ANCHORAGE — Alaska authorities have dispatched teams of hunters to the Chignik Lake area of the Alaska Peninsula to hunt down the wolves they have concluded stalked and killed a special education teacher who apparently was taking a late afternoon run.
Candice Berner, 32, appeared to have been killed Monday evening during a run along a remote road outside the Alaska Peninsula community, according to troopers.
The state medical examiner concluded, following an autopsy Thursday morning, that the cause of death was "multiple injuries due to animal mauling." Based on interviews with biologists and villagers in Chignik Lake, troopers concluded wolves were the animals most likely responsible, troopers spokeswoman Megan Peters said in a statement.
The state Department of Fish and Game still wants to conduct DNA testing to help study the incident, but troopers are convinced it was a wolf attack, troopers director Col. Audie Holloway said. Alaska State Troopers have sent an officer and an R-44 helicopter to assist the state Department of Fish and Game in capturing or killing the wolves, but whiteout condition kept the helicopter grounded on Friday afternoon.
Local hunters, however, were still seeking the wolves on the ground. They had yet to find any, said Johnny Lind, a resident of Chignik Lake and member of the Chignik Advisory Committee to the Board of Game.
Snow was falling on fresh wolf tracks villagers spotted near town this morning and keeping an aerial search on the ground, he said.
"They can't fly right now," Lind said at midafternoon. "It's snow coming straight down. It's almost zero-zero, hardly no visibility."
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees the nearby Alaska Peninsula National Wildlife Refuge, has a representative in the village to assist state authorities and also approved a 10-day special-use permit allowing state authorities to cross refuge boundaries in pursuit of the wolves, FWS spokesman Bruce Woods said.
"It's something that we only issue when human health or human safety is in question," Woods said. "Even though this didn't take place on refuge lands, there are refuge lands that conceivably they could have to cross over if they were in the act of either trying to capture or kill some of these wolves.
"Normally aerial predator control isn't allowed on refuge lands."
Berner, originally of Slippery Rock, Pa., was found dead Monday off the gravel road by a group of snowmachiners. An autopsy conducted Thursday determined she was killed in an animal mauling, and troopers concluded wolves were the most likely culprits.
Troopers investigating the scene found many wolf paw prints around the body, which had been partially eaten, and bloody drag marks in the snow, he said. Investigators were able to conclude after the autopsy that the animal injuries caused the death and were not inflicted post-mortem, he said.
"She was bleeding as she was being moved, being drug, and the damage to the throat," Holloway said. "The medical examiner concluded that she wasn't killed by any other method and that the damage to the throat was severe. There were animal bite marks on the throat.
"Wolves, just like big cats, usually attack the wind pipe area and try to control the victim that way."
It appeared the attack was predatory, motivated by wolves wanting something to eat, he said.
Berner, a special education teacher based in Perryville, was originally from Slippery Rock, Pa., and arrived in Alaska last August. She stood about 4 feet 11 inches tall and was an athletic person, an avid runner, according to her family. Officials from the Lake and Peninsula School District said Berner, who rotated among five villages and arrived in Chignik Lake on Monday, left work at the end of the day to go for a run.
A group of snowmachiners found her a short time later. Her gloves were in the road and Berner's body had been dragged off the road down a hill.
Bob Berner said troopers told him his daughter had an iPod with her and was running toward town when the wolves attacked her about a mile and a half out. There appeared to have been a chase and struggle that lasted about 150 feet before she went down, he said Thursday by phone from Pennsylvania.
"She was probably not aware of them until they actually lunged at her or attacked her," Berner said. "She did the best she could, but they figured there were two of them for sure, maybe three ... She put up a struggle. It was not an immediate thing."
Retired Fish and Game biologist Mark McNay, who has studied wolf attacks in North America, said that the attack was highly unusual and appeared to be the first documented case of a fatal wolf attack by healthy, wild wolves in Alaska. The only other such case in North America took place in northern Saskatchewan in 2005, he said.
That Berner was running at the time might have contributed to the attack, he said.
"The whole running thing is something that can elicit a predatory attack," McNay said. "It suggests vulnerability."
Holloway said troopers and Fish and Game biologists were on their way to Chignik Lake Thursday planning to capture or kill the responsible wolves. They believe at least two or three were involved, he said.
"We'll stay as long as we can to make sure the public feels as safe as we can make them feel living in Alaska," he said.
A Fish and Game representative arrived in Chignik Lake late Thursday to inspect the site where Berner was killed and to find out about recent wolf behavior in the area, including how many there are, spokeswoman Jennifer Yuhas said in an e-mail.
"Local residents report nightly sightings of wolves in the area," Yuhas said. "It was determined that any wolves at or near the fatality site are to be considered an immediate threat to human safety. We are attempting to obtain biological samples of wolves in the area and to identify the offenders."
Local hunters began tracking the wolves earlier in the week and have had several sightings, but as of Thursday afternoon hadn't made any kills, said 24-year-old Jacob Kalmakoff, who was among those who found Berner's body. Hunters were planning to try baiting them with meat to get a good shot, he said.
"Right behind my house is where I'm going to put some," Kalmakoff said. "I can look behind my house and see up on top of the hill where they're been climbing up the hill and looking down at the village."
In the wake of the attack, local residents reported they were not traveling alone and children were being accompanied to school.
"I think folks are now processing what we all need to do as residents of this area where there are a lot of wolves to be sure that everybody is safe," said Rick Luthi, the chief operating officer for the school district who is in King Salmon. "Our children have a great deal of freedom, and this is going to cause folks to be sure that children are safe."
Friends were holding a memorial service for Berner Thursday evening in Perryville, where she was based, he said.
Bob Berner said is daughter was enjoying Alaska, doing what she wanted to do, and that he's had many years of great memories with her. The attack didn't change his perception of wolves, he said.
"They're just doing what wolves do," Berner said. "Their nature happened to kill my daughter, but I don't have any anger towards wolves."