Romeo: A Lone Wolf’s Tragedy in Three Acts
Act I: Into the covert of the wood
Many a morning hath he there been seen,
With tears augmenting the fresh morning dew.
Adding to clouds more clouds with his deep sighs
— Romeo & Juliet
In April of 2003 a female Alexander Archipelago wolf was hit by a taxi near the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor’s Center in Juneau, Alaska. Not killed instantly, the black wolf was euthanized by police. She had been pregnant with four pups, probably due to be born within the next few weeks. Alaska State Troopers were called to retrieve the body.
The following winter, visitors and nearby residents began to hear the soulful cries of a single wolf howling across the lake.
Then, on a winter day in 2003, local resident and wildlife photographer Nick Jans was out skiing and spotted wolf tracks. The tracks led him to a young black wolf that was acting “goofy, gangly and clumsy like a teenager.” The wolf took an interest in Jans’ dogs and soon became a regular visitor to the area.
In the winter, the Mendenhall Valley and the frozen lakes within it are popular destinations for winter campers, skiers, skaters, and snow-shoers. As the 2003 winter season went on, more visitors and local residents reported seeing the lone wolf, presumably the dead female’s mate (or maybe her son), and with each report he seemed more bold, more interested in them – and in particular, their dogs.
Jans’ told reporters: “He developed a huge crush on our female lab, Dakotah, and that’s how he got his name. He would hang around our back door and sometimes be waiting in our yard. My wife Sherrie said, ‘There’s that Romeo wolf again.’”
The name stuck.
Act II: The bones of buried ancestors
If they do see thee, they will murder thee. — Juliet to Romeo
The Alexander Archipelago wolf (Canis lupus ligoni) is a rare subspecies of the gray wolf. It is unique to the islands of southeastern Alaska, and is the only wolf found in the Alaskan portion of the largest remaining tract of temperate rainforest in the world. Importantly, it is an apex predator, living almost exclusively off of Sitka black-tailed deer (Odocoileus hemionus sitkensis), a subspecies of mule deer. They may also take moose, small mammals, birds, and a surprising amount of salmon.
Most are darker than gray wolves, but they do exhibit all shades from black to brown to white. They are also typically smaller than their grey wolf cousins (around 50-100 lbs), however Romeo was estimated to be about 140 lbs when full grown.
Alexander Archipelago wolves live in packs of 5 to 9 extended family members, typically consisting of a pair of breeding adults, their sub-adult offspring, and several other adults which may or may not breed. Each pack will only produce one litter of pups per year. Packs occupy stable home ranges and favour low elevations and old growth forest near fresh water. A healthy home range will provide a wolf pack with all of its needs for hunting, denning, and raising young.
Besides being a vital top predator, the Alexander Archipelago wolf is important genetically. The subspecies probably represents the remnants of a widespread population of wolves that inhabited lower North America during the Wisconsin Glaciation. As explained in the most recent (2011) petition to list the Alexander Archipelago wolf [pdf] as threatened or endangered [bold mine]:
- “These wolves recolonized Southeast Alaska less than 12,000 years ago and have since diverged from other wolf populations. Northern continental wolves, such as those found in interior Alaska and central British Columbia, are apparently the result of mixing between the recolonizing populations from both Asia and North America. Weckworth et al. (2010) hypothesized that some of the genetic diversity that has been lost in continental North America wolf populations, due to intensive harvest and resulting extirpation of many populations, remains intact in coastal wolves in the Alexander Archipelago. Thus, Canis lupus ligoni populations in Southeast Alaska appear to contain a significant portion of the remaining genetic diversity for the species Canis lupus.”
The Alexander Archipelago wolf is exceedingly rare, with fewer than 1000 wolves left in Southeast Alaska. A recent survey of Prince of Wales Island found the population had dropped from 250-300 individuals in 1996 to such a low number that frequency of scat and other wolf signs were almost too low to measure. The current (unconfirmed) suggestion is that there are about 150 animals left on the island.
Annual mortality of wolves (excluding pups under 4 months old) hovers around 50%. Most wolf deaths (nearly 90% in some areas) are cause by humans, with hunting and trapping comprising the majority of kills. Illegal hunting and trapping is responsible for about half of those. Between 1990 and 1995, an estimated 1,163 wolves were reported killed throughout Southeast Alaska.
Wolf populations are inextricably tied to deer populations, and deer populations are tied to the carrying capacity of the land. For this reason, concern for the wolves’ welfare has focused on logging practices that threaten Sitka deer populations. Disagreements among environmental organizations, logging interests, and the US Forest Service (that oversees logging permits), have resulted in years of court battles.
Despite this, all efforts to have the Alexander Archipelago wolf listed as a threatened species have failed. In 1993 the US Fish and Wildlife Service concluded that while the animals were not currently in jeopardy, if logging continued at its current rate and no reserves were set up for the animals, then the “long-term viability of the Alexander Archipelago wolf would be seriously imperiled.” But logging has continued and deer and wolf populations has fallen.
However, earlier this month the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the US Forest Service approval for four Tongass logging projects that would have cut 33 million board feet from 1,700 acres of old-growth forest and constructed 13.7 miles of logging roads.
That action was quickly followed by a new petition [pdf] to have the wolf listed as endangered or threatened. The petitioners, Greenpeace and The Center for Biological Diversity, believe that without protection, this rare and unique animal will soon disappear, taking with it some of the most valuable wolf DNA in existence.
Act III: Feasting with mine enemy
I have night’s cloak to hide me from their sight;
And but thou love me, let them find me here:
My life were better ended by their hate,
Than death prorogued, wanting of thy love.
–Romeo to Juliet
For years Romeo romped with the dogs of visitors and residents in the region. People looked forward to encounters and photographic opportunities with this normally reclusive species and Romeo became bold, approaching people and inviting their dogs to play.
In 2007, an email with photos of the wolf picking up a pug and carrying it the way he might carry a dead rabbit came to the attention of wildlife officials. The pug was released unharmed (some observers say Romeo was just playing), but there were also troubling reports of people touching the wolf. These encounters confirmed that Romeo was becoming far too accustomed to humans and pets. It would only be a matter of time until someone got hurt.
And sure enough, it was not long before the wolf was accused of killing a small dog. Not only that, but there was a growing concern for Romeo himself. Pet dogs could transmit diseases to the wolf and put other wolf populations at risk. Or, if Romeo became aggressive to humans, he would risk being killed as a dangerous animal.
Alaska Department of Fish and Game authorities toyed with different ideas on how to manage the situation. The wolf could be trapped and moved. That would be a straightforward option. But Alaskans choose to live among their wildlife. Black bears are ubiquitous in and around many Alaskan cities. Grizzly bears fish for salmon alongside local fishermen – and women. Moose walk the streets. And most folks know what it’s like to lie in bed and hear wolves howling not far from their windows.
And besides that, the residents of Juneau loved Romeo. “Friends of Romeo” had been formed in 2006 to “speak for Romeo,” defending him against claims that he had killed pet dogs, and arguing for his right to remain in his homeland. Sending him away would not be an option.
So authorities settled on trying to educate people on how to discourage the engaging wolf. They posted signs at the visitor’s center warning hikers to keep their dogs leashed and not to let them play with their wild cousin. They reminded visitors that fines could be levied on those who fed or touched the animal. “There’s the danger of loving this wolf to death,” warned Juneau District Ranger Pete Griffin. “We have to remember that it is a wild animal. For it to continue to survive it has to remain a wild animal.”
But the wolf, now habituated to his human and domestic dog “pack,” persisted and attempts to change people’s behavior in dealing with Romeo were spectacularly unsuccessful. Local residents allowed Romeo to accompany them on daily walks, sometimes for hours at a time. The wolf appeared in the yards of local dogs he was fond of and followed skiers back to their cars. He played with tennis balls and frolicked freely with pets while their owners skated on the frozen lake. And, analysis of his scat showed that along with small animals, fish, and the occasional deer, he was also eating dog food.
Where the devil should this Romeo be?
Came he not home to-night?
January 2010 brought ominous news: Romeo had not been seen all winter. Harry Robinson, a local resident who walked with the wolf daily reported that he hadn’t seen him since September 18th, 2009. Speculation ran the gamut: Maybe Romeo was dead, suffering an accident, killed by a pack of wolves, or simply from old age. Or, maybe he was alive and well. Perhaps he had finally found a female of his own kind and had returned to a more normal wolf-like existence. Everyone hoped for the latter, though chances were remote.
John Hyde, a wildlife photographer who spent the better part of seven years with Romeo reported that Romeo showed little interest in other wolves, not answering the howls of distant packs. (Hyde had gained the animal’s trust to such an extent that he was rewarded with some of the most beautiful and profound images of the creature ever published). Biologist Steve Lewis was convinced that Romeo probably died of natural causes. “My guess is that he’s probably dead … he just died from being a wolf,” he said.
Romeo’s disappearance triggered a community response. Reward money was put up and missing posters were posted all over Juneau. Friends of Romeo began investigating and in May of 2010 an arrest was made: Park Myers of Juneau and Jeff Peacock of Lebanon, PA were charged with a number of hunting violations, including an illegal wolf kill. The wolf, while not confirmed as Romeo, was an adult male taken from the Mendenhall Lake region on September 22, 2009 – 4 days after Romeo went missing. And it was black.
Photographs confiscated from Myers and Peacock show a lone black wolf confidently approaching vehicles in a parking lot, later the two men posed with the carcass of a black wolf, and an image of a Juneau Empire article entitled “Romeo, Where Art Thou?” DNA analysis of the wolf was never performed but Harry Robinson examined the photos and identified the wolf by a recognizable scar. “That is definitely Romeo,” he pronounced.
The hunters were found guilty of numerous hunting violations and the penalties handed down were typical of those for first-time violators – fines of several thousand dollars, suspended six-month jail sentences, and loss of their hunting licences for three years. As much as he was loved by the Juneau community, Romeo was still just a wolf, with no special rights or status beyond those of the rest of his kind or even that of the bears that were also illegally taken by the convicted hunters.
Seal up the mouth of outrage for a while,
Till we can clear these ambiguities,
And know their spring, their head,
their true descent;
And then will I be general of your woes,
And lead you even to death: meantime forbear,
And let mischance be slave to patience.
Bring forth the parties of suspicion.
Like his namesake, Romeo crossed a dangerous social boundary and for that he paid with his life. To be sure, those men wielding the guns hold the bulk of responsibility. But the folks who cared so much for Romeo also bear some of that burden.
A lone wolf is no wolf at all. Romeo needed a pack. With no other wolves to choose from, he tried to build a foster pack of pet dogs, and by extension, their owners. These were the people who failed Romeo. Instead of rebuffing him, they encouraged him.
Many of them should have known better—wildlife photographers and nature writers; the residents of Mendenhall Valley who presumably should have more sense than tourists when it comes to feeding and encouraging wildlife. And most importantly, wildlife authorities and biologists who are entrusted to look out for the best interests of animals like Romeo.
Because he had been conditioned to trust humans, Romeo was a sitting duck for two men looking for an easy kill. But rather than protect him from that inevitability, officials caved to community pressure.
“People have a great sense of community pride regarding the wolf, and that should continue as long as people act responsibly around it,” said District Ranger Pete Griffin in 2007. “It is a problem, and we don’t want anybody to even have to worry about getting a citation,” said Alaska Bureau of Wildlife Enforcement trooper Lt. Todd Sharp.
But these officials were responsible for drawing that firm line in the sand that separates wild animals from over-zealous public affection, and they didn’t do it. And why, instead, didn’t they try to find a way to give Romeo what he really needed – a wolf pack?
By loving him to death, the residents of Juneau didn’t just lose Romeo. They lost a rare and valuable genetic line – one that could have helped preserve his kind, and perhaps could have enriched the genome of his ancestral species, the gray wolf, Canis lupus.
In this imperiled species, the death of Romeo, a solitary wolf, brings us one step closer to the day when the only Alexander Archipelago wolf that locals and visitors will ever see is the one that was killed by the taxi in 2003 – now stuffed and mounted in the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor’s Center – and named Juliet.
Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things;
Some shall be pardon’d, and some punished:
For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.
Szepanski, M., Ben-David, M., & Van Ballenberghe, V. (1999). Assessment of anadromous salmon resources in the diet of the Alexander Archipelago wolf using stable isotope analysis Oecologia, 120 (3), 327-335 DOI: 10.1007/s004420050866
WECKWORTH, B., TALBOT, S., SAGE, G., PERSON, D., & COOK, J. (2005). A Signal for Independent Coastal and Continental histories among North American wolves Molecular Ecology, 14 (4), 917-931 DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-294X.2005.02461.x
Weckworth BV, Dawson NG, Talbot SL, Flamme MJ, & Cook JA (2011). Going coastal: shared evolutionary history between coastal British Columbia and Southeast Alaska wolves (Canis lupus). PloS one, 6 (5) PMID: 21573241