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Alaska House opens new front in war over Denali wolves

JUNEAU — The state Legislature opened a new front this week in a long-running war between supporters and opponents of wolf trapping near Denali National Park and Preserve — with sportsman's advocates on one side and proponents of tourism and conservation on the other.

In one of its last actions of the regular legislative session, the Alaska House voted 22-18 on Wednesday to pass a bill that protects wolves from trappers in two areas adjoining the park — a move aimed at giving visitors more chances to see the animals, though it's opposed by the state Board of Game. It also faces long odds in the Senate.

Wednesday's vote came less than three months after the game board voted unanimously against a ban on hunting and trapping in a smaller area adjoining the park. And the House's move drew a rebuke Thursday from the game board's chair, Ted Spraker, whom the Legislature only confirmed Tuesday for a new three-year term.

"I say this humbly: This is board business," Spraker said in a phone interview. "This is really not something the Legislature should get too involved in."

House Bill 105 would create a 530-square-mile buffer zone northeast of the park where wolf hunting and certain traps and snares are banned.

The bill appeared to be dead on arrival in the state Senate, where two Republican members of the majority — John Coghill of North Pole and Cathy Giessel of Anchorage — issued a statement after HB 105's passage, decrying the House's "environmentalist agenda."

The bill's sponsor, Anchorage Democratic Rep. Andy Josephson, said he wanted to generate new dialogue about the issue. He argued that wolves are far more valuable as a draw for tourists into the park than for the people who trap them in the proposed buffer — estimated at no more than 10 by a lawmaker who represents the area, Rep. Dave Talerico, R-Healy.

Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage, center, talking to two other legislators in a file photo from 2016. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

A 2016 National Park Service study said that park visitors' sightings of wolves were "significantly reduced" by nearby hunting or trapping, though sightings were largely determined by overall wolf populations and how close their dens were to roads. More than 400,000 people visit the park each year.

"The economic value of each wolf is far greater for the viewing audience than for that trapper. It's not even a close contest," Josephson said in an interview.

The fight over a no-kill zone has run for decades — mostly among game board members. The board established a buffer in 2000, but eliminated it in 2010. The unanimous February vote was the first time the board had considered it since then.

Supporters of wolf protections say that the Legislature is a better place for the debate because of the game board's composition — though they're also pushing Gov. Bill Walker's administration to create a buffer through administrative action.

"The board is appointed for special interests — specifically, they're all hunters, trappers and guides. They only represent that segment of the Alaska citizenry," said Rick Steiner, a biologist and former University of Alaska professor who's one of the most outspoken supporters of the no-hunting areas. "They have this ingrained, irrational hatred of national parks, of wolves and of those of us in Alaska who love national parks and predators in general."

Steiner and Josephson both cited the case of Guy Trimmingham, a former licensed hunting guide and game board nominee whose confirmation was rejected last year by the Legislature after lawmakers criticized his apparent interest in taking photos of animals, along with shooting them.

Spraker, the chair, acknowledged that the board currently lacks a "non-consumptive person." But he said the board collects feedback from dozens of advisory committees and "would rival the Legislature as far as public input."

Spraker said the opposition to the no-kill zone has very little to do with hunting and trapping and instead is more about whether land is controlled by the state or federal government — even though the areas subject to the House bill would remain outside federal control.

Coghill, the Republican senator, argued that the wolves already have a protected area inside the park "that's bigger than many states."

Coghill — who grew up grading wolf pelts at his family's general store in Nenana, north of the park — called the divide between the House and Senate a "clash of philosophies."

Josephson, an attorney, said he can understand the views of rural trappers since he's lived in places like Kalskag, the Kuskokwim River village in Southwest Alaska, and Kotzebue, the Northwest Alaska hub community.

"I get it, and it's quintessential Alaskan," he said. But, he added, "Some of this is unrepentant anger at the federal government."

Trappers, Josephson added, "can go elsewhere to get a wolf."