Why we need to stop killing Denali Park wolves, and how we can try

It is no secret that Alaska is in deep fiscal trouble. Out of necessity, the governor has just proposed deep cuts to many services. Most alarming is to cut education funding to the core; reinstate taxes; and halve Permanent Fund dividend checks. The state's income stream has dropped by 88 percent. We need new revenue, fast. Within Denali National Park and Preserve, wolf-viewing opportunities have dropped drastically, causing some tour group operators to pull out of the business. Stopping the killing of wolves in and around Denali National Park could be one small, relatively quick way to increase tourist dollars. I'm not advocating stopping hunting wolves everywhere, just Denali wolf family groups. I'm not pro-trapping, but I recognize that it is part of traditional cultural heritage in rural areas. However, allowing just a couple of hunters or trappers to kill Denali wolves in or around the park may not be the best or highest use of these animals.

Biologists tend to look at total numbers of wolves, although, according to wolf experts Gordon Haber and Marybeth Holleman, the health and cohesiveness of wolf families is equally important. Each family group develops its own hunting techniques, passed on through generations. The most likely casualties of hunters or trappers are the alpha wolves in a group. If they are killed, survivors often disperse, unable to hunt effectively without alpha leadership, and then often starve. Last spring, an Outside hunter killed the pregnant female and alpha male from the East Fork family group at a bear baiting station northeast of the park. The East Fork family has since scattered; that hunter killed not just two wolves and their unborn pups, but inadvertently killed much of the rest of the family as well, now diminished to just four survivors -- down from 17 last year.

The Alaska Board of Game is mandated by the state Constitution to manage wildlife resources for the greatest number of citizens. Both the Board of Game and the National Park Service allow wolves to be hunted or trapped almost limitlessly throughout the preserve portion of Denali National Park, and to its northeast. Benefiting just two or three non-subsistence hunters is definitely not the "highest or best use," when potentially millions of tourists, including Alaskans, could be enjoying the beauty of their wildness and at the same time bring in additional funds to the state. For years, both the Board of Game and the NPS have been actively ignoring pleas from biologists and the public alike to halt killing of Denali wolves. They dismissively reject all calls for a more balanced use of wildlife in and around Denali; their only concern is to maximize access for hunters and trappers. Non-consumptive users, tourists and Alaskans alike (80 percent of Alaskans do not hold hunting or trapping licenses), are completely ignored.

Denali National Park generates close to $520 million in annual revenues for our state. Tourists coming to Denali want to see wildlife, and wolves are right at the top of their list. The most recent (2015) update from the NPS states that wolf numbers in the park have dropped to just 57 individuals, down from 143 in 2007, a loss of 60 percent in eight years. In 2010, 45 percent of visitors got to see wolves. That year, the Board of Game removed a conservation buffer bordering the northeast corner of the park. Today, viewership has dropped to around 5 percent.

Increasing wolf-viewing potential would increase tourist dollars substantially. According to biologist Rick Steiner, and many other wildlife advocates, the easiest way to do this is with an exchange between the Park Service and the state, not of land title, but of creating a permanent no-kill wildlife conservation easement in areas used frequently by wolves wandering out of the park. In return, the state would gain federal real property of equal value. Wolves can legally be hunted and trapped almost everywhere else in Alaska.

As Holleman, co-author of "Among Wolves," told me, "It is simply a shame that wolves cannot have just this one place in our great state where they are not incessantly harassed and hunted, for the enjoyment of visitors viewing them, and for scientific wolf behavioral studies of family groups living lives undamaged by hunters." The public, as well as the state, are definitely losers with the status quo. Yes, it is indeed a shame for the wolves, and a shame the state cannot benefit from these lost tourist dollars, all so just a couple of hunters can have their "sport."

John Breiby is a retired historian from the Alaska Office of History and Archaeology, with a background in anthropology. Prior to that he and his family fished a commercial setnet at Nushagak Bay in the summer and in winter he restored boats and did other woodworking projects. Throughout his life he has been a lover of wildness and a student of nature.

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John Breiby

John Breiby is a retired historian from the Alaska State Office of History and Archaeology, with a background in anthropology. Prior to that he and his family fished a commercial set net at Nushagak Bay in the summer and in winter he restored boats and did other woodworking projects. Throughout his life he has been a lover of wildness and a student of Nature.