Rick Steiner, Professor, University of Alaska

Dec. 2, 2009

In a state like Alaska, consumptive use of wildlife (hunting, trapping, commercial guiding) is the rule, not the exception. Efforts of those trying to protect Alaska’s wildlife for aesthetic, ecological, economic, and scientific reasons are almost always overwhelmed by those who want to hunt or trap. And when it comes to wolves, this dynamic is even more pronounced. Each year, hundreds of Alaska’s wolves are killed for sport and in the state’s predator control program, where they are shot from planes, helicopters, and pups are sometimes clubbed to death or shot at their dens. The ideological zeal with which wolves were eliminated from much of the lower 48 is very much alive and at play in Alaska today.
And this is why what occurred at the Dec. 1, 2009 meeting of the Anchorage Fish & Game Advisory Committee is so remarkable. The committee was asked by a dozen or so Alaska residents to sponsor a proposal to the Alaska Board of Game to expand the protection for wolves of Denali National Park when they range across the park boundary onto state lands. This was an issue that the late Dr. Gordon Haber, who studied Denali wolves for 40 years and died doing so in October, had worked diligently to accomplish for many years. And on Dec. 1st, by a 6 to 3 vote, the Anchorage Advisory Committee approved a proposal to expand the protection for Denali wolves. Here’s what the dozen or so Alaska wildlife advocates told the Anchorage Advisory Committee, and why the Committee adopted the proposal.

The Problem:

When Denali National Park boundaries were finalized in 1980, they were established on a political basis, not an ecological one. The eastern park boundary makes no ecological sense whatsoever to wildlife, and leaves a critical area of wildlife habitat out of the Park, and in state and private hands. Each year, wolves that are protected within Denali National Park range across the eastern boundary of the Park where they are legally taken by recreational hunters/trappers. Denali wolves are an extremely high-value ecological, economic, and scientific asset for Alaska, and the current recreational trapping/hunting along the park boundary is having a significant negative impact on these wolf family groups. Denali National Park Superintendent Paul Anderson confirmed in a meeting a week ago, that the park is very concerned about the killing of park wolves outside the borders. While the park normally supports about 120 wolves in 13 or so family groups; Anderson said that this past spring the park biologists estimated that perhaps only 60 or 70 survived.

The existing wolf protection “buffer” – prohibiting the hunting and trapping of wolves on state lands along the boundary – has been one of the most contentious wildlife issues in Alaska for decades. The buffer was first put in place in 1992, and spanned some 600 square miles of land on the eastern boundary of the National Park. But this protective buffer was eliminated just 2 months later by the Board of Game, in political retaliation for the state limiting the aerial predator control program. A buffer was reestablished in 2001, but as this buffer did not cover a significant part of the winter range of Denali’s wolves, the wolves continued to be killed.

Areas to the east of the current buffer are important wintering area for ungulates, particularly caribou. Established groups of wolves are thus attracted to areas outside the park for varying winter intervals, and a few recreational trappers/hunters target them accordingly. These groups of wolves come from adjacent areas of the park, but also from as far as 60-70 miles or more away, most notably in the Wonder Lake area and beyond. Further, the Toklat and Margaret groups also take “extraterritorial forays” east of the Nenana River, where they are exposed to trapping and hunting. The eastern park boundary area is integral to the park ecosystem, but the present park and buffer zone boundaries are not consistent with appropriate ecological boundaries. In short, current state and federal management does not adequately protect Denali wolves.

In some years, as many as 18-19 wolves from five radio-collared Denali study groups – including the famous Toklat/East Fork family – were snared, trapped, and shot in the area adjacent to the existing buffer. Since 2003, when the present state buffer zone areas were finalized, at least seven of the nine radio collared Denali study groups known to have spent time in that area suffered trapping and shooting losses while there. Since 1987, when wolves were first radio-collared in Denali, 19-20 collared wolves (among others without collars) from 11-12 Denali study groups have been snared, trapped, or shot in the northeast boundary area. The 11-12 groups included 3-4 groups from areas west and northwest of Wonder lake, seven from areas within and adjacent to the state area, and one from an area between. Occasionally, wolves with snares from the Stampede area around their neck or paws are seen in the Park.

The Denali wolves are highly valued by Alaskans and around the world for ecological, scientific, viewing, economic, and other reasons. Their economic value alone to Alaskans is enormous, because of Denali’s importance as the state’s top tourism attraction and the importance of wolves as one of the park’s top attractions. Denali is one of the only places in the world where tourists have a reasonable chance to see wolves in the wild. The park service says that the chance for visitors to see wolves from the park road is now about 20%. But the aforementioned losses, which included key wolves of the most visitor-accessible groups (e.g., alpha male of the Margaret family in 2004, alpha female of the Toklat family in 2005), have translated into significant deleterious impacts to all of these values.

The trapping/hunting of wolves on state lands along the park boundary is conducted primarily by 3 or 4 recreational users who have other sources of income. This is not a subsistence issue. Recreational trapping/hunting along the boundary of a national park also raises significant ethical issues. There can be little justification for prioritizing the recreational benefit to a few individuals over the economic, recreational, and scientific benefit to hundreds of thousands of Alaska and U.S. citizens, as well as tourists from around the world, that would derive from additional protection of Denali wolves as proposed here. While the hides of these wolves may be worth $200 to the trapper / hunter, these animals are worth millions of dollars to the tourism economy of the state. As one advocate told the committee last night: “Denali wolves are rock stars.”

The state has a Memorandum of Understanding to work cooperatively with the federal government on wildlife management in Alaska. The mandates of the Denali National Park management plan include the maintenance of the natural abundance and diversity of wolf populations in the park. Current non-essential killing on state lands along the boundary is causing significant negative impacts to the integrity of Denali National Park wolf groups, and the Alaska Board of Game has an obligation to adapt management on adjacent state lands accordingly.

Last night, the wildlife advocates told the Committee that if this trapping / hunting problem is not solved, the significant economic, scientific, and ecological value of these Denali wolf family groups will continue to be degraded and/or lost. As well, the growth potential for tourism based on wolf viewing at Denali, and the unique opportunity for science, will not be fully realized.

The Solution:

One solution to provide additional protection to Denali wolves in consideration is to have the National Park Service acquire or trade for the state lands in question along the northeast boundary of the Park, and place them under federal management as part of Denali National Park. This would be controversial among local landowners (including the state, borough, and others), but would be the best way to permanently protect park wildlife. Another solution in consideration is to attach conditions to the transfer of federal Pittman-Robertson funds to ADF&G (about $14 million this year) that would require the state to provide reasonable protections to wildlife that range across boundaries of federally protected areas onto state lands. This too would be controversial in ADF&G and local hunter-related groups. Thus, an expanded no-take buffer at Denali is the most immediate action the Alaska Board of Game can take to protect Denali wolves.

So the group of wildlife advocates proposed last night that the Anchorage Advisory Committee sponsor a proposal to the Alaska Board of Game that will expand the current wolf protection area – the “buffer” closed to trapping and hunting of wolves – to encompass a greater portion of the traditional ecological range of Denali National Park wolves. The proposal is to keep the current 90 square mile buffer in place, and expand its boundaries to include the entire Stampede Trail / Wolf Townships area northeast of the park boundary, and the area to about 10 miles east of the Nenana River and Parks Highway. The proposal would prohibit any hunting or trapping of wolves in this 600 square mile region outside the park, much as did the original buffer that was in place for only 2 months in 1992, and will afford Denali wolves the protection they so richly deserve.

After hours of impassioned public testimony and heated discussion, the Anchorage Advisory Committee voted 6 to 3 to sponsor the proposal to the Alaska Board of Game, which will now take up this proposal at its February – March 2010 meeting in Fairbanks. There will be other proposals to the Board to eliminate the Denali wolf buffer altogether, and some proposing more limited protections. But clearly, if the goal is to protect Denali park wolves as completely as possible, then the Anchorage Fish & Game Advisory Committee proposal is the best action to accomplish this.

If the Anchorage Advisory Committee proposal is adopted by the Board of Game this winter, then the 450,000 visitors / year to Denali National Park will benefit from increased wolf viewing success, thus enhancing the tourism economy at Denali and the state. Scientifically, the long-studied Denali wolves will now be protected, and thus provide opportunity to study long-term population and social dynamics of unexploited wolf family groups. The solution proposed would establish the only protected wolf family groups anywhere in Alaska, thus providing unique scientific opportunities. And as there are only 3 or 4 primary recreational wolf trappers who would be impacted by the proposal, and as these individuals have other accessible areas to replace the area that would be closed to wolf-killing by this proposal, the impact to them would be negligible.

When the Board of Game publishes its proposal booklet in early January for the upcoming meeting in Fairbanks, then letters of support to the Board for the Anchorage Advisory Committee proposal for the Denali buffer will be very helpful in convincing the Board to adopt the proposal.

This is as close to a win-win in wolf protection as it gets. Last night was one small step for Denali wolves, one giant leap for Alaska wildlife across the state.