Juneau's famous black wolf's absence a mystery

Posted: Monday, January 25, 2010

JUNEAU -- Plenty of catastrophes can befall a wolf: icy stream crossings, a nasty spat with a bear, a fall in a crevasse, even other wolves.

Romeo faced those dangers and more because he chose to live near humans, where he could socialize with their pets. His increasing comfort around people probably upped his chances of mortality, but at age 7 or 8, he was getting up there in years and could have died naturally.

Then again, maybe he hooked up with a female wolf or joined a pack and left. That scenario seems unlikely to area biologists, but some Romeo fans like to think about it.

Neither hide nor hair of Romeo, the city's celebrity wolf, has been seen in Juneau this winter. Residents who hiked with him every day said he was last seen in mid-September.

Romeo first showed up in the Mendenhall Valley in 2003, hanging around every winter since in the Dredge Lakes area and on the frozen, snow-covered lake.

It was clear this was no ordinary wolf; he instigated playful behavior with dogs being walked by area residents.

"The thing that impressed me most about him was his non-aggressiveness, or his turn-the-other-cheek sort of attitude that he had," said photographer John Hyde, who spent countless hours taking hundreds of images of the animal. "I saw him attacked by various dogs, aggressively attacked and bitten, and he would just turn away and walk off when he could have literally killed those dogs in seconds."

It was clear to many residents the shiny black wolf, estimated at 140 pounds, yearned for canine companionship and was seemingly willing to stifle innate behavior in a quest to make friends.

"He would make noises, wanted to show us something. He wanted to play," said Harry Robinson, who was joined by the wolf on daily walks with his female dog, Brittian. "He'd jump eight feet straight up in the air and grab a branch, be like, 'Look at me, I'm so cute, look what I can do.' He'd play tug-of-war with other dogs but act like he's pulling it, so the dog would not get discouraged or something. He liked to be chased by other dogs."

He lived in the area woods, feeding on mice, voles, salmon and beaver. He sometimes got a deer and sometimes ate dog food, evidenced by the scat. Some say he left in the summer and others say he widened his range but stayed around, harder to see in the lush forest.

Romeo's socialization eventually became routine. He'd hang around the West Glacier Trail parking lot, his ears perking up at the sound of certain vehicles.

His "pack" was made up of a group of unrelated dogs, both large and small, belonging to people who walked their pets at different times of day.

He'd spend only minutes with some, and hours with others.

Robinson said he would hike two hours a day with him, and could call him with a wolf-like howl.

He'd follow many of his canine companions back to the parking lot.

"You'd see him whining and crying as they left, and they'd tell him to go back to where he came from and they left," Hyde said. "But then he'd be there the next day looking for the same thing."

Though thought of fondly by many, Romeo was accused of killing and eating several small-breed dogs.

Those incidences are strongly discounted by his fans but not ruled out by area wildlife managers, who discussed relocating the wolf but decided to attempt to change human behavior instead.

They requested pet owners not let dogs play with the wolf, putting signs up at the trailhead. It didn't stop the socialization, however.

This winter, Romeo did not come back to the lake, where many residents in years past saw him frolicking among ice skaters' pets.

Robinson said Romeo was last seen Sept. 18. He looked healthy and had about three-quarters of his winter coat grown in.

Events and details about Romeo observed by residents who got to know him offer some hints about what may have happened.

Always after canine companionship, Romeo was never that interested in humans but he became too comfortable around them, Hyde said.

"He was beginning to lose that fear of people, so if he saw a dog that looked interesting he'd come right up to it," he said, "even if there was a person on the end of a leash 20 feet away or even less."

Last year he began to show some age, shrinking his range and staying out of deep snow more than before. Wolves generally live a decade or so.

"He was just getting older," Hyde said, "and he wasn't quite as rambunctious as he used to be."

Biologist Steve Lewis said Romeo likely died of natural causes.

"My guess is that he's probably dead ... he just died from being a wolf," he said.

Romeo also could have interacted with a pack of wolves, said Lewis, a former researcher for the state department of Fish and Game now with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He studied the animals until last year.

GPS collars on two of the pack animals showed them moving from Mount McGinnis north to the Katzaheen River near Haines. The pack made regular trips between the two areas but stayed up in the mountains, never coming down to the Mendenhall Valley, Lewis said.

In March they detoured around the valley, crossed the glacier and avoided downtown while heading for Thane to the south. The animals might have been checking boundaries of another pack in the Taku River drainage, Lewis said.

"He potentially could have been interacting with one of these other packs and he could have been killed because of that," Lewis said.

He also could have left on friendlier terms.

Last summer, a second wolf showed itself in the valley.

It was a gray wolf, with brown, black and gray markings said to be smaller than Romeo but not many people, if anyone, got a really good look.

The new wolf did not interact with people but stayed in the forest. Some heard it howl. Hyde said the call got no reaction from Romeo.

"The impression I got watching him, he didn't even answer," he said.

Still, the possibility Romeo could have developed an interest in the gray wolf is attractive, especially to those who became attached to him.

"I'm working on the supposition, an off-chance, that some type of female that came through the area was appealing to him," Robinson said.

Robinson also thinks someone could have hurt the wolf. He suggests it could have been trapped or shot.

State wildlife managers "don't have a clue" what might have happened to Romeo, Fish and Game Area Biologist Ryan Scott said, and drawing conclusions about a wrongdoing is "inappropriate."

Romance, violence, a new beginning, a natural death - no one likely knows what happened to Romeo but many agree, a unique opportunity to see a wild animal up close and personal is lost to Juneau residents and visitors.

For Robinson, who saw Romeo as an individual and not just as a wild animal, his disappearance means a bit more than that.

"To me he was intelligent, loyal, very playful," he said. "... I miss him, as a friend, really. Much like - I don't want to say a dog because while I've never petted him, he's really wild - he certainly trusted us and he was a great, loyal companion."

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Information from: Juneau Empire, http://www.juneauempire.com



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