Researchers count just 57 Denali wolves

FAIRBANKS, Alaska — The number of wolves in Denali National Park and Preserve is the lowest in 25 years, which has supporters howling to stop trapping and hunting of wolves on state land just outside the northeast boundary of the park.

Researchers counted just 57 wolves in nine packs during the October survey that was posted on the National Park Service’s website on Tuesday. That’s down from 72 wolves in eight packs last year, a 24 percent decrease, and represents a 63 percent decline from an all-time high population of 143 wolves in 2007.

Not surprisingly, groups and individuals who have been trying to protect wolves in the park seized on the survey to rekindle their efforts to reinstitute a protective buffer zone along the northeast boundary of the park near Healy. The buffer zone, which prohibited the hunting and trapping of wolves on state land adjacent to the park, was eliminated in 2010 by the Alaska Board of Game.

The survey results “confirm fears expressed earlier this year by wildlife conservation advocates and biologists regarding the continued take of park wolves when they cross the park’s northeastern boundary onto state lands,” Rick Steiner, an Anchorage marine biologist who has picked up the Denali Park wolf torch that was carried by independent biologist Gordon Haber for many years before he died in a plane crash four years ago.

Citing the survey numbers, Steiner sent an email to Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell on Tuesday asking her to use her authority to issue an emergency closure for trapping and hunting in what used to be the buffer zone. The Alaska Wildlife Alliance, another group that has advocated for the return of the buffer zone, did the same, according to president Tina Brown.

“When you see a dramatic decline like this it’s common sense something should be done,” Brown said. “This is one step the Board of Game or commissioner could take to address the decline of wolves in the park and in doing so would most likely increase viewing of wolves in the park.”

Similar requests and petitions submitted to Campbell in May and the Alaska Board of Game in September and October, before the trapping season opened Nov. 1, were denied because neither Campbell nor the game board deemed the situation an emergency.

Campbell couldn’t be reached for comment Wednesday but Dale Rabe, deputy director for the Division of Wildlife Conservation in Juneau, said nothing has changed and the state isn’t likely to take any action. The state doesn’t manage wolves inside the park and wolf populations on state land outside the park appear to be healthy, Rabe said.

“The commissioner and department have looked at the viability of populations outside the park and inside the park relative to trapping and harvest records and concluded that there are no conservation or sustainability questions there,” Rabe said. “Without that the commissioner is not inclined to use her emergency closure authority.”

The state manages wildlife populations on a sustainable basis, and it’s the Board of Game’s job to allocate those populations among users, he said. It would take a “compelling conservation concern” to warrant a closure, Rabe said.

Rabe noted that the park’s wolf population declined every year since 2007 and the buffer zone was in place much of that time. He said only two wolves were taken by trappers or hunters last year after the buffer zone was removed, which represents only a small percentage of this year’s decline.

While Steiner acknowledges there are likely multiple reasons for the decline in the park’s wolf population, he said there’s no denying trapping and hunting on state land has contributed to that decline. He pointed to the trapping of the last breeding female in the most-viewed pack in the park, the Grant Creek Pack, which was trapped in what used to be the buffer zone in May. After the female was trapped and killed, the rest of the pack abandoned their den and split up. The pack didn’t produce any pups this year, he said.

“There’s six or seven animals gone right there,” he said. “Now there are only five of what used to be a 15-member pack, probably due to the trapping of that one female.”

For its part, the National Park Service says it’s not concerned about the overall number of wolves in the park as much as it is about the individual packs that are most often seen by park visitors, such as the Grant Creek Pack, because the park’s wolf population varies from year to year, depending on a variety of factors, spokeswoman Kris Fister said.

“The low numbers could be the result of a lot of different factors,” she said.

Wolf viewing in the park was down considerably this summer, in large part because of the demise of the Grant Creek Pack, which had denned close to Denali Park Road the previous three summers and were seen by thousands of tourists, she said.

That said, Fister said the Park Service, which has advocated for a buffer zone in the past to protect wolves that are seen by visitors and stray out of the northeast corner of the park, “would continue to work with the state to come up with a resolution that will benefit both parties.”

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