Alaska, federal officials spar over decline in Denali wolf sightings

In another episode of state-federal conflict in Alaska, an official with the National Park Service said the Alaska Board of Game chair was wrong to blame a drop in wolf numbers in Denali National Park and Preserve on declining moose and caribou populations.

In fact, numbers of both moose and caribou have slowly but steadily risen in the park, said Philip Hooge, the park's assistant superintendent in charge of resources.

"That was an unfortunate statement by Ted that was not backed up by facts," said Hooge, referring to a comment by Game Board chair Ted Spraker in a recent Alaska Dispatch article.

Tensions between state and federal wildlife managers are nothing new in Alaska, but they seem to have escalated at Denali.

The dispute comes as the Park Service apparently prepares to make the case that hunting and trapping on state-owned land outside the park's northeastern boundary led to a drop in wolf viewings by tourists riding buses on the road into the park.

The state had for several years banned hunting and trapping of wolves in the 122-square-mile buffer zone outside the park. But the Board of Game removed that protection in 2010, even as Denali managers sought an expansion.

Also last year, the state broke with precedent and refused to issue permits to allow federal biologists to capture wolves on state land so they could be fitted with radio collars for tracking, said Hooge. "It's made our work more difficult, but it hasn't stopped us from doing our work," he said.


"A pessimistic person would say that's a method to suppress the collection of data," he added.

Spraker, a former wildlife biologist, said this week that his statement about declining moose and caribou populations was based not on data, but on his experience watching wolf populations rise and fall.

Spraker in the past has voted to keep the state's buffer outside Denali. But he supports the Board of Game's decision to remove it.

He said he's certain hunting and trapping there is not to blame for the decline in Denali's wolves. That's only possible if a significant number of wolves are killed each year. As he understands it, only a few wolves are taken there each year.

That leaves a drop in wolf prey as the reason for the decline in the wolf population, unless Denali's wolves have been hit by canine diseases such as parvovirus or distemper, he said.

State game biologists in Fairbanks did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment.

Data shows that parvovirus and distemper aren't the issue, said Hooge. Also, numbers of large animals are up. The caribou herd in the park was surveyed at about 2,300 last fall, the highest level in two decades, according to numbers from the National Park Service. The estimated moose population north of the Alaska Range stood at 1,477 in late 2011, higher than the counts in 2004 and 2008.

Hooge would not say how many wolves have been taken by hunters and trappers in the buffer zone. He said when it comes to wolf viewings by tourists along the road into the park, the key issue isn't necessarily how many wolves are taken, but which wolves are taken.

"If you take out a breeding pair close to the road, you're going to have dramatically larger impacts than if you take out dispersing individuals (that roam all over the park)," he said.

Did the trapping and hunting in the buffer zone lead to a decline in wolf viewing? That question will be addressed in a study coming out this spring that will be peer-reviewed.

"I want to leave that part of the story to the papers coming out, because that part of the relationship is complex," Hooge said.

Spraker said he'd like to get a deeper look at the park's data. Hooge said it's on the Denali Park's website, for caribou, moose and wolves.

"They need to share that information with the board and not do it just in articles where we try to outdo each other in the newspaper," Spraker said. "We need to sit down and talk about it and get it out in the open."

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com

Alex DeMarban

Alex DeMarban is a longtime Alaska journalist who covers business, the oil and gas industries and general assignments. Reach him at 907-257-4317 or alex@adn.com.