Wolf hunting will resume Monday on state lands northeast of Denali National Park and Preserve amid calls by conservationist groups to reinstate the long-disputed "wolf buffer" near the park.
In mid-May, Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotten had closed the corridor outside the park to wolf hunting two weeks before the end of the season after two wolves were shot legally near the Stampede Trail.
In the emergency order, Cotten wrote that changes in regulations that allowed bear hunting at baiting stations in the spring had "increased the chance of wolves that primarily inhabit the park being taken as they venture on to adjacent lands."
Cotten's decision to close the area early was made so Fish and Game could consider the "potential unanticipated effect" of new bear hunting regulations "without the controversy or hype" that would surround another wolf taken in May, the state's wildlife conservation director, Bruce Dale, told the Board of Game Friday. Bear hunting is only allowed in the spring, and will not occur when the land re-opens, Dale said.
On Friday, Dale confirmed that the northeast corridor would reopen to wolf hunting on Monday, Aug. 10.
In terms of wolf population, "there's never been a biological concern expressed by either the Park Service … (and) certainly not by the state of Alaska," Dale told the Board of Game during the meeting.
The issue is one of allocation, Dale wrote in an email, between hunters and viewers who head to Denali National Park and Preserve to see wildlife.
The issue stems from a contentious decision in 2010 in which the Board of Game removed a buffer zone around the northeast periphery of Denali National Park where wolf hunting and trapping was prohibited and had been in place since 2000.
Meanwhile, the number of wolves in the park reached a new low this spring with an estimated population of only 48 -- the lowest since autumn of 1986 and the lowest on record for any spring count, according to a report issued by the park.
There has been significant disagreement regarding what's causing the wolf population to decline.
The park's April report said that the causes are unknown, although several factors may be involved; low snowfall during recent winters reducing the vulnerability of moose and caribou to predation; poor pup success; and mortality of wolves "from both human and natural causes."
Environmental activist Rick Steiner, a scientist and founder of the group Oasis Earth, argued that with wolves dying of natural causes, the human element should be removed.
"That's a risk that should be eliminated immediately," he said.
"These are million-dollar animals," Steiner said, referring to their appeal for visitors traveling to Denali National Park. "They should be protected and allowed to survive in their natural setting in the public. That's the mandate of the park."
When the buffer was removed in 2010, the Game Board also placed a moratorium on revisiting the issue until 2016. Now, due to changes in board processes, that date has been pushed back another year, until 2017.
The Alaska Wildlife Alliance and Denali Citizens Council on Friday asked the board to consider the issue at the March 2016 meeting. "The wolves that den and spend much of their time in Denali National Park are a scientifically, socially, culturally and economically valuable wildlife resource highly valued by both Alaskans and visitors," the request states.
The Board of Game voted against the request, with vice-chair Nate Turner the only member to vote in favor of revisiting the issue in 2016. Thus, the moratorium will remain in place until 2017.
Board of Game chairman Ted Spraker told the board that he "really struggled with this."
"I see good arguments on both sides of the issue. I wish that there was a good fix for this," Spraker said.
Steiner's group was one of several that in 2013 requested a permanent wildlife conservation buffer for the state lands. Steiner met with Gov. Bill Walker, Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott and Cotten last month to talk about the easement.