Compass: Buffer will keep Denali's wolves alive and in sight

By VIC VAN BALLENBERGHEDecember 28, 2012 

It didn't take long for Montana's wildlife commissioners to establish a buffer just outside Yellowstone National Park's northern boundary to prevent hunting and trapping of the park's wolves that sometimes move out of the park. They acted within days of the shooting of a wolf labeled "the most famous wolf in the world" which followed the loss of seven others including five wearing radio-collars costing up to $4,000 each. These animals were part of a large research study of wolves and their impact on Yellowstone's ecosystem, and were also used to monitor wolf numbers and their occasional depredations on livestock. Montana's wildlife authorities recognized that additional losses would seriously impact research and monitoring of this high profile wolf population.

But they also knew that loss of the park's wolves offended thousands of people, many of them visitors to Yellowstone who treasure the rare opportunity to see and hear wild wolves.

Sadly, Alaska's Department of Fish and Game and its Board of Game failed to act similarly when recently faced with a strikingly similar situation involving Denali National Park's wolves. Last winter the pregnant alpha female of the Grant Creek Pack was snared just outside the park's north boundary. This pack was the most commonly viewed wolf pack in Denali in recent years. They were tolerant of people, denned close to the park's road, and kept their pups near the road after they left the den--all necessary in order for park visitors to see them. And see them they did. There were recent years when these wolves were seen nearly every day, playing, howling, hunting and travelling.

But in the summer of 2012 everything changed. Loss of the pregnant alpha female resulted in no pups being born. As a result, the surviving adults traveled widely and there were few sightings of them near the road. The loss of a single wolf cost thousands of park visitors the chance to view this pack. And it may cost the state thousands of dollars in lost tourism revenue as Denali is labeled as no longer a good place to experience wolves.

Our wildlife authorities, unlike their Montana colleagues, failed to act last spring when petitioned to protect Denali's wolves. Like Yellowstone's wolves, Denali's are radio-collared and are part of research and monitoring programs. But our Game Board deemed it more important to preserve the opportunity of a few trappers to catch and kill these wolves rather than to preserve their scientific integrity.

Our authorities have long argued that the loss of a few wolves outside park boundaries does not affect the park's wolf population. True enough, but this totally misses the main point--that these few wolves are critical to maintaining the opportunity of thousands of park visitors to experience wolves. The events of this past summer prove this point beyond question.

Tragically, what happened with the Grant Creek Pack was predicted by those of us who witnessed the Game Board's actions in 2010. Despite great public support, the board repealed two existing wolf hunting and trapping buffers that had been enacted years earlier, this despite a Park Service proposal to expand one buffer based on several years of data demonstrating the need. And the board enacted an eight-year moratorium banning proposals to re-establish the buffers.

Denali's wolves do not have the large constituency that Yellowstone's wolves enjoy. But many Alaskans recognize their importance and support measures to protect them. The Game Board made a serious mistake when it rescinded the buffers in 2010, and compounded its mistake when it failed to respond to the loss of the Grant Creek female this year. Will we watch as more Denali wolves are lost in future years and viewing opportunities are further reduced, or will we follow Montana's lead and recognize that we must provide protection for a few key wolves that profoundly affect the experiences of thousands of park visitors?

Vic Van Ballenberghe is a wildlife biologist and former state Board of Game member. He lives in Anchorage.

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