FAIRBANKS -- Alaska wildlife officials closed an area outside Denali National Park to wolf hunting by emergency order late Thursday, ending the season two weeks early following reports of two wolves legally shot near the Stampede Trail.
"The controversy regarding the so-called 'wolf buffer' is centered around the allocation of wolves between harvest through trapping and hunting, and wildlife viewing opportunities for park visitors," Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotten wrote in the emergency order.
The order takes effect at 11:59 p.m. Friday and covers land west of the Savage River along the park boundary.
Cotten said that changes in bear hunting regulations regarding bait stations "have increased the chances that wolves that primarily inhabit the park being taken as they venture on to adjacent lands." In years past, about four wolves a year have been killed in the area, but rarely in May, he said.
Environmental activist Rick Steiner, a scientist and founder of the group Oasis Earth, asked for the emergency closure in a letter April 24, following the release of a report by the National Park Service that said the latest wolf numbers showed there were 2.8 wolves per 1,000 square kilometers, "the lowest density estimate since monitoring began in 1986."
Earlier this year, the state Board of Game rejected an emergency petition to close areas along the park boundary to hunting and trapping.
In 2010, the board removed a buffer zone along the park's boundary, which had previously been closed to hunting and trapping.
Such a buffer zone, meant to protect wolves that venture in and out of Denali National Park, has long been contentious. Central to the debate is a dispute over what's caused the decline in the park's wolf populations.
The National Park Service study, with its record low population estimates, added urgency to those debates.
"This temporary closure will allow the board to revisit the issue in light of the new information without additional take of wolves this May adding to the controversy," Cotten said.
The Park Service recently released a wolf monitoring update that said three wolves have died this month near the park.
"One of these was a collared male that was killed by other wolves. The others were a collared male and an uncollared female from the East Fork pack that were legally shot by a hunter outside of the park near the Stampede Trail. GPS data provided by the male wolf's collar indicated that he had spent most of the week before his death scavenging at a bait station established by a bear hunter within a mile of the location where he was shot," the report said.
In a letter to Steiner last December, Cotten, shortly after he was named to the top Fish and Game post, wrote that while there are "no evident conservation concerns for wolves in Denali -- or anywhere else in Alaska, we recognize there may be allocation issues" related to subsistence, wildlife viewing, trapping and hunting.
"If there is new information to inform this issue, it should be brought to the board so they can reconsider their moratorium."
In 2010, when the Game Board removed the buffer, it also placed a moratorium on revisiting the issue until 2016.