The lowest count of wolves in Denali National Park and Preserve in 26 years is causing alarm among wildlife advocates who argue that elimination of a no-trapping zone in 2010 may be costing the park one of its prized attractions.
Park researchers tallied just 49 wolves in this year's spring count, done between February and April. While the wolf numbers fluctuate, researchers counted 70 just a year earlier. Before this year, the lowest recent count was 59 in 2010. The highest was 111 in 1991, according to the park service.
Park visitors are noticing the change, said Philip Hooge, Denali's longtime assistant superintendent for resources, science and learning.
"We've been able to document a really large decrease in the viewability of wolves in the park," Hooge said this week.
In 2010, in the months just after the Alaska Board of Game eliminated the no-trapping, no-hunting buffer, visitors had a 45 percent chance of seeing a wolf while riding a bus into the park, Hooge said. The next year, the number dropped to 21 percent. Last summer, the chance of a visitor on a bus seeing a wolf was just 12 percent, according to park research. Many tourists visit the park during their first trip to Alaska and if their experience there is good, they come back and do more, he said.
The National Park Service plans to propose eliminating sport trapping and hunting of wolves where it is allowed in the western part of the park and preserve, though those aren't the main wolves that people see.
Denali wolves have long been a flash point in Alaska's wildlife conflicts. To some they are an iconic symbol of nature at its wildest. Others demonize them as ruthless killers of caribou and moose, taking prey and diminishing opportunities for Alaska's subsistence and sport hunters.
Ted Spraker, a former state biologist who chairs the Board of Game, said controversy over protecting Denali wolves has been a constant during his 10 years on the board, with many strong voices on either side. But trying to protect Denali wolves, while recognizing the needs of hunters and trappers, is complex.
"The reality is that wolves, although they live in a territory, they do move outside of that their territory, and it is primarily because of food," Spraker said in a phone interview from his home in Soldotna.
Last spring, a trapper used a horse carcass to legally bait and trap a wolf less than a mile from the park boundary near the Savage River in what used to be the buffer zone. The wolf was a radio-collared breeding female in the Grant Creek pack, which in recent times has been Denali's most viewed wolf pack, Hooge said.
In 2011, the Grant Creek pack numbered 15 wolves. It broke up after Wolf 1103 was killed and another breeding female died. It appears to be down to just three wolves, according to the Park Service.
So the much-viewed pack is nearly gone, and tourism officials are asking what happened, Hooge said.
"I've had multiple industry executives call me, from Princess and Holland America and other places," Hooge said.
Still, Denali wolves are not at risk of being wiped out entirely, Hooge said. Wolves are good breeders.
Years ago, Spraker said, the state radio-collared a pack of 13 wolves in the Glennallen area before hunters and trappers took 11 of them. The two remaining wolves mated and produced seven pups, he said.
Even without trapping, wolf packs can't sustain themselves when they get too large because of the challenge of feeding so many, Spraker said. Lone wolves peel off and are vulnerable to attack by other packs. Disease kills them too.
In 2002, the Board of Game put in place a large buffer in an area that the National Park Service says was recognized as important habitat. It is a notch in Denali's northeastern corner along the old Stampede trail that is known informally as the "Wolf Townships," according to the Denali Citizens Council. In the winter, it's a prime caribou feeding ground, which makes it a draw for wolves.
The land was not included in the original park because of private in-holdings and other ownership issues, Hooge said.
"In the northeast portion of the area, near the existing headquarters, there are some 3 townships of state lands which are critical for sheep, caribou, and wolf habitat and should eventually become a part of the park," according to a 1979 U.S. Senate report.
Teresa Sager Albaugh, a Board of Game member from Tok, said she was unaware of any special designation for that area. If the habitat and wildlife need more protection, Congress should redraw the park line, she said. She supported removing the buffer because, in her view, the state shouldn't be managing its lands to meet a federal purpose. Much of Alaska is set aside for national parks and wilderness as it is, she said.
In 2010, the National Park Service proposed expanding the buffer. Instead, the seven-member Board of Game voted to eliminate it. The board also put a six-year moratorium on revisiting the matter barring an emergency.
Spraker said he twice voted to keep the buffer. But he also supported the moratorium so the board wouldn't have to deal with the matter repeatedly. The wolf situation is not an emergency, he said.
Since then, wildlife advocates -- including the Alaska Wildlife Alliance, the Alaska Center for the Environment, the National Parks Conservation Association and individuals -- have unsuccessfully petitioned the Board of Game and the Department of Fish and Game to reinstate the buffer, arguing in October that the nearby trapping "has caused significant, deleterious impacts to park wolves -- an Alaska game resource."
The board twice voted by email to deny the requests, reasoning that the wolf management issue was not an emergency. The Alaska Wildlife Alliance has sued, saying the email vote violated the state open-meetings law. Spraker said the board regularly votes by email on whether to take up an issue on an emergency basis. If it did take the matter up, the meeting would be public, he said.
Not many wolves are being killed inside the old buffer, just a couple a year so far, said Doug Vincent-Lang, director of the state Fish and Game's Division of Wildlife Conservation. And the number of wolf packs grew -- an important metric, he said. Wolves likely are leaving the park because there's not enough prey, he said.
The Park Service estimated that only three trappers operate in the area where it wanted the buffer extended. Wolf pelts are valued at $100 up to several hundred dollars each, said biologist Rick Steiner, who has petitioned for the buffer.
"At most, killing the wolves outside the boundary is a few thousand a year," Steiner said. "Their value alive is orders of magnitude greater than that. Just from a strict financial calculation, not to mention science, aesthetics and park and wildlife integrity. Those intrinsic values for which Denali was established."
Albaugh, the game board member, said wildlife should not be managed with the idea that one use is more valuable than another or to benefit one particular group over another. Not tourists over trappers, and not the other way around, she said.
The board considers the long-term health of the species, Spraker said, be it caribou or moose or wolves.
Reach Lisa Demer at email@example.com  or 257-4390.PDF: Wolf survey data 
By LISA DEMER