The recent news that wolf sightings by visitors to Denali National Park this past summer were the lowest on record is disheartening but not surprising. This is precisely what many scientists warned would happen in 2010, when the Alaska Board of Game eliminated the small no-take wolf buffer on state lands east of the national park.
And it is precisely what Gordon Haber, whose research on Denali's wolves spanned 43 years, concluded: hunting and trapping of park wolves on these state lands often kills the alphas of the family group, thus causing the entire group to fragment and disintegrate--resulting in fewer park wolves, and fewer park visitors seeing wolves.
Along with Yellowstone National Park, Denali had been known as one of the best places in the world to view wild wolves, but no longer. Over 400,000 visitors come to Denali each summer--many of them Alaskans--contributing over $140 million to our state's economy. Many cite their desire to see wolves as a primary reason for visiting the park. As Denali superintendent Don Striker says, seeing wolves in the wild is an "amazing, oftentimes transformative experience" for park visitors.
But when park wolves range across the park's eastern boundary following the winter migration of prey, they're killed by hunters and trappers. The three most-often-seen wolf family groups in Denali have been decimated by losses here, and visitor viewing success has consequently suffered.
Recognizing the economic value of wolf viewing in Denali, from 2000-2010 the state closed some of these lands to wolf take. But, as Haber warned, this small buffer wasn't sufficient; in some winters, as many as nineteen park wolves were killed east of the buffer - 15 percent of the total park wolf population.
This prompted many organizations, including the Park Service, to propose at the 2010 meeting of the Alaska Board of Game--just a few months after Haber's untimely death in a research flight crash--that the inadequate buffer be expanded. Instead, the Board eliminated the buffer and passed a moratorium on considering the issue again until 2016. Many predicted this would accelerate the already precipitous decline in park wolf numbers and viewing success--and it has.
Today, the numbers of wolves within the six-million-acre national park and preserve has declined from 143 in fall 2007 to just 55 in spring 2013 - a drop of more than half in six years. And, since the state removed the buffer in 2010, wolf-viewing success for the park's 400,000 annual visitors has plummeted: from 44 percent in 2010 to just 4 percent in 2013. This downward spiral in wildlife viewing success may be unprecedented in the history of the entire national park system.
As Gordon Haber concluded, it's not how many wolves killed, it's which wolves are killed. In 2012, the last breeding Grant Creek female, from the park's most-viewed family group, was trapped in the former buffer. The death of this one wolf left the survivors with no pups that spring, whereupon they abandoned their den site and fragmented, shrinking from fifteen to three wolves. Rather than visitors witnessing the fifteen-member family group attending new pups at the den site, they saw nearly none. Viewing success dropped by 50 percent that summer alone--all from the loss of one wolf.
Last week, in a letter to U.S. Secretary of Interior Jewell and Gov. Parnell, a coalition of Alaska citizens and organizations proposed a "win-win" solution: that the state transfer a permanent no-take wildlife buffer conservation easement east of the national park, in exchange for the federal government transferring a like-valued easement, or purchase value, to the State of Alaska.
This would fix the problem. It would allow Alaskans and visitors a better chance of seeing wild wolves, and would sustain and grow Denali's valuable wildlife viewing economy for generations of Alaskans to come. Let's hope the Governor and Interior Secretary can get together and solve this issue once and for all.
Alaska writer Marybeth Holleman is co-author with the late Gordon Haber of "Among Wolves: Gordon Haber's insights into Alaska's most misunderstood animal." She can be reached at www.marybethholleman.com.