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Lawmakers can and should protect Denali wolves

  • Author: Edward Schmitt
  • Updated: April 16
  • Published April 16

A wolf with pups walks the Denali National Park road. (Gordon Haber photo courtesy Rick Steiner)

Denali National Park and Preserve is well known for its splendid vistas and majestic snow-capped peaks, but the main attractions for its visitors are the magnificent wildlife that make Denali their home: the wolves, brown bears, Dall sheep, caribou, and moose. Denali's promise of unspoiled wild nature attracts literally hundreds of thousands of visitors annually. But Denali is bedeviled by the Alaska Board of Game's (BOG's) backward Intensive Management regulations that threaten not only the integrity of Denali's ecosystems, but also its economic anchor. The famous Toklat-East Fork wolf pack, first studied by Adolph Murie in 1939, are all but gone because the BOG has repeatedly refused to protect Denali's eastern border from overzealous wolf hunters and trappers.

Fortunately, a solution stands before us if the Alaska Legislature passes House Bill 105, sponsored by Rep. Andy Josephson, which will would not only protect Denali's eastern wolves, but also the vibrant wildlife-watching tourist industry that benefits Alaska's economic engine with nearly three billion dollars annually.
HB 105 would enhance visitors' ability to see wolves at Denali, because it would create a wolf buffer zone on the eastern border of Denali Park that permits wild wolves to live their lives without the constant threat of persecution. Trapper Coke Wallace boasted to National Geographic (Feb. 2016) that he has single-handedly decimated the eastern Denali wolf pack. Wallace bragged: "That was the third time I ruined millions of people's Denali National Park viewing experience" after he killed three breeding females. The good news is that HB 105 passed out of committee on March 20th and moves to the House floor for a vote.

Clearly, the more than 500,000 people who visit Denali each year thrill at the chance to view wolves in the wild — that's far, far more than the handful who come to Alaska to hunt them. Moreover, these hundreds of thousands of wildlife watchers spend millions more dollars than the handful of trophy hunters and trappers making these iconic Alaskan wildlife worth far more alive than dead. The ecosystem services from wolves: Priceless. Wolves keep herds strong and fit, and prevent their starvation. Protecting Denali's eastern border is a win-win situation. If HB 105 is codified into law, studies — including three that were published in 2016 — indicate that prosperity for local economies benefiting Alaskans will be the reward.

In one of those studies, biologists Bridget Borg and colleagues (2016) looked at how the killing of wolves by hunters and trappers along the boundaries of Denali and Yellowstone National Parks affected viewer's ability to witness wolves. They found that the chances of Denali visitors seeing a wolf was twice as great during the period when Denali's no-wolf-hunting buffer zone was in place, the years between 2000 and 2010. Borg et al. (2016) concluded that Denali's loss of viewable wolves may result in a loss of visitors, and wrote, "the opportunity to view free ranging large carnivores is an important driver for wildlife tourism worldwide."

According to Dr. John Loomis, who also published a 2016 study of wildlife-watching economics involving Denali, most visitors to Denali are more than 90 percent non-residents, and wildlife-watching is the singular reason that visitors come to Denali National Park. According to Loomis, wolf viewing is particularly important to Denali visitors. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, even most Alaskans want to view wildlife — after all, this is why we live in Alaska.

Finally, the National Park Service itself published an important 2016 economic study of all of its lands. The agency found that National Park Service lands in Alaska contributed $1.7 billion in economic output to the state's economy in 2015, while in 2015, Denali National Park alone contributed $810.3 million to the local gateway communities surrounding the Park.

Trappers, hunters, and BOG predator control actions have decimated Denali National Park's wolf population, including the famous and storied East Fork Pack that had been studied since the 1930s, ending decades of groundbreaking research. It's high time that we Alaskans stand behind efforts to protect our wolves from further persecution. Alaskans, like most Americans, believe that wildlife should be treated with respect, not squandered and certainly not killed using the most inhumane and unsporting methods known to man for the supposed benefit of a few trophy hunters.

Alaska legislators should swiftly pass HB 105 into law.

Edward A Schmitt, MD, is a retired surgeon and rancher and president of the Alaska Wildlife Alliance. He lives near Soldotna.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com. 

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