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Looking to see a wolf at Denali? A grassroots bus-driver survey puts the odds at ‘not-quite nonexistent’

A wolf pack in Denali National Park, 2010. (Nathan Kostegian / NPS)

Bill Watkins drives a bus through Denali National Park and Preserve, a destination for hundreds of thousands of visitors eager to view wildlife and one of the world’s best places to see wild wolves.

Denali sprawls across 6 million acres but nearly all those sightings come through the windows of the privately operated buses trundling down the park’s only road, a 92-mile ribbon along the Alaska Range.

Visitors are almost certain to spot caribou and moose, even bears. Wolves? Good luck.

Wolves are always a fairly secretive predator, but at Denali sightings of the animals -- or much-sought glimpses of fluffball pups -- have become even rarer in recent years.

Biologists blame a combination of natural factors, including kills by other wolves, but also the fact that hunters and trappers are allowed to kill wolves on state lands just east of the park -- where the same three wolf packs that provide most of the visitor wolf sightings tend to wander in winter and spring.

Watkins, a driver in the park since the late 1980s, realized he hadn’t spotted any wolves at all this year.

So he asked his fellow drivers to participate in an unofficial survey of wolf sightings. Forty-three drivers did. All told, they tallied just 15 sightings of 25 wolves over a 75-day period between April and July.

Two-thirds saw no wolves at all. One driver said they’d seen more notoriously shy lynx than wolves.

Watkins shares the results with passengers on his tours. They get very quiet.

“I think a lot of times, people want to see wolves and they’re kind of surprised to know their chances are pretty minimal on seeing them here in Denali,” he said. "Not quite nonexistent, but it’s pretty close.”

Bill Watkins drives buses in Denali National Park. Photographed in 2012. (Photo provided by Bill Watkins)

A National Park Service index of wolf sightings by trained technicians put the chances at 45% in 2010 and 17% last year -- a spike after single-digit numbers for several years.

Biologists say this year there are 70 wolves in 10 packs roaming the park and the total population is biologically healthy. They’ll have an updated population count in November.

Still, it’s likely visitors will spot fewer from the road this summer.

The Riley Creek West pack that accounted for a spike in sightings last year because adults and pups gathered near the park road may have disappeared.

Both adults in the pack, the male and female, were killed by other wolves over the winter, according to Dave Schirokauer, the park’s resources and science team leader. Wolf-on-wolf conflict is the leading cause of death in the park’s collared wolves.

The pair had five pups, Schirokauer said. Their fate is unknown.

“The loss of pups and potential activity near the road very likely means a decrease in sightings,” he said.

Another wolf that’s been seen near the road, however, was spotted limping along with a road-killed squirrel in her mouth, according to a park pack update. The collared, aging matriarch from the Riley Creek pack was with a male, and it’s possible they denned with another male. The female has actually been spotted in Healy, Schirokauer said.

Four members of the Riley Creek wolf pack, including the matriarch, “Riley,” dig a moose carcass frozen from creek ice in May 2016. (National Park Service trail camera photo)

Park biologists and wolf advocates say Alaska’s resumption of hunting and trapping next to the park is also to blame for the drop.

Trappers argue the park has 6 million acres for wolves to roam, and they don’t pose a biological threat to the packs there. Advocates argue there are just a few trappers working the area but they target the wolves that visitors are most likely to see.

The probability for seeing a wolf was twice as high when a buffer was in place, biologist Bridget Borg found in 2016.

The driver survey results this week prompted more than 60 individuals and organizations to call for emergency closures of wolf hunting and trapping on state lands east of the park as of Aug. 10, when hunting reopens in the area; trapping resumes in November.

It wasn’t immediately clear whether the Alaska Board of Game or Alaska Department of Fish and Game would take up separate requests for the closures.

The petitions argue that hunting and trapping specifically threatens not all the wolves in the park but about 20 in “the most viewed wolf packs in eastern Denali National Park.”

The National Park Service isn’t requesting the emergency closure. Instead, the agency wants the Board of Game to reinstate the buffer in the Stampede Corridor. The closure would be seasonal, running from February until July for hunting and until October for trapping.

“We’re still concerned about hunting and trapping in the Stampede Corridor affecting the opportunities for visitors to see wolves,” Schirokauer said, though the park service doesn’t believe there is a biological emergency for wolf populations overall.

The board will consider the proposal in March but if approved, it wouldn’t go into effect until the next year.

The state banned wolf hunting and trapping in the Stampede and Nenana canyons next to the park from 2000 until 2010. That protected two of the park’s three most-commonly viewed wolf packs, according to a National Park Service wolf sighting website. The Board of Game lifted the ban in 2010.

Well-known Healy trapper Coke Wallace in 2012 snared one of two breeding females in the highly visible Grant Creek pack in the Stampede area. The other female in the pack died inside the park.

Hunters in 2015 killed a pregnant female and male from the fabled Toklat or East Fork pack, which biologist Adolph Murie began studying in the 1930s. A trapper in 2016 killed an adult male in the pack, which ranges near the road.

Watkins, the bus driver, said the Grant Creek pack provided visitors the chance to see wolf pups right next to the road.

“This is something visitors don’t get a chance to see hardly at all. So from an educational standpoint, these family groups are invaluable when they can actually be observed," he said. “Denali, it’s supposed to be a naturally regulated ecosystem but when you have a predator that’s being killed outside the park, it’s subverting that whole premise.”

A wolf with pups walks the Denali National Park road in June 1990. (Photo by Gordon Haber)

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