WASILLA -- With a disputed wolf hunt on state lands outside Denali National Park set to resume next month, wildlife groups are ramping up calls for state officials to again make use of an emergency ban to block the hunt as they did earlier this year.
Alaska Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotten in mid-May closed the Denali corridor wolf hunt northeast of the park two weeks early after a hunter legally killed two wolves. But the ban expired with the regulatory year June 30; it's again legal to take wolves starting Aug. 10.
State wildlife officials this week made it clear they had no plans to take that highly unusual action again.
Denali's wolves are at their lowest density since monitoring began in 1986, with a 2015 estimate of about 52 animals, according to a report from park biologist Steve Arthur.
The park described as one of the best places in the world to see wolves in the wild now gives the half-million annual visitors a roughly 1-in-25 chance of seeing them.
There are significant disagreements over the rationale behind Denali's low wolf numbers.
Wildlife advocates say a renewed ban would protect wolves this summer but also buy time for negotiations toward a permanent conservation easement for the Denali corridor state lands around the Stampede Trail and Nenana Canyon.
"The last thing we need to do is lose more park wolves as they negotiate a solution," said Rick Steiner, an environmental activist and scientist who requested the initial ban in April.
Steiner pointed out that hunting and trapping are one of many factors in wolf declines but the only one controllable by managers. Steiner said killing even one "significant breeding wolf," like a female trapped on state lands in 2012, can decimate a family group: That wolf's group declined from 15 to 3 animals.
But the state's director of wildlife conservation contends there's no "biological problem" with wolves in or out of the park and no reason to stop the hunt now whereas there was in the spring.
The only reason for Cotten's decision was the "potential unintended consequences" of a 2013 Alaska Board of Game decision that allowed brown bear hunting at bait stations in the spring, said Bruce Dale, the state's wildlife conservation director. That drew hunters to the Denali area in May, which was unusual. GPS data showed one of the dead wolves scavenged at a bait station the week before he died, the park biologist wrote in his report.
Dale said the hunting and trapping wolf harvest is considered light and isn't affecting wolf populations. That leaves what he called "the usual culprits": hard-to-catch prey or other factors. He said both wolf density and moose density are much higher east of the park and across the Nenana River.
The park's April wolf report finds that causes of the population drop are unknown, though several factors may be involved: low snowfall during past winters reducing moose and caribou vulnerability to predation; poor pup success; and mortality of wolves "from both human and natural causes."
The state estimates that people kill four or five wolves a year on the state lands next to the park. A limited hunt within the park is thought to take one or two more. There's also a push to eliminate that hunt: More than 230,000 people from all 50 states and dozens of countries have signed an online petition to stop the park and corridor hunts.
The state banned wolf hunting and trapping in the state-owned corridor area from 2000 to 2010 but the Alaska Board of Game in 2010 allowed hunting and trapping in all areas bordering the park. The board rejected an emergency petition to close the area to hunting and trapping in March.
Steiner said re-enacting May's emergency closure would give state and federal officials time to negotiate a permanent conservation easement that even game board chair Ted Spraker supports.
Steiner's organization, Oasis Earth, is one of four groups and many people who in 2013 requested a permanent wildlife conservation buffer for the state lands. He met with Gov. Bill Walker, Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott and Cotten last month to talk about the easement. As proposed in 2013, it would work like this: The state transfers a "no-take" wildlife buffer to the federal government in exchange for an equal-valued federal property easement, or its purchase value.
Dale said Tuesday that the state "would be interested to look at any proposals that are brought forward" regarding the easement.
Representatives from the Park Service didn't return calls for comment Tuesday.