Denali buffer is about protecting wolves we can see, song we can hear

Like many who oppose protecting Denali National Park's wolves, Pete Buist misrepresents those who support protection (ADN, March 30). He argues that proponents want to increase wolf numbers in and near the park, but the real issue is preserving the opportunity to see and hear wolves.

Wolf viewing success at Denali declined from 44 percent to 4 percent following repeal of wolf protection regulations in 2010. After the repeal, trapping wolves just outside the park's boundary reduced and fragmented the packs most often viewed by park visitors. Wolves are now rarely seen or heard and this will likely continue absent adequate protection. More wolves would be nice but will not suffice as long as those who leave the park are killed.

The problem centers around the fact that wolves born in the park and living there most of the year occasionally venture outside the park in winter. These are the same wolves that park visitors see on and near the park road. Some wolves learn that humans in the park are no threat, a fatal flaw as they venture outside and encounter hunters and trappers at the boundary.

I have been involved in this issue for the last 15 years, both as a Game Board member and as a person who has been in the park every year for extended periods over the last 35 years. The decline in wolf sightings after 2010 came as no surprise. Similar declines occurred in previous years after hunting and trapping losses reduced or eliminated key wolf packs. The Game Board reacted by establishing two small no-take buffers just outside the park. The buffers helped but were too small to completely solve the problem.

In 2010, proposals by conservation groups and the National Park Service were submitted to the Game Board to moderately expand the buffers based on the best science available. Despite overwhelming public support, the board not only rejected the proposals -- it rescinded the existing buffers and placed a six-year moratorium on similar proposals. Over the past five years as wolves were killed and sightings plummeted, several requests for emergency action and petitions were submitted to the Fish and Game commissioner and the board. These were all denied thereby likely allowing additional hunting and trapping losses further reducing wolf viewing in the park.

My own experiences in the park from 1980 to the present highlight changes in wolf viewing over time. As a biologist I know that wolf numbers vary in response to prey numbers and winter conditions, but when hunting and trapping take a heavy toll on wolves, packs may disappear. It is true that new packs form to replace them but often it takes time for them to be viewable. I've witnessed several cycles of packs coming and going in response to trapping. But the most viewable packs were those that avoided trappers and remained stable for several years. This requires protection by establishing buffers on land adjacent to the park.

The wolves of Denali National Park are well known both by Alaskans and by those Outside. When the buffers were intact, Denali was perhaps the only place along Alaska's road system where wolves could reliably be seen or heard. What about the Denali, Taylor, Steese, Sterling, Richardson or Glenn highways? Wolf control programs and hunting and trapping reduced wolves in these areas to very low numbers and made them too wary to observe.


Is it asking too much to provide protection for a very small number of wolves so that a very large number of people can view an iconic wild predator? Does Alaska deserve a reputation as only supporting hunting, trapping and wolf reduction programs while ignoring those who wish to preserve one place where wolves can be reliably seen? If not, the Game Board must abandon its steadfast opposition and re-establish the buffers. I contend that most people think it's the right thing to do.

Vic Van Ballenberghe lives in Anchorage and has researched wolves and moose in Alaska since 1974. He is a former Game Board member.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com

Vic Van Ballenberghe

Vic Van Ballenberghe is a moose and wolf biologist who was appointed to the Board of Game three different times by two governors.