The Killing Fields

updated 03/21/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/21/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

THE NEWS GORDON HABER HAD KEEN dreading came in a telephone call last December. Haber, 50, a wildlife biologist and an expert on Alaska's wolves, was at his office in Anchorage when an official from the Department of Fish and Game reached him to say that a radio-collared female wolf had been killed south of Fairbanks by state game wardens. Haber's heart sank. The wolf was one of a nine-member family he had been studying for nearly a year. "Each time I saw them I wondered if it would be the last time," he says, quietly angry. "I knew they would start disappearing right before my eyes."

Last June the state announced that it would kill up to 150 wolves—80 percent of the population that roams a 4,030-square-mile stretch of spruce and tundra between Fairbanks and Denali National Park—to increase the Delta caribou herd for the benefit of area hunters. The slain female is one of 90 wolves that have been killed this winter as part of Alaska's controversial war on wolves.

"A series of bad winters and summers reduced a caribou herd that was extremely important to hunters," explains David Kelleyhouse, director of the Alaska Division of Wildlife Conservation and a staunch proponent of the culling plan. "Since 1989 the population dropped from 10,700 to fewer than 3,000. If we did nothing, the caribou herd would stay low for decades. There would be virtually no 'use opportunity' for humans."

Haber, who has spent 29 years tracking Alaskan wolves by snowshoe, snowmobile and airplane, disagrees. "There's no justification for what they're doing," he says of the killing. "They claim that the caribou herd collapsed. It didn't. It just returned to a size that prevailed over past decades. Caribou numbers fluctuate drastically because of weather and range reasons that have nothing to do with wolves. What the state is saying is, 'Well, we can't control the weather, but we can control the wolves.'

The original November 1992 plan, which called for shooting 475 wolves in three areas from the air, aroused the anger of more than 200 animal and environmental groups, including the Fund for Animals and the Connecticut-based Friends of Animals. When they threatened a boycott of Alaska's 51 billion tourist trade, Governor Walter J. Hickel backed away from the aerial kill.

But Fairbanks hunters appealed to the state Board of Game. Last June after the public outcry had died down, the board quietly approved a scaled-down version of the wolf-control plan—and extended the wolf-hunting season from five to six months.

Haber charges that the revised killing program is inhumane as well as wrong headed. He believes that the thin wire snares, baited with gut piles from other hunted animals, are unacceptably cruel. "Eighty percent of the wolves killed have been pups," he says. "They're less careful. They see a moose carcass and get all excited, jumping up and down, wagging their tails, charging ahead of the group. The snare closes around their necks. The more they pull, the tighter it gets. Generally, it takes an hour or two for them to die. Sometimes it takes days."

Haber first became aware of wolves as a junior high school student in his hometown of Dearborn, Mich. "Just looking at pictures, you could tell they possessed a real intelligence," he says. Haber studied geophysical engineering at Michigan Technical University, then in 1966 headed off to Alaska to pursue his love affair with wolves. Alternating work as a seasonal ranger in Denali with Ph.D. studies in zoology at the University of British Columbia, he spent eight years observing wolves in interior Alaska. "They're highly expressive creatures with a great deal of emotional depth," says Haber, a bachelor who lives from one research grant to the next. "They have one of the most sophisticated types of social organizations on the planet. When you whack out their populations, you shred the very social structure that sets wolves apart."

That is precisely what Haber is determined to stop. This winter, working for three environmental groups, he has flown more than 100 hours over the control area counting wolves in order to challenge what he believes are the slate's overinflated wolf figures. In December Haber persuaded the state to allow him to inspect wolf carcasses at the Fish and Game Laboratory in Fairbanks. It was then he discovered that many of the animals had been shot in the side, rather than being dispatched more humanely with a gunshot to the head. By publicizing such facts, Haber hopes to pressure Alaska to abandon its effort. "They're hoping I'll go away, but I won't," he says. "Killing extremely intelligent, highly expressive creatures without any good biological reason is just wrong."

JOHNNY DODD in Anchorage

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