New Denali wolf study omits the full story

The new National Park Service (NPS) study concluding that killing Denali park wolves reduces the success of wolf viewing by park visitors presents an intuitively obvious conclusion and confirms what has been known for many years. In fact, this simple fact was the primary basis for more than a dozen citizen proposals to the Alaska Board of Game and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game commissioner asking to close the boundary of Denali to wolf hunting and trapping. Unfortunately, the state has ignored the facts of the situation for many years, and continues to do so.

The number of wolves in Denali has declined from 147 in fall 2007 to only 49 now, and the number of wolf family groups ("packs") declined from 20 in 2008 to only nine now. Visitor wolf-viewing success has declined from 45 percent in 2010, when the (inadequate) buffer was eliminated by the state, to only 5 percent last year. More than 530,000 visitors come to Denali each year, about 50,000 of whom are Alaskans. Many cite the opportunity to see wolves as one of their primary objectives for visiting the park. Denali is one of Alaska's top tourism attractions, and is responsible for more than $500 million in economic activity each year in Alaska. The state should realize the obvious economic benefit of restoring and sustaining the wildlife viewing resource of Denali but has yet to be able to transcend its ideological zealotry to do such.

The drop in wolf viewing success just since the state eliminated the Denali buffer has cost as many as 200,000 visitors each year looking for the opportunity to view a wolf in the park. In fact, some Alaskans now travel to Yellowstone to see wolves in the wild. Throughout this period of wolf decline, scores of park wolves have been killed along the park boundary and inside the park by hunters and trappers. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to connect the dots.

Yet, as with the state, NPS remains reluctant to admit the full impact of killing wolves, both along the boundary and inside Denali, on this unprecedented decline. Last year, NPS claimed the decline might be due to low snowfall, and the Fairbanks News-Miner ran a story asserting such. After we pointed out to both that there was indeed no correlation between snow level and wolf numbers, a correction was issued. Fortunately, the new park study finally admits the truth on this point.

But most disappointing in the new park study is its continued assertion that killing wolves along the boundary has "minimal impacts on the size of protected wolf populations." On this they are simply wrong.

The Park Service and the state of Alaska consistently neglect to mention the disintegration of two of the park's largest wolf family groups due to the killing of just one breeding female wolf from the group. This happened in 2012 with the Grant Creek family group, when the trapping of the last pregnant female led to the group not denning, not pupping, dispersing and declining in number that summer from 17 to only three. Research has confirmed that pupping and pup rearing provides the cohesion in wolf family groups. Just last year, Park Service research confirmed that breeder loss caused 77 percent of all wolf family group dissolutions between 1986 and 2012 in Denali.

And again in 2015, the same tragic result occurred with the East Fork (Toklat) group, when the last pregnant female of East Fork was killed at a bear baiting station outside the park and the group then declined from 15 to only two. These two events clearly resulted in more than "minimal impacts on the size of protected wolf populations."


Although the Park Service has now admitted the abundantly obvious fact that wolf killing diminishes visitor viewing success, it continues to be unwilling to concede the full truth: that killing park wolves along the boundary has contributed to this spectacular decline in the Denali wolf population, and to family group integrity and natural processes. And of course, wolf take is about the only cause of decline that we can do anything about.

The only realistic solution to this ongoing decline is for the state to trade a wildlife conservation easement along the park boundary in exchange for a like-valued federal asset elsewhere. This has been proposed for several years, yet little action has been taken so far. Let's hope this new park study rekindles the sense of public obligation in both the Park Service and the state, and motivates real action to secure a conservation easement on the boundary of Denali. This is the only way to secure the park mandate of protecting natural processes within the park, and to restore and sustain the wolf-viewing resource of the park for all visitors.

Rick Steiner was a marine conservation professor with the University of Alaska from 1980-2010, stationed in Kotzebue, Cordova and Anchorage. He resigned in 2010 in protest over an academic-freedom dispute. He now consults on conservation issues through Oasis Earth.

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