The wolf pack that has enchanted thousands of visitors at Denali National Park did not produce any pups this year and its members have dispersed widely throughout the park, says a petition seeking to ban hunting and trapping along the park's northeastern boundary, where a female wolf was fatally snared this year.
Visitors are likely to have substantially fewer chances to see wolves, which habitually denned close to the main road through the 6 million-acre park, says the petition, filed by the Alaska Wildlife Alliance, the National Parks Conservation Association and other groups.
"To me, and I know probably 400,000 other people who visit Denali, these wolves are way more valuable alive than dead. I don't know what they get for a wolf pelt, but it's not much," said Valerie Connor, conservation director for the Alaska Center for the Environment, which also joined in the petition.
The proposal to the Alaska Board of Game for a hunting and trapping buffer on state lands around Denali has been a point of friction for years between conservationists and the board, which became so weary of the issue that it put a moratorium on any further consideration for the next several years.
But the deaths of the Grant Creek pack's two main breeding females this spring -- one from the trapper, the other from natural causes -- raised concerns that have been partially realized.
Bridget Borg, a biologist at the park, said the 15-member pack split up and the chief monitored group is down to five or six wolves. After not producing any surviving pups, she said, they abandoned the den that put the pack in viewing range.
She said biologists had not determined that the pack has no breeding females and that there was a chance the pack could join up again over the fall and reproduce next spring.
Marybeth Holleman, who is writing a book on Denali's wolves and joined in the petition, said she traveled to the Grant Creek pack's den over the summer and found no wolves there.
"The Grant Creek pack was the most visible pack in the park. People saw them hunting along the road. A bus driver told me about having the pups sitting in the road howling right in front of the bus -- incredible sights," Holleman said. "This summer, we saw one lone wolf near the visitors center. It was a solo wolf, out hunting by itself."
The problem, the petitioners say, is that pups are what hold a pack together: Some wolves remain at the den site to tend the young, while others make hunting forays and return to the den with food.
"The loss of just one important breeding animal can lead to catastrophic impacts over the long term," Alaska conservation biologist Rick Steiner, who led the drafting of the petition, said in a statement.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game rejected Steiner's initial request for an emergency ban on hunting and trapping on state lands east of the park, prompting conservationists this week to appeal directly to the Alaska Board of Game.
Douglas Vincent-Lang, head of Fish and Game's Division of Wildlife Conservation, said the loss of a few wolves from one pack is of little concern biologically when overall the wolf population in that area of Denali is healthy.