Wolves are being seen less and less by visitors to Denali National Park and Preserve as their numbers continue to decline, according to a new study out Wednesday from the National Park Service.
Opponents of predator control policies blame the state's decision to allow wolf trapping on state land on the east side of the park. State wildlife officials have said in the past that few wolves are killed in the once-protected area. But individual wolf kills can have a greater effect on overall numbers, according to the Park Service.
The impact includes how many wolves people see while riding buses into Denali, the Park Service says.
As part of their routine studies in the 6-million-acre park, Park Service researchers randomly sampled 80 bus trips in 2013 and found that bus riders only spotted wolves on three occasions: 3.75 percent of the time. That follows a downward trend: 44 percent of such visitors saw wolves in 2010, 21 percent in 2011, and 12 percent in 2012, the Park Service says.
The trend seems to correspond with a steady decrease in the number of wolves researchers themselves are seeing. They estimated the park's population at 55 wolves after counts this spring, the fewest since the research began in 1986. And fewer wolves has not resulted in higher numbers of the animals wolves eat, the Park Service says.
Wildlife advocates point to the state Board of Game's removal of a no-trapping, no-hunting zone for wolves on the park's east side, where visitors are most likely to see wolves along the park road.
The buffer was put in place in 2002, and the Park Service proposed expanding it in 2010. Instead, the seven-member Alaska Board of Game voted 4-3 in 2010 to remove the buffer and put a six-year moratorium on discussing the issue except in the event of an emergency.
In a letter Wednesday to Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell, Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, about a dozen environmental groups and wildlife advocates proposed a temporary emergency closure to wolf hunting in the area and a "federal-state easement exchange" or land sale to restore the buffer.
At stake, the letter says, are millions of dollars in tourism revenue the state could lose if visitors decide against a trip to Denali -- one of Alaska's most popular destinations for tourists -- because they are unlikely to see wolves.
"Our point here is that even with current public animosities between the State of Alaska and the federal government on such issues, a mutually beneficial deal to sustain and grow Denali's wildlife viewing economy is possible," the letter says.
Asked if the state would consider an easement swap or land sale, Parnell spokeswoman Sharon Leighow said Wednesday afternoon that the governor had not yet seen the letter.
"We will need some time to review the proposal before commenting on specifics," Leighow said by email.
Board of Game member Teresa Sager Albaugh, who voted to remove the buffer, said in a phone interview that she stands behind the decision.
The board voted to put the buffer in place, at the time, in an effort to manage wildlife according to the values of the federal park, not necessarily in the best interests of the state, Sager Albaugh said.
That sentiment had changed by 2010, when board members voted to remove the protections. For Sager Albaugh, federal officials' objectives are less important, she said.
"It's my belief the state of Alaska should be managing for the state's purposes and for the Department of Fish and Game's purposes, as opposed to basically adding state land to a federal area that's already huge," Sager Albaugh said.
The board has used a consistent approach to wildlife management, including predator control, and makes decisions based on what state biologists see in a particular game management unit, not the research on specific animals or groups of animals, Sager Albaugh said. And even if visitors see fewer wolves in Denali, the Game Board's decisions should not hinge on the potential effect on Alaska's tourism industry, she said.
That goes for tourists who come to Alaska to see wildlife and those who pay to come to the state hoping to hunt, Sager Albaugh said. Whoever commands the biggest industry should not determine how wildlife is managed, she said.
"I can't go there. I don't agree with that approach."
By CASEY GROVE