FAIRBANKS — The new National Park Service study concluding that killing park wolves reduces the success of wolf viewing by park visitors is an intuitively obvious conclusion and confirms what has been known for decades. In fact, this simple fact was the primary basis for over a dozen citizen proposals to the Alaska Board of Game and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner asking to close the boundary of Denali to wolf hunting and trapping. Unfortunately, the state has ignored the facts of the situation for many years and continues to do so.
The number of wolves in Denali has declined from 147 in Fall 2007 to only 49 now, and the number of wolf family groups (“packs”) has declined from 20 in 2008 to only nine now. Visitor wolf-viewing success has declined from 45 percent in 2010, when the (inadequate) buffer was eliminated by the state, to only 5 percent last year. More than 530,000 visitors come to Denali each year — about 50,000 of these are Alaskans. Many cite the opportunity to see wolves as one of their primary objectives for visiting the park. The park is responsible for more than $500 million in economic activity each year in Alaska.
The drop in wolf viewing success just since the state eliminated the buffer has cost as many as 200,000 visitors each year the opportunity to view a wolf in the park. In fact, some Alaskans now travel to Yellowstone to see wolves in the wild. Throughout this period of wolf decline, scores of park wolves have been killed along the park boundary and inside the park by hunters and trappers. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to connect the dots.
Yet, as with the state, the park service remains reluctant to admit the full impact of killing wolves, both along the boundary and inside Denali, on this unprecedented decline. Last year, the park service claimed the decline may be due to low snowfall, and the News-Miner ran a story asserting such. When we pointed out to both that there was indeed no correlation between snow level and wolf numbers, neither corrected their erroneous assertion. Fortunately, the new park study finally corrects this error and admits the truth on this point.
But most disappointing in the new park study is its continued assertion that killing wolves along the boundary has “minimal impacts on the size of protected wolf populations.” On this, they are simply wrong.
The National Park Service and the state consistently neglect to mention the disintegration of two of the park’s largest wolf family groups due to the kill of just one breeding female wolf. This happened in 2012 with the Grant Creek family group, when the trapping of the last pregnant female led to the group not denning, not pupping, dispersing and declining in number that summer from 17 to only three. Research has proven that it is the pups and pup-rearing that provides the cohesion in wolf family groups. Again in 2015, the same tragic result occurred with the East Fork (Toklat) group, when the last pregnant female of East Fork was killed at a bear baiting station outside the park, and the group declined from 15 to only two. These two events clearly resulted in more than “minimal impacts on the size of protected wolf populations.”
Although the park service has now admitted the fact that wolf killing diminishes visitor viewing success, it continues to be unwilling to concede the full truth — that killing park wolves along the boundary has contributed to this spectacular decline in the Denali wolf population. And, of course, wolf take is about the only cause of decline that we can do anything about.
The only realistic solution to this ongoing decline is for the state to trade a wildlife conservation easement along the park boundary in exchange for a like-valued federal asset elsewhere. This has been proposed for several years, yet little action has been taken so far. Let’s hope this new park study rekindles the sense of public obligation in both the park service and the state and motivates real action to secure a conservation easement on the boundary of Denali. This is the only way to secure the park mandate of protecting natural processes within the park and to restore and sustain the wolf-viewing resource of the park for all visitors.
Rick Steiner was a marine conservation professor with the University of Alaska from 1980-2010, stationed in Kotzebue, Cordova and Anchorage. He now consults on conservation issues through Oasis Earth.