Todd Hardesty/Alaska Video Postcards Inc.SEATTLE — The prime breeding female wolf snared outside Alaska’s Denali National Park this spring — opening new controversy over hunting and trapping on the outskirts of the 6-million-acre park — was so thin that her backbone and hipbones were protruding, according to the trapper who caught her in a snare.
“I know quite a bit about animals, and I’m telling you, she was emaciated,” said Coke Wallace, a Healy, Alaska, hunting guide who snared the wolf after leaving the carcass of an aging horse as bait about a mile outside the park.
The irascible Alaska back-country character, who has been guiding hunts and laying traps along the fringes of Alaska’s premier national park for more than 20 years, has ignited a new debate over wolf preservation at Denali.
The deaths this spring of the Grant Creek pack’s two main breeding females — one of them in Wallace’s snare about a mile outside the park — have prompted new calls to reinstate a buffer zone around the park, eliminated by the Alaska Board of Game in 2010, that was intended to protect the park’s most visible wolves.
Wallace, who operates traps and snares in various areas outside the park, scoffed at the idea that a buffer zone would protect the wolves.
“This buffer zone? It’s a nonissue. It was never a biological issue; it was thrown out to appease the ecological people, and they’re not going to be happy until the buffer zone brushes up against Canada. I mean, you’ve got 6 million acres [locked up in the park]. How much is enough?” he said in an interview.
“The thing about those people is they take and take and take, and they never give,” he said. “Well, 6 million acres should be enough for you, and if it’s not, I’m sorry. You can’t have it all.”
Vic Van Ballenberghe, a wildlife biologist who has spent three decades working at Denali, said Wallace was correct in saying that the park’s wolves — whose numbers are down to just 70 wolves in nine packs — are indeed on the lightweight side. “They all look very thin. It’s quite unusual to see a wolf in Denali that doesn’t look thin. And in reality, the prey population there is quite low compared to what it has been,” Van Ballenberghe said in an interview.
The populations of nearly all the species on which the wolves live — mainly moose, caribou and sheep — have all dwindled, he said, forcing some wolves to patrol the park road in search of ground squirrels.
“Wolves can’t really make a living on ground squirrels. They’ve got to have access to larger animals to make it,” he said.
On the other hand, said Denali National Park biologist Tom Meier, wild wolves are often on the thin side, especially in the spring, after a hard winter.
The wolf that died in Coke's snare, he said, had plenty of internal fat, though admittedly not much surface fat. "Coke's wolf was in a trap for a week and was scavenged by a wolverine before he ever even saw it," Meier told the Times. "These wolves aren't starving."
Defenders of Wildlife announced Tuesday that it would join calls among other conservationists to reinstate buffer zones around the northeast perimeter of the park and along Stampede Trail, where Wallace trapped the female wolf and also another male wolf some distance away that was feeding on a moose carcass.
The Grant Creek pack's other main breeding female was found dead this spring near the pack's den site inside the national park, raising questions about whether the pack can survive as an intact unit.
“A lot of people had predicted that this would happen,” the organization’s Alaska representative, Theresa Fiorino, told the Los Angeles Times. “The concern is that the taking of this female wolf will likely negatively impact wolf viewing in the park this summer, and potentially for summers to come.”
The survival of the Grant Creek pack is important because it is the pack most readily seen by the hundreds of thousands of visitors each year to Denali. The pack’s den site is near the main park road, and tourists often see its wolves frolicking with their pups or embarking on hunting missions.
“The tragedy of this is that this was one of a tiny number of opportunities in Alaska to see wild wolves,” Van Ballenberghe said.
“Here we have this huge, big state, and something like 7,000 to 11,000 wolves, but there’s very few places where you can actually see a wolf, because most of the wolves are scared to death of people, they’re subject to hunting and trapping so they’re not at all tolerant, and there’s limited access to roads,” he said.
“And so the deal is that a single trapper by taking these key wolves can affect the opportunity of thousands of park visitors to see wolves.”
State officials said the Board of Game, when it canceled the buffer zones outside the park in 2010, had signaled it did not intend to revisit the issue before 2016. New petitions for emergency closures would have to be heard by the board, said Doug Vincent-Lang, acting director of wildlife conservation for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
He said the board made its initial decision based on conclusions that the relatively small number of wolves killed by hunters and trappers outside the park would not have a substantial impact on the sustainability of the park’s overall wolf population. Admittedly, he said, the population of wolves most seen by the public might be affected.
“The removal of one or two wolves doesn’t raise a sustainability concern for wolves in those game-management areas. This is largely a social issue, regarding wolves that are in a social viewing area,” he said.
Wallace, likewise, said his trapping activities — a lifestyle that has coexisted with wolves in Alaska for generations — is not a threat to the survival of the population.
“I take half a dozen or more usually a year, and I can tell you, my trapping has about zero ... impact on those wolves,” he said. “They’re smart ... creatures; they’re not easy to fool. They live there. We’re just visiting. A wolf would have a hard time killing me in my living room, and it’s the same way with them.”