Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Denali wolves: Support for conservation easement exchange to buffer park habitat

Commentary by Michael Johnson

Pictured: Wolf tracks frozen in the mud along side a patch of ice along the Savage River in Denali National Park. Sept. 23, 2014 Bob Hallinen / ADN
I write this in support and encouragement of the state of Alaska taking immediate action to secure a permanent no-take wildlife conservation easement on state lands surrounded by Denali National Park.

Gov. Bill Walker and Alaska Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotten can help ensure long-term viability of park wildlife populations in a critical area for wolf viewing by facilitating an easement purchase by the U.S. Department of Interior. The easement could either be purchased directly or created through a transfer of an equal-value asset located elsewhere.

The well-documented decrease in wolf sightings since the repeal of a wolf protection area in 2010 has all but extinguished the likelihood of park visitors seeing wolves. Wolf-viewing success has reached embarrassing lows (4 percent in 2013) at a cost to the local and state tourism economy. Not to mention the disruption of ecological balance and loss of aesthetic value provided by viewing keystone species like wolves.

As a July 22 Alaska Dispatch News article described, an easement purchase, either made directly or created through a transfer of an equally valued asset located elsewhere, could help curb the wolf decline. To be sure, biologists note many factors could be contributing to the fluctuation in wolf population, but limiting access to critical habitat is the only one wildlife managers can control.

The state and Interior Department have joint responsibility for “managing wildlife resources and their habitats.” It is the duty of the National Park Service to, “conserve the scenery and wildlife therein, unimpaired for the enjoyment of the public and future generations.” Cooperatively, through an agreement like that requested by Rick Steiner of Oasis Earth (among other groups as well), both goals can be achieved.

In addition to the federal mandate of the Park Service, Article VIII of the Alaska Constitution requires wildlife resources be managed, “for maximum use consistent with public interest.” Surely, the public interest includes both consumptive use (hunting/trapping), and nonconsumption use (wildlife viewing). In any case, consideration of a balance of interests is necessary to achieve a workable outcome.

The Alaska Board of Game stated in Emergency Order 03-02-15 that, of the average 500-600 wolves taken statewide each year, only about four per year are taken in the area in question. This demonstrates an easement having minimal impact on hunters and trappers. The conservation value of such an exchange would be enormous.

A no-take easement preventing harvest of wolves and other park animals would mitigate the threat of future wolf pack decline in and around Denali. The larger the area of easement and the more animals included in the protection, the higher the conservation value becomes. Extending the eastern boundary of easement area to the Parks Highway (or better yet, the Nenana River) would create an easily recognizable physical boundary.

The contentious history between the state and the federal government must be set aside to move forward. Pursuing creative solutions is necessary to protect one of the last intact functioning ecosystems in the country.

We have a duty to protect that ecosystem, and an easement in this area would help achieve that end. The eyes of the nation and the broader conservation community are on Alaska at this crucial time. Nearly 230,000 people from all 50 states and over 100 different countries have signed an online petition calling for action. I am writing in support of that action and encourage others to do the same until the state and Interior Department cooperatively reach a permanent solution.

Michael Johnson is pursuing a master’s degree at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. He spent this summer in Alaska as an Edna Bailey Sussman Fellow researching hunting regulations and predator populations in and around national parks and preserves.