers, he found, documenting many instances where they avoided even easy prey if a kill wasn’t necessary or posed too much risk. In the winter the park wolves scavenged quite a bit, in some cases locating buried carcasses by smell and digging up to 10 feet through the snow to reach them. They also don’t tend to be wasteful consumers, Haber found, referencing a 200-pound Dall sheep ram devoured to just the skull, backbone and bits of fur in 12 minutes, and a full-size moose consumed in just 45 minutes.

Wolves are more playful than some might think, commonly breaking into games every 30 minutes or so that hone agility and vital hunting skills. Their yips, barks, growls and especially howls serve many purposes. Summarizing Haber’s findings, Holleman said that wolves howl to communicate with other group members, as a form of socializing that helps to maintain important bonds, to express a range of emotions and to advertise their territorial boundaries.

They are supremely skilled hunters, as observation after observation from Haber’s field notes demonstrates, and wolves customize hunting tactics to the unique prey and habitat characteristics of their territory. The Savage River pack developed a moose-hunting tactic Haber called swarm and circle — panic their prey by chaotically swarming around the moose, yipping and howling and causing commotion, then circle the moose to see if there were some infirmity, inexperience or other advantage they could exploit. When the Savage River wolves disappeared in the early 1980s — likely wiped out by illegal aerial shooting, Holleman said — that tactic disappeared with them.

The Toklat wolves had mountainous Dall sheep habitat in their territory and could outmaneuver a sure-footed sheep on knife-edge ridges and scree slopes.

“He said that the Toklats not only knew every sheep mountain in their 1,000-square-mile territory but he actually observed them being able to pick out sheep on a snow-covered mountainside from up to eight miles away. So, a pretty amazing sense of sight and smell,” Holleman said.

“Toklat wolves displayed impressive physical prowess, regularly climbing up and down steep mountains like they weren’t even there,” Haber wrote. “I typically recorded instances of them ascending a 60-degree, snow-covered slope with an elevation change of 1,800 feet in less than 20 minutes with no rest stops, and then breaking into intense play at the top.”

Haber also wrote about wolves descending icy chutes to intercept sheep, adjusting their upraised tails for balance.

“Skiing straight down the 70-degree, 3,000-foot run. They zip down this chute faster than any Olympic downhill ski racer I’ve watched,” Haber wrote.

The cornerstone of Haber’s research was on the social interdependence of wolves, so much so that he stopped referring to packs and instead used the term “family group.”

“The term pack, he felt, conveyed a certain sense, like a chaotic band of hoodlums just roaming about, and what he saw in terms of wolves was very highly cooperative, socially cohesive family groups,” Holleman said.

“The wolf just isn’t one animal, it usually can’t survive for long alone,” Haber wrote. “It is 10 or 20 animals, typically an extended family, all acting as one in order to survive.”

The hallmark of an advanced society, Haber said, is the prolonged dependency of the young on adults. That is certainly the case of wolves, which spend about 25 percent of their lifespan dependent on adults, needing protection and sustenance as pups, then instruction on hunting and survival as they grow older.

Wolves are generally monogamous, with mated pairs traveling together year-round and exhibiting a closeness that rivals or exceeds the human marital bond, Haber said. They also use cooperative rearing. Though the alpha male and female of a pack are the ones to reproduce, the whole family group is involved in raising the pups. Other females will come into lactation to help nurse especially large litters, and the entire group contributes in some way, helping hunt for, protect and train the young.

Haber once observed the Toklat alpha female, a 2-year-old female and yearling female crossing a braided river with three fresh-from-the-den pups in tow. The older wolves pressed ahead while the yearling kept turning back to the timid pups, encouraging them to cross by pouncing in the water, grabbing a pup about the neck and putting a paw on its back to steady it against the current. When they finally braved the stream the yearling hauled them up the other bank and even swam downstream to assist a struggling swimmer, positioning herself so the pup could climb up her back onto the bank.

This social interdependence is both wolves’ fundamental strength and vulnerability, because when that social structure is fractured it can decimate a pack. Haber documented this in the Toklat wolves, when the alpha female was caught in a snare set in an area to the northeast of the park boundary, where activists have been fighting for the state to reinstitute a no-hunting and -trapping buffer zone like the one the Alaska Board of Game removed in 2010.

“(Haber) said that kind of saturation snaring, where they simply saturate an area with snares, was the equivalent of high-seas driftnet fishing because it’s indiscriminate. It didn’t just kill wolves, it killed caribou, it killed any other animal that happened to walk through the snare set,” Holleman said.

The alpha female’s pack stayed in the area while she struggled for two weeks in the snare, and others of her family group were caught. Even after the snares and dead wolves were removed the alpha male still returned, howling, for months, until he was shot by a hunter.

“Meanwhile, the family group simply disintegrated. There wasn’t an alpha male and female holding the family group together. At the end of all of that, all that was left was only six wolves, and all those wolves were 1 or 2 years old,” Holleman said.

The young wolves lacked experience and didn’t have any elders to teach them how to hunt and survive, much less thrive, in their territory. They were poor winter scavengers. They stopped hunting for sheep. The only reason they survived that period was because it coincided with a boom in the hare population.

The Toklat family and its territory shrunk, and soon the Grant Creek family group, an offshoot of the Toklats, moved into their range. But they, too, succumbed to disarray when the alpha female was caught in a snare in 2012 in the area that had been the buffer zone. It was April — after mating in March but before pupping in May, so she likely was pregnant when she was killed. With no pups that year, the family group fragmented and scattered, going from 15 wolves to three in just that one summer.

Instances such as these fueled Haber’s vocal activism against the state’s wolf management strategies.

“Most biologists take a superficial, numbers-based approach to what constitutes a healthy wolf population. They say you can harvest 30 to 40 percent annually and it will rebuild to the same level every year,” Holleman said.

But Haber argued that indiscriminate killing of wolves is an overly destructive way to reduce wolf numbers. Wolves have complex societies, and it can take several generations to rebuild a family group and establish order and traditional knowledge.

“He observed traditions among long-lived family groups, like the Toklats, that literally do take generations to develop and are tuned to their specific environment, their specific territory. And he found that human hunting affects wolves differently than natural mortality,” Holleman said.

In natural mortality, it is usually the young and weak that are lost. But with human hunting and trapping, there’s a greater chance of losing an alpha and other vital members of the group.

“This affects the family group very differently. This has reverberating effects on the family group as a whole. … Basically what happens is you don’t just lose the wolves that you shoot or track, you lose many more wolves in the family group after that. So (Haber) said it’s not how many wolves you kill, it’s which wolves you kill,” Holleman said.

It used to be that Denali, along with Yellowstone National Park, were the places where visitors were most likely to see wolves in the wild, but that has changed, Holleman said.

“The population of wolves in Denali National Park is the lowest ever recorded right now, it dropped from 147 wolves to 54 wolves in just five years, and this is in the whole 6 million acres of park and preserve,” she said.

Haber posited that the decline was due to hunting and trapping along the northeast of the park, where wolves follow caribou out of the park boundary and into state-managed lands. The Board of Game instituted the buffer zone in 2000 and removed it in 2010.

“Since the buffer was removed in 2010, in summer 2010 about 44 percent (of visitors) got to see wolves in the wild. About 400,000 go every year. By 2013 only 4 percent got to see them,” Holleman said.

Of everything that fascinates Holleman about Haber and his work, what tops the list isn’t why he was interested in wolves, but how he maintained that level of wonder and activism despite constantly butting heads with the Board of Game and state regulatory process, Holleman said

“One of the driving questions behind the book for me was what sustained him year in and year out, when his findings continued to be ignored? He continued to watch these wolves that he seemed to know so well get trapped and shot and killed,” she said.

In focusing study on wolves, Haber unavoidably placed himself square in the middle of one of the most controversial areas of wildlife management of Alaska. Attending meetings, giving testimony, writing articles and taking any media platform to present his research findings and observations to try to sway policy — generally making himself, as colleagues put it, a thorn in the side of the Board of Game — wasn’t Haber’s preferred habitat. That was out in the wilderness, with a pack on his back, notepad in his hand and wolves filling his attention. But he kept at it.

“I think what was even more tough and grueling for Gordon Haber was the work he did in politics advocating for wolves,” Holleman said.

“Gordon said that wolves deserve our respect and admiration, not our fear and contempt. And certainly not the government-sanctioned and government-funded torture that we rain down on them now,” she said.

“It’s a reminder to me of what one person can do, and one of the reasons I took on the challenge of writing this book is to encourage people to follow in his footsteps, and to remind people of the power of an individual when you have a sense of perseverance and persistence and passion that Gordon Haber did.”

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