By SABRA AYERS
Anchorage Daily News
April 14, 2007
This is also a story about life in a town on the edge of the wilderness and what some say can be the sometimes fine line between observing and interacting with nature.
Four years ago, when a black wolf began roaming the snow and ice playground that is the Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area, wildlife watchers and photographers such as Nick Jans were thrilled.
In the morning, the animal could be seen walking on frozen Mendenhall Lake, crisscrossing the ski tracks and running over to the edge of this capital city's famous attraction, the Mendenhall Glacier.
Talk about the wolf's escapades spread quickly. After all, Juneau is a political town - and a small one to boot - in which gossip and chatter can seem like a sport in their own right.
Pretty soon, the wolf had a steady following, a fan club of photographers, dog walkers and skiers, who came out to see him do his thing.
By the end of the first year, the wolf had a name: Romeo.
"This is the right size town for this kind of thing, I guess, but it's also a unique wolf," said Jans, who lives close to the lake and has seen Romeo more than 100 times over the past several years.
A wildlife watcher, Jans has observed wolves all over Alaska's wild places, from the Southeast to the Arctic. "There are plenty of wolves that could have come down here and not been as tolerant as he has been of us."
A gaggle of photographers, sometimes as many as 25 or 30, would show up and wait for the perfect shot of the wolf. Some of them got it and managed to sell a few photos to the city's tourist shops downtown.
A few locals bought the framed photos in a show of support for Juneau's newest hero.
But the friendly observations took a turn for the worse, some here say, when local dog owners began letting their canines run free with Romeo during winter walks on the frozen lake. Unleashed, golden retrievers, spaniels and even pugs would wrestle and chase the wolf.
Forest Service rangers and wildlife biologists warned that the wolf should be treated like a wild animal - with caution and respect - no matter how friendly he appeared.
Dogs should remain on leashes in areas where Romeo was known to hang out, new signs warned in the area.
The community formed two sides on the Romeo issue. One was the thought that Romeo had become part of Juneau, said Neil Barten, a wildlife biologist with Alaska's Department of Fish and Game. The other half thought the wolf was a wild animal that would be better off living in the wilderness.
Eventually, Romeo ran into trouble within the community. The first snatch was a beagle taken by the scruff of its neck by the wolf's jaws in broad daylight, in front of witnesses. Then in January it was a pug, a small tan-colored canine that could have resembled the snowshoe rabbits Romeo favors for lunch.
Romeo released the dogs unharmed. But last week, Romeo snatched a small Pomeranian and didn't let go. The pooch's body has yet to be found.
The incident again raised the point of what, if anything, rangers should do about Romeo. Forest Service officials often order a wild animal that has lost its wariness around people to be shot or tranquilized and relocated. But with public debate so heated over Juneau's Romeo, rangers so far have heeded calls from the community to focus on the public, not the wolf.
"We don't consider the wolf to be near the problem that we see in the people not watching their dogs out there," said Barten.
Letters to the editor in the local paper suggested there were strong opinions on both sides when it came to what should be done with Romeo.
Some said he should be shot. Others blamed dog owners.
Wildlife officials reiterated: a wolf is a wolf, no matter how much he plays with dogs.
Romeo's most loyal fans feared the story of Juneau's wolf could come to a tragic end.
"If he ends up dead, it's because some person reacted to something, not because of what the wolf has done," Jans said.
Chances are, Juneau's summer tourists will never see Romeo. When Mendenhall Lake thaws, the wolf disappears. Whether he comes back next winter remains the question.
"Every time I see him, I think about taking a good, long look," Jans said. "Because I don't know if that might be the last time I see him."
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