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Game Board again shoots down Denali wolf trapping buffer zone

Craig Medred
Tony Hopfinger photo

Once more the Alaska Board of Game has refused to reinstate a wolf buffer zone around Denali National Park and Preserve, wherein trapping is banned.

Moose that inhabit the area, which generally supports the highest concentration of the big ungulates in the 6-million-acre federal reserve, might be happy, but environmentalists are howling mad.

They say continued trapping threatens wolf-viewing opportunities in the park. Denali wolves are most often seen from the park road. And wolves particularly like the area near the east entrance to the park because moose often congregate just to the north.

In a prepared statement, Jim Stratton, the Alaska director for the National Parks Conservation Association called the board's action "the latest blow from an agency that has forgotten that watching wildlife is every bit as important to Alaskans as killing it.

“The Board of Game’s decision comes on the heels of the agency denying multiple emergency requests by the National Parks Conservation Association and a host of other concerned Alaska citizens last summer and fall, urging it to reinstate the buffer zone. We raised the alarm upon reviewing initial data from the National Park Service, showing a 66-percent decline in the chances of seeing wolves on Denali Park Road since the buffer zone was eliminated in 2010.

"Park service researchers also counted the lowest population of wolves in 25 years last October: only 57 wolves, down from a high of 143 wolves in 2007. Viewing wolves in Denali National Park not only provides visitors unforgettable memories; there are serious economic benefits associated with visitors traveling to Alaska with the sole purpose of seeing – not killing – wolves and other wildlife.”

Park Service officials say they don't know why they counted only 57 wolves in October. They suspect the count missed some, and they note that Denali isn't home to enough moose, caribou and Dall sheep to support many wolves. Wolf densities in the park since 2010 have hovered in the range of wolf densities in the park in the mid-1980s.

The numbers are significantly lower than the peak wolf years of the early 1990s, but biologists note wolf populations vary widely over time. The population of the nation's most studied wolves -- those that live totally protected on Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior -- has over the years ranged from 50 to 10. The Denali population swings pale in comparison.

The state Game Board says it is in a position of mediating between various wildlife interests in Alaska. Wolf trapping provides some income in the Parks Highway community of Healy, and some year-round residents of the area are supportive of trapping because low wolf numbers help keep moose numbers higher. And moose are an important source of meat in rural parts of Alaska.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com