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Report Says Denali Wolf Collaring Deaths Most Likely Caused By Carelessness and Poor Judgment

April 05, 2002 | Wolves

A 36-page technical review, released today by Friends of Animals (attached as a PDF document), criticizes the National Park Service for carelessness, poor judgment, and inadequate oversight in the way wolves are radio-collared in Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska. It concludes that this was the most likely cause of the high-profile collaring deaths of two “alpha” wolves from the famous Toklat and Sanctuary family groups of Denali last March, and of the loss of all four 2001 Toklat pups 6-7 months later, in late September. NPS has radio-collared Denali wolves for research and management purposes since 1985.

The review, authored by 36-year Denali researcher, Dr. Gordon Haber—who studies the Denali wolves year-round and was present during several of the wolf deaths, takes strong issue with NPS’s May 2001 conclusion that the deaths were related to heart valve defects rather than human error. Haber calls the heart valve explanation “little more than speculation” and blasts NPS for a superficial investigation and review, which among other shortcomings failed to interview key field witnesses and secure the dead wolves for full investigative and scientific benefit. The review describes a history of poor decisions as to when, where, and how wolves are radio-collared in Denali, including the decisions last March and September to collar/re-collar Sanctuary and Toklat wolves under high-risk circumstances, when this was unnecessary, and when it clearly jeopardized the safety of young, dependent pups.

The review concludes that accidental use of the wrong drug during capture—a drug intended for moose or caribou instead of wolves—is a more likely explanation of what caused the March 2001 wolf deaths. It explains that this would not be a surprising result in view of the alternating wolf, moose, and caribou capturing and collaring the NPS-supported biologist was doing, and notes that neither NPS nor its expert review panel considered this possibility in their March-May 2001 investigation and review.

Haber’s review describes in detail some of the consequences of the March and September Toklat and Sanctuary deaths, pointing out that there have been major visitor-viewing as well as biological losses, again contrary to what NPS has tried to convey. It calls NPS’s attitude about wolf radio collaring “only the latest manifestation” of its refusal since the early 1990s to follow provisions of its own General Management Plan for Denali (mandated by the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act) that emphasize the importance of individual wolf family lineages and need to fully protect them.

It recommends a series of corrective measures to overhaul and greatly tighten the way wolves are radio collared, beginning with much broader and more stringent administrative and scientific oversight.

Haber is an independent wildlife scientist whose home is just outside Denali. He studies 25-30 groups of wolves in the Denali and Fortymile regions year-round, via aerial radio tracking and ground observation. Friends of Animals, a 200,000-member organization with a 25-year history of involvement in Alaskan wildlife issues, provides the support for his research. FoA and Haber have worked together closely on wolf-related issues since 1993.

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