On August nights and early in the morning, the village of Tanana was visited by an unwelcome guest. An old black wolf has taken at least four dogs from a mushing family, breaking one dog’s chain and eating another’s neck to lead them away.
“Right now people who have dogs in their backyards are very worried. It happens at night when it’s dark, so everyone is nervous,” said Lois Huntington, Tanana’s first chef. There really is no way to protect the dogs if you don’t have them behind the fence as all the dogs are usually chained up in the open area.”
The lone old wolf was first spotted in Tanana in February last year, but it wasn’t until early August that the predator attacked its first prey – a dog 50-pound sled chained up at Pat Moore’s fishing lodge.
“He chewed off the dog’s head and left the head and the collar on a chain over there,” Moore said. “There were no drag marks; all we saw were wolf tracks moving away.
Moore knew that wolves generally have a pattern: about every 10 days they would circle around and come back. But the musher was not in the village when the predator returned and took another sled dog.
“This time he broke the chain and took off with a dog,” Moore said.
Along with her daughter, Moore moved the dogs to the yard near their homes, but it hadn’t been 10 days and the wolf had already taken the third dog and then the fourth a few days later.
“When the wolf came back, he tried to fight one of my most feisty dogs, and that dog got a little torn up,” Moore said. “Nothing terrible – just bite marks and stuff like that.”
The dog, who survived, was put on antibiotics but the wolf got away with another “who was a bit more docile,” Moore said. The family moved the dogs to the center of the dog yard, and now Moore’s daughter awaits the wolf’s return.
“She will try to shoot him,” he said.
Other people in Tanana also noticed the predator. Some managed to chase it away by howling at the animal and throwing sticks at it, Moore said. He added that one of his neighbors had a very old dog that was put down and buried, and the wolf came by, dug it up and ate it.
Longtime Tanana resident Stan Zuray said “people are also worried about their children.”
Wolves exist throughout Alaska, even in heavily populated areas, said Bridget Borg, a wildlife biologist who studies wolves at Denali National Park. When passing through an area – be it a village, town or city – there is always a chance of an encounter, although usually animals simply act out of curiosity, especially if there is a female dog in heat.
Animals begin to act differently when “some sort of stressor causes them to switch from naturally curious behavior to aggressive predation,” Borg said.
Wolf attacks on dogs usually happen when a wolf is starving, especially if it lives alone without a pack, explained Kimberlee Beckmen, researcher and veterinarian with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. He may also act aggressively if he has rabies – or if he gets used to being around dogs and realizes it “could be an easy meal”, she added.
While researchers aren’t tracking wolves specifically around Tanana, in the wider region “everything looks good from a wolf population perspective,” said state wildlife biologist Mark Nelson, who works in the area, including Tanana.
Borg noted that in Denali, the situation is less optimistic. Caribou calves are now mature and less vulnerable, and wolves have growing calves that need to eat.
“This time of year is not the only time we see famine, but it can be a difficult time,” she said.
Beckmen said that in the Fairbanks area, including North Pole and Two Rivers, wolf attacks occur every eight to 10 years, mostly during low snow years when moose easily avoid wolves. At the state level, these incidents occur every year or two.
“It’s not very common, but there’s usually a reason for it to happen,” Beckmen said. “And once they attack and see how easy it is, they usually repeat that behavior.”
Keeping an eye on the dogs is the number one thing residents can do to protect them, Borg said.
“If you’re away for the day, let your neighbors know and ask them to cover their ears,” she added. “Dogs usually bark and give alerts, and being in tune with your garden, you’ll know the difference to other types of alerts.”
Borg added that cleaning up dog food and garbage can also help keep predators away, but when incidents do occur, it’s best to report them to Alaska Wildlife Troopers.
“And if anyone should see a wolf approaching, treat them like a bad dog – sound menacing, wave your arms, pick up rocks and sticks to throw at them,” she said. “Bear spray is another thing that can be used.”
Moore said for some, seeing a wolf in Tanana is a novelty, rather than a danger to life or property.
“But I have no doubt at this point that anything out there while it’s dark is fair game for that wolf,” he added. “That’s all I know.”