A storied Denali National Park and Preserve wolf pack is potentially down to one survivor — a female that apparently just had pups.
The black female was accompanied over the winter by a gray male with a radio-tracking collar. That male was killed legally this month by a hunter on state lands just outside the park, according to observations from a pilot doing wildlife monitoring flights.
Now park scientists are watching to see if pups will emerge from the den or if, as some fear, the loss of her possible mate has left the lone black female wolf alone and unable to feed her young or herself.
Possible pup rescue
The female was spotted in a den about a half-mile from the park in mid-May, according to Dave Schirokauer, the park's acting deputy superintendent and resources and science team leader. It's extremely likely now that she has pups.
Biologists won't know the status of the pups until they emerge from the den in early July, Schirokauer said. They also don't know if the female is getting help from other wolves or somehow feeding herself and her pups on her own.
If the pups would otherwise die, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game may try to remove them and get them to one of three wildlife centers or zoos on a wolf-request list, according to Alaska's top wildlife official.
"We have people that would be happy to take them," said Alaska Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotten. "We'd be glad to help out but we don't know the fundamental question: Are there any pups?"
'An unfortunate, unnecessary situation'
Wolf activist Rick Steiner and others had hoped state officials would end legal wolf hunts just outside the park before more members of the East Fork pack died, setting up the need for a rescue.
"It's truly an unfortunate, unnecessary situation," Steiner said.
Denali National Park is home to nine wolf packs, including the Toklat or East Fork pack that biologist Adolph Murie began studying in the 1930s.
The park is considered one of the best places in the world to see wolves in the wild. Wolf densities over the past three years have been the lowest in the park since 1987, according to the park website.
Potential explanations include low snowpack for a few consecutive winters, making it easier for moose, caribou and other prey animals to escape wolves.
The East Fork pack, which ranges along the park's boundary and into lands open to legal hunting and trapping, has dwindled in the past two years from 14 members.
The pack also ranged near the park's busy entrance road, where visitors could spot them fairly easily compared to packs deeper in the park.
Park biologists say the East Fork pack may have been harvested or dispersed altogether after hunters legally killed a pregnant female and a male last year.
Now the female could represent the East Fork pack's last stand.
Here's where the "ifs" start.
It's likely but not guaranteed the female has pups. If so, it's unknown whether she can take care of them. She could be nursing them and starving without the ability to forage.
Then again, it's possible she may forage on her own, or another East Fork pack member that biologists didn't know was in the area may show up. Park biologists can't be sure the East Fork pack is down to one, Schirokauer said.
If, however, the female can't provide for the pups somehow, then they will likely die.
The state would need the Park Service to help determine if there are pups and whether the female can care for them or has help from another wolf or wolves, Cotten said.
"We have to consider the circumstances," he said.
Schirokauer said this week that the Park Service will share any information gathered on the female and pups, but Denali's wildlife tracking flights occur only about every two weeks and it's challenging to keep up with a wolf without a collar.
New homes plentiful
There's always heavy interest in wolves from Alaska from zoos and wildlife centers, mostly from Outside, state wildlife officials say.
This year, Alaska has requests for wolves from the Minnesota International Wolf Center — "as many wolves as possible" — as well as the Vancouver Zoo and the Kroschel Wildlife Center in Haines, according to Lem Butler, assistant director of the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Division.
The state rescued four wolf pups apparently orphaned during the 2014 Funny River Fire on the Kenai Peninsula.
Buffer bid returns
The potential wolf pup rescue operation is playing out against the larger issue of a contentious no-hunting buffer that activists want on state lands bordering the park.
The Alaska Board of Game, which sets hunting regulations for the state, removed the buffer in 2010 and banned any proposals on the topic for six years. Two requests for a buffer have been submitted for consideration at the board's 2017 meeting in Fairbanks.
Wolf activists last year unsuccessfully requested an emergency closure on hunting in the area before the female was shot. This year, Steiner asked Cotten for an emergency hunt closure in the Stampede Trail area in late March. The Board of Game did approve a shorter hunting season on the buffer lands, but that doesn't go into effect until next year.
Steiner on May 11 sent Cotten a request that the commissioner develop a contingency plan to rescue and place any pups born to the female.
"This of course will not save the East Fork group, which due to your inaction has essentially ended," Steiner wrote. "But on humanitarian, ethical grounds, this seems the appropriate thing to consider."
Different state, park policies
Steiner called Cotten's offer to rescue any East Fork pack pups appropriate, if another unrelated adult wolf doesn't come along and "adopt" the litter, which he said has happened before but is unlikely.
But, he said, the relatively drastic step — if it becomes necessary — marks the state's failure to protect the pack from hunting or trapping.
Activists had hoped to prevent the loss of the collared male and potential stranding of a pregnant female with the emergency closure, Steiner added. Now it's possible this famous pack could have reached the end of the line, he said — "a truly tragic loss."
The still-hypothetical pup rescue scenario would be different if the den were on park lands.
National Park Service policy is to let natural forces play out at nearly any expense, Schirokauer said, adding that captive wolves do nothing for a naturally regulated ecosystem.
"The Park Service manages for natural factors and natural population dynamics, and having wolf populations go into captivity does not do that," he said. "It's actually the opposite."