Denali National Park wolf count drops below 50

FAIRBANKS -- Denali National Park and Preserve's wolf numbers have reached a new low this spring with an estimated population of just 48, according to a National Park Service study.

The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reports that the park service has estimated the wolf population twice each year since 1986 using radio-collared wolves and analysis of a few uncollared wolves. This spring's count is the lowest since an estimate of 46 wolves in fall 1986 and is the lowest on record for any spring count.

The park's chief wildlife biologist, Steve Arthur, says the population decline can be attributed to low snowfall, which made it easier for prey to flee from the wolves, and better tracking technology. The tracking expands biologists' understanding of the wolves' home range, which is used to estimate the population.

Wolf advocates use the numbers to show the need to reinstate a wolf-protection buffer zone that banned trapping in an area directly outside the park until 2008.

Two of the nine wolves that died in 2014 and early 2015 were legally killed by trappers or hunters, according to the survey, about the same proportion as other recent years. Two wolves were killed by other wolves, one died from old age, one drowned, one starved and two died from other non-human causes. At least 14 pups born in 2014 survived.

The state doesn't track wolf populations as closely as the park service but estimates the statewide population at between 7,000 and 11,000.