FAIRBANKS — Denali National Park and Preserve’s wolf numbers hit a new low this spring with an estimated population of 48 wolves inside the park, according to a Park Service study.
The National Park Service estimates the park wolf population twice each year using radio-collared wolves and an analysis of a handful of un-collared wolves believed to live in and around the park. The study dates back to 1986. This spring’s count is the lowest since an estimate of 46 wolves in fall 1986. It’s the lowest on record for any spring count.
Opponents of wolf hunting and trapping have long used the study to advocate for re-establishing a buffer zone to ban wolf hunting and trapping on state land adjacent to the national park. In 2010, Alaska’s Board of Game removed a wolf hunting and trapping-free buffer zone in state land adjacent to the park.
In a status report on the wolf survey last week, the park’s Chief Wildlife Biologist Steve Arthur attributed the population decline to two non-human factors. Low snowfall made it easier for caribou and moose to flee wolves, he said. The numbers also dropped because of better tracking technology from GPS collars, he said. The tracking technology expanded biologists’ understanding of the wolves’ home range, which is used to calculate the wolf population estimate.
Two of the nine wolves who died in 2014 and early 2015 were killed legally by trappers or hunters, according to the survey. That’s about the same proportion as other recent years. A total of about nine wolves died. Besides the two killed by humans, two wolves were killed by other wolves, one died from old age, one drowned, one starved and two died from unidentified non-human causes, according to the survey. At least 14 pups born in 2014 survived into the fall.
The Alaska Board of Game has rejected several petitions to re-establish the wolf hunting and trapping buffer zone around Denali National Park, most recently at its meeting last month. The state game boards takes a wildly different approach to wolf hunting regulations than the National Park Service. In addition to allowing hunting and trapping, the state pays Fish and Game employs to shoot some wolves from helicopters as part of its intensive management program. The program’s designed to increase moose populations by keeping predator numbers low.
The state doesn’t track wolf populations as closely as the park service but estimates the statewide population is between 7,000 and 11,000. Wolves have never been threatened or endangered in Alaska.