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Board of Game shrugs at wolf pack's demise

In 1922, Adolph Murie traveled to Mt. McKinley National Park with his brother Olaus to study the new national park's caribou herd. For the next 50 years, Adolph observed wildlife in the park, gathered much objective information, and contributed greatly to policy issues influencing the park's management.

In 1939 Murie began a three-year study of wolves and their prey in the park. His resulting 1944 monograph summarizing his results was among the first studies of wild wolves in North America and became a classic that is still widely read and cited today. Murie mainly observed the East Fork wolf pack that occupied a large, centrally located territory. He relied on strong legs and lungs, lots of patience, binoculars and field notes to accomplish his research.

About two decades after Murie's work was published, Gordon Haber began his studies of the park's wolves that also focused on the East Fork pack. Unlike Murie, Haber used airplanes as well as ground observations to follow wolves yearlong.  Haber observed wolves in the park intermittently for about 40 years before he died in a plane crash on the East Fork river while observing the resident wolf pack.

In 1986, L. David Mech, an internationally celebrated wolf biologist, began a nine-year study of Denali's wolves and their prey. Mech and several colleagues studied wolves in the entire park by radio-collaring them and tracking their signals from airplanes. The East Fork pack was again included in the study and numbered 26 animals in 1990, one of the largest packs ever seen in the park. A 1998 book contained the study's results.

The main publications that resulted from this combined work spanning 60 years — Murie's monograph, Haber's doctoral dissertation and Mech's book — along with numerous other reports, technical articles and magazine stories, inspired people to see wolves as valuable components of the park's ecosystem. They certainly inspired me. As a young graduate student studying Minnesota's wolves in the late 1960s, I read Murie's work and dreamed of working in Alaska, a dream realized beginning in 1974. Of course, I knew Mech having started my Minnesota work at the same as he began. And I knew Haber well. His ideas were controversial and his temperament volatile but no one questioned his dedication and field experience.

Subsequent to these studies, National Park Service personnel monitored the East Fork pack and other wolf packs and documented recent disruptions in pack integrity, reproduction and territory boundaries. Over the last 20 years, hunting and trapping of wolves just outside of the park's boundaries resulted in the loss of key members of several packs including the East Fork pack. Failed efforts by the Board of Game to curb the losses by repeatedly establishing and repealing protective buffers have now resulted in the East Fork pack shrinking to one adult female living in a small part of the pack's traditional territory occupied for at least 80 years. If she too perishes, the long-term legacy of this famous pack will die with her.

Wolf biologists know that if the East Fork wolves perish other wolves will move in and occupy the territory. In fact, this has already happened with an adjacent pack using the traditional East Fork den this summer. So why does it matter?

I think the wolf biologist pioneers, Murie, Haber and Mech, would agree that in a world where humans influence nearly all populations of wild animals and their habitats, we'd be well-advised to protect the precious few that still exist in a natural state. If we only study systems disrupted by humans, we'll lack the benchmarks illustrating how nature functions, a basic objective of science. For the East Fork pack, we'll never know if they would have persisted another 80 years as changing weather, climate and prey numbers affect their fortunes. We will now know only the obvious — that hunting and trapping can disrupt or eliminate this pack just as it potentially disrupts virtually all other wolf packs throughout Alaska.

Various other arguments exist for protecting Denali's wolves, chief among them that park visitors now rarely see wolves compared to several years ago when the East Fork wolves and adjacent packs were doing well. Denali has been and should still be one of the best places in Alaska to see and hear wolves but sadly it is not. After all, what other places along the road system offer similar opportunities? Certainly not all the major roads including the 135 mile-long Denali highway, the Taylor Highway or the Steese, all go through remote country where hunting and trapping reduces wolves to low numbers.

I often wonder if Adolph Murie could have persuaded the Game Board to adequately protect the East Fork pack had he lived to see the past 20 years.  Perhaps his status would have countered the political influence of the hunting and trapping special interests, but I doubt it.  What will it take to finally resolve this issue if the loss of the East Fork wolves and the resulting impacts on reducing sightings of wolves in the park are not enough? And will policy makers ever know the importance of protecting small segments of nature from human disruption?

Vic Van Ballenberghe is a former Board of Game member who has researched wolves and moose in Alaska since 1974. He lives in Anchorage.

The views expressed here are the writer's own 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 or click here to submit via any web browser.

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