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AK: An arctic wolf pup moves into the wildlife center north of Haines

by Claire Stremple

An arctic wolf pup that was born in captivity in the lower-48 moved to an Alaska facility this summer. The young wolf will have a job at a local wildlife center, teaching people about the wilderness. 

Luna, a wolf pup, explores at the Kroschel Wildlife Center. (Claire Stremple, KHNS)

It’s a quiet year without tourists at the Kroschel Wildlife Center at Mosquito Lake—except for the vocalizations from some arctic foxes.  

Usually there would be a couple bus loads of tourists at the center to learn about the wolves, foxes, wolverines and bears that live here. COVID-19 meant operator Steve Kroschel had to cancel the tours that bring up to ten thousand visitors a year to his center. But he has a new resident to keep him busy.

Ten week old Luna, a wolf pup descended from a wild Alaska pack, is chewing on a small vole. Kroschel caught it for her. She eats about two pounds of meat like this a day. She’s sandy colored with an awkward puppy sway in her step. Kroschel said she’s a rare breed.

“Very few real wolves in the wild anymore. North America especially. There’s nobody sees them. So when you go to a zoo, and they say, here’s a wolf, you can’t be sure that that is a true wolf. It’s probably got a little bit of dog in it,” he said.

There’s no dog in Luna. That pure wild wolf bloodline is something that Kroschel wants to preserve. He says her parents were taken out of the wild for research near Utqiagvik. She was born to those research wolves in captivity in the lower-48. Luna is wearing a black nylon collar today because she’s outside of the large verdant enclosures that house the animals at the wildlife center. 

“Now when I’m working with wolves, I always exaggerate all my emotions, you know, my hand is going like this in these circular motions like this. And and that to the wolf’s mind is a tail wagging,” he explains.

Kroschel speaks to Luna in a high pitched voice and makes enthusiastic vocalizations that don’t make much sense to most humans, but do engage the young wolf. Kroschel has a lifetime working with wolves.

“I’ve been working with wolves since I was in diapers,” he said.

“So I grew up on a farm with my folks and grandparents bringing in orphaned animals from Alaska, northern Canada. So I grew up with wolves and bears and all that sort of thing.”

But Kroschel isn’t the only human who spends time with Luna. Haines residents Dave and Charlotte Olerud visit the center weekly to interact with the pup. They’re among a number of locals who visit her. Kroschel says that’s by design. 

“Giving her this bonding with human beings like with Dave. Like this is going to probably double our lifespan. If you look it up wolves in the wild with five or six years in captivity, 15 years or more,” said Kroschel.

Dave Olerud is feeding Luna today. Kroschel set up a faux den, so Luna would feel at home, and Olerud offers her a vole dangling from the end of a stick. He laughs as Luna takes a vole he offers her. He says the education work the center does with animals like Luna is crucial as increasing numbers of humans lose direct contact to the natural world.

“I believe in nature. And if man believes in nature, we can survive. But man doesn’t believe in nature, we’re going to have trouble right now. I think we’re approaching that period of time of trouble,” he said.

She may be descended from a wild wolf, but ease around people is key to her future. Kroschel plans to use Luna as an ambassador for wild wolves elsewhere as well—she will join him at visits to schools and foundations once he gets permits from the state for her to leave the center.

It’s among many items on his to-do list. Film crews had just left the center after working on educational material with Kroschel and the animals. He said despite the economic downturn, the animals will be fine. Even if it means he’s added “expert vole hunter” to his resume.