Through binoculars, we could see the Mount Margaret pack, six of them, on a gentle slope in the slanted sunlight of a cold September morning. Some were sprawled on their sides. Others curled up, head tucked under tail. A pair, one dark gray and one sandy white, tumbled and jumped over each other.
Seeing us by the roadside, other cars and buses stopped. We helped one another locate them, shared spotting scopes and coffee, strangers come together to watch the wolves of Denali National Park.
But those same wolves -- that entire pack -- didn't survive the winter. Wolves from all three of the park's most commonly viewed packs are increasingly trapped and hunted outside the eastern boundary on state lands, in some places as close as four miles from the park road.
Years of scientific research have identified state lands where these wolves are vulnerable, and citizens have urged the Board of Game to create a no-take wolf buffer. In 1992, the Board of Game instituted this 600-square-mile buffer, but rescinded it two months later for political reasons. Now there's only a 90-square-mile buffer, far too small to protect park wolves. In 2007 alone, trappers and hunters killed at least 12 of Denali's wolves. While the park's target population is 120 wolves, in spring 2009 only 68 were counted.
Denali's wolves are worth far more alive than dead. They're the subjects of 70 continuous years of research, and they're the wolves that hundreds of thousands of tourists hope to see -- and often do, if they haven't been killed by trappers the previous winter.
Seventy years of uninterrupted research on the same wolf packs is unprecedented and of tremendous value worldwide. The first 30 years' work was by Adolph Murie, who lived in a cabin in the park and wrote the groundbreaking "Wolves of Mount McKinley," and the last 40 were by Gordon Haber, who died last October when his plane crashed into Denali's mountains. From detailed long-term study, these scientists learned that individual animals matter to the social integrity of wolf family groups.
Denali National Park is the No. 1 tourism destination in Alaska, visited each year by upwards of 400,000 people from across the globe. These visitors are vital to Alaska's economy. They come to see the mountain, to see moose, sheep, caribou and bears. But what they most want to see is Denali's wolves -- the same wolves being killed just outside the park. In recent years, some park visitors have seen wolves, but with snares around their legs or necks.
In the last 20 years, an average of two people per year have set recreational trap lines for Denali's wolves, including employees of Denali National Park and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. But these wolves are among the most viewed in the entire world. The tourism-dollar value of Yellowstone wolves is calculated to be $282,258 per wolf, per year. Denali's wolves are of at least comparable value, certainly far more than the $250 their hides bring to a trapper. And that doesn't include their inestimable scientific, ecological and intrinsic value. Why are we letting a few sport trappers and hunters take them from us?
This February, the Board of Game will consider several proposals on the Denali wolf buffer. Even the Denali National Park superintendent is requesting that the buffer be expanded. Proposal No. 58 from the Anchorage Fish and Game Advisory Committee recommends a return to the original 600-square-mile buffer and would best assure protection for the wolves. Comments are due by Feb. 12. Public testimony will be taken in Fairbanks on Feb. 26. Learn more at www.boards.adfg.state.ak.us.
Denali's wolves are state, national, and international treasures; it's time we Alaskans stepped up and protected them.
Marybeth Holleman is a writer who lives in Anchorage. She worked in Denali in 1986 and has lived in Alaska ever since.
By MARYBETH HOLLEMAN