Following a spike in winter wolf kills by hunters and trappers, the state has put in place an emergency ban on hunting and trapping wolves near Denali National Park and Preserve.
The ban, announced Friday for the Stampede Trail corridor, involves an area where wolves range from protected park territory, where trapping and hunting are illegal, to places outside the park where trapping and hunting are allowed.
The ban marks the latest round of tension in the push-pull between Alaskans who see Denali wolf protections as federal overreach and those who value wildlife viewing in the park. About 650,000 people visit Denali every year, many hoping to glimpse a wild wolf. Authorities say just a handful of trappers target the animals near the park.
The ban goes into effect this week and next week.
Count could rise
Park biologists say trappers or hunters killed five collared park wolves over the winter. Two died north of the Stampede corridor area, one died in the Stampede corridor and one died in Nenana Canyon, officials say. A fifth left its pack and was killed in Delta Junction.
The park count of dead wolves led the state to look more closely at other wolf kills in the Stampede corridor near the park, according to Bruce Dale, head of wildlife conservation for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Officials discovered eight wolves killed, twice the average number, which prompted the ban, Dale said.
The state enacted the emergency ban only to make sure more wolves didn't get killed wandering out of the park, he said. "There's no biological population concern."
Dale said the state count doesn't include collared wolves. It's uncertain how many of them came from the park. And hunters and trappers have 30 days past the end of the season to bring in pelts so the count could go up.
The state enacted a similar ban in 2015 after new hunting regulations unintentionally led to increased wolf kills at bear baiting stations.
"A wolf that gets killed right before tourism season is not around to be viewed," Dale said.
'Million-dollar rock star'
Wolves top the wildlife-spotting wishlist for many park visitors. But the odds of seeing one have plummeted in recent years, though sightings rose last year.
Wolf advocates blame the Alaska Board of Game's rejection of a no-kill buffer zone northeast of the park in 2010. Other biological factors may also be at play.
An alpha male in the Riley Creek pack killed this winter was a big reason wolf sightings rose last year, Denali resources and science team leader Dave Schirokauer said. There's evidence the wolf was trapped.
Biologists don't think there's a biological emergency among park wolves, Schirokauer said. Still, he said, "We're concerned about the ability of our visitors to see wolves."
The Riley Creek pack was the most visible last summer along the park road, causing a spike in the probability of spotting a wolf from 5 percent in 2016 to 17 percent last year.
"A big chunk of that 12 percent was because of the Riley Creek pack," he said. "With the alpha male gone, we're concerned that pack will disperse or not reproduce."
Schirokauer said the ban was well-timed, given how good trapping conditions are with all the fresh snow in the area.
Longtime wolf advocate Rick Steiner, an Anchorage-base conservation biology consultant, called the ban a good move that may have come too late. He repeated his call for a permanent no-kill buffer next to the park.
"That one wolf was a million-dollar rock star in the park," Steiner said of the Riley Creek male. "It was killed for a few hundred dollars for a pelt outside the park."
New buffer stalled
Authorities say about three people are known to trap wolves outside the park.
The Board of Game in 2000 approved a buffer to protect wolves leaving the park to the northeast. The Park Service in 2010 asked for an expansion but the board struck down the buffer altogether, saying the existing one was too small.
A bill proposing a new buffer is stalled in the Senate Resources Committee where it was set aside last month.
Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage, sponsored HB 105 to create a 522-square-mile buffer along the east side of the park from Cantwell through Healy. It would ban wolf hunting and trapping in the "Wolf Townships" along the Stampede Trail and in Nenana Canyon.
Josephson, during a March 23 Senate Resources hearing, said just a few trappers may be diminishing the wildlife-viewing experience of visitors to Alaska who are about to start arriving in Juneau for the two-week trip to Denali.
"Those folks want to see wolves," Josephson said. "And I think we should help them."
But trappers testifying during the hearing said they opposed the buffer.
"We believe it's unnecessary," said Randy Zarnke, president of the Alaska Trappers Association. "The population of wolves in the Denali area is abundant and wildlife management is really based on populations, not individual animals."
Zarnke said he would support a buffer if state residents were allowed to hunt sheep in federal areas such as parts of Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve.
Dale said the state's emergency ban doesn't make a statement about a buffer either way.
"It just recognizes this is controversial, and a higher number of wolves taken would be more controversial," he said.
Under the emergency order, wolf hunting is banned along the Stampede Trail starting Tuesday morning. A trapping ban in the same area goes into effect April 10.
Hunting season was originally scheduled through April 15 and trapping through the end of the month.