Denali: Biologist asks game board to remove traps

by Doug O’Harra
*Anchorage Daily News (Published: March 6, 2005)*

More wolves from the most visible and scientifically important pack in Denali National Park and Preserve may now be dead or separated from the group’s male leader, amounting to what one longtime wolf scientist calls a biological emergency.

Only the alpha male from the Toklat or East Fork pack — known to thousands of park visitors and closely monitored by researchers for insights into their social behavior — could be found on Friday by a park scientist.

“We radio-tracked the East Fork male today and saw him four miles from Healy, alone and limping,” wildlife biologist Tom Meier said in an e-mail message sent Friday night. “But we saw tracks of several wolves in the East Fork Pack territory, so the pack may have split up.”

The sighting of one animal is down from two seen together Thursday in an area open to trapping and down from three seen resting together in the park Wednesday, biologist Gordon Haber said.

“They’re getting picked off one by one,” he added later.

The pack numbered 10 after the alpha female was legally trapped and killed Feb. 11, Haber said. A request for an immediate trapping closure was turned down later in the month by acting state Department of Fish and Game acting commissioner Wayne Regelin.

Last week, Meier said he received a report that another female had been trapped and killed and a young animal was seen in Sable Pass inside the park with a trap on its leg.

On Friday, with reports that more wolves may have been trapped, department officials said the situation still did not amount to a wildlife emergency. Even if all the wolves were legally killed, other wolves would recolonize the area, they said.

“Wolves abhor a vacuum,” department spokesman Bruce Bartley said.

“I don’t know how you find out right away if more wolves were trapped, but we don’t manage on the basis of individual animals,” Regelin added during a break Friday at the Board of Game meeting in Anchorage.

A few hours later, Haber asked the game board to reconsider the closure request. Based on his Thursday sighting, he believed that the alpha male and a 2-year-old female might remain and be able to reform the pack if they could be protected.

“It’s not a lot, but it’s enough — in my opinion, as someone who has studied this group for 40 years — to warrant an emergency closure,” he told the seven-member panel.

Early Saturday morning, Haber faxed a formal petition asking the board to consider an immediate trapping closure as a way to protect any remaining wolves in the pack.

The petition will be discussed by the board later this week, after the panel finishes deliberations on its scheduled proposals, board chairman Mike Fleagle said.

The question of how much protection should be given to wolves that stray onto state land outside park boundaries has a long, controversial history. A few years ago, the board closed an area west of the Savage River to trapping but left open the stretch between the river and highway where the alpha female was killed and the surviving wolves were seen last week.

During the game board comment session Saturday, several people urged the panel to approve Haber’s request.

At least 20,000 people glimpsed those wolves last summer, biologist and wildlife activist Paul Joslin told the board. Their “near demise” should be seen as a crisis, he said. “I ask you as a board to take it as an emergency and request the community to remove the traps and snares in that area.”