The Alaska Board of Game on Friday approved opening the northeast periphery of the Denali National Park and Preserve for wolf trapping.
The 4-3 vote, over vigorous opposition of those who wanted the wolves protected, eliminates the current "buffer zone" outside of park lands in which wolf trapping was prohibited.
The decision swings in the opposite direction of what park authorities had asked for. The federal authorities had recommended expanding the buffer zone to protect the wolves that wander outside the park's boundaries. Those particular wolves are the ones typically seen by busloads of tourists who visit the park every summer.
The wolf population is the lowest it has been since 1987, park authorities say. While they don't know for sure why the numbers have plummeted, they say there has been trapping pressure on the animals.
There are about 70 wolves left in the 6-million-acre park.
In adopting the proposal, the board also decided to put a moratorium on any changes for six years.
Allowing trapping in a 122-square-mile area next to the northeast boundary of the park will likely affect about four trappers, those involved said.
But the board said it is not their job to protect the wolves in the park from those trappers.
"When we created buffer zones, we had been essentially implementing federal management for federal interests on state land," said board member Teresa Albaugh, who voted to open the land for trapping. "The business of those lands is the business of the federal government."
Board member Lewis Bradley said the board was compromising too much with the feds and wildlife advocates in other areas around the state when it came to lifting moose and caribou populations for hunters, an issue that meant they often butted heads with lovers of the predatory wolf. "We keep hearing that we need to work together to compromise but it seems like it only goes in one direction," he said. "I agree that a boundary is a boundary and until we see compromise in the other direction, maybe it's a good thing to trade for something down the road, for some more predator control areas that are really needed."
In a separate move on Friday, the board also approved continuing the controversial predator-control aerial wolf hunting program around Tok.
Alaska wildlife advocate Rick Steiner called the Denali decision a slap in the face to the park service and to its visitors who come to the park to see, among other animals, a wolf.
"It's an outrageous decision," he said. "The Board of Game placed the interests of three or four trappers on the eastern edge of Denali over the interests of hundreds of thousands of visitors to the park, and countless public comments from Alaskans asking not only to maintain the existing buffer but to expand it."
He said the economic impact of the tourists that the wolves draw to the state make wolves "worth orders of magnitude more alive than dead."
The buffer zone outside of official park boundaries had created a safe area of about 90 square miles frequented by park wolves. The land is an anomaly on the map of the park, following the Stampede Trail into the park.
The buffer zone also protected the wolves outside the margins of the park along the Parks Highway.
Park Superintendent Paul Anderson said he was disappointed in the decision. While it likely will not have a big impact on the overall population of wolves in the park, it will impact the wolves commonly seen by visitors, he said. About 20,000 of the 400,000 visitors to the park each year see a wolf, Anderson said. The animals are one of the most easily viewed wild populations of wolves in the country next to Yellowstone National Park, he said.
While there are about 15 wolf packs in the park, visitors typically see one of three packs, Anderson said. Tracking collars on the well-studied canines have showed that two of the packs regularly wander into what will now be the legal trapping grounds.
Board member Ted Spraker voted to keep the current buffer zone. "I look at this as a very small piece of Alaska that we are willing to provide so that people have a better chance to view wolves in the park," he said before his vote was cast.
Spraker also worried that allowing trapping of the highly visible Denali wolves would trigger unnecessary controversy and give trappers a bad name.
None of the board members wanted the buffer zones increased, which was what park authorities had proposed. Various wildlife advocates and interest groups also proposed expanding the zone.
The state Department of Fish and Game did not take an official position on any of the proposals because the overall wolf population would not be affected, according to a press release issued Friday night from the office of commissioner Denby Lloyd.
The board members who voted to open the areas to trapping were Albaugh, Bradley, Cliff Judkins and Al Barrette. Those who wanted to keep the status quo were Spraker, Ben Grussendorf, and Stosh Hoffman.
Find Megan Holland online at adn.com/contact/mholland or call 257-4343.