Are hunting and trapping to blame for a drop in wolf sightings in Alaska's Denali National Park?

Wolf viewings by tourists are down dramatically in Denali National Park and Preserve, and conservation groups are blasting a 2010 decision by Alaska game managers to allow wolf hunting and trapping on a chunk of state-owned land outside the park.

The National Park Service didn't voice that same accusation so clearly. But in a press release about the drop in viewings, the agency highlighted the decreased wolf population and the state's policy.

Ted Spraker, the Alaska Board of Game chairman who has voted against allowing the hunting and trapping in the area, said the drop in wolf numbers appears to be related to a drop in prey in the park -- moose, caribou and sheep.

"It has nothing to do with trapping and the fact that a buffer is not there," he said.

For years, the state did not allow hunting and trapping in a 122-square-mile buffer at the northeast edge of the park that is "most frequented by wolves," the park service said.

In 2010, the park service asked the state Board of Game to expand that buffer zone. That would have banned "hunting and trapping in additional areas where many of the most-viewed wolves winter, the agency said.

But the Board of Game rejected the expansion and went even further, eliminating the buffer zone, the statement noted.

The possibility of wolf viewings in Denali is considered an important draw for the park's 400,000-plus annual visitors, meaning it's also important for a state economy that's partially dependent on tourism.

But the chances of seeing a wolf from a bus ride through the park -- the way the vast majority of visitors travel -- have plummeted, the park service reports.

In a random sample of 80 bus trips this summer, wolves were seen on three occasions, or about 4 percent of the trips. By contrast, in the three previous years the likelihood was 12 percent (2012), 21 percent (2011) and 44 percent (2010), the park service said.

The number of wolves counted in the park and preserve north of the Alaska Range during the spring has fallen from 66 in 2012 to 55 in 2013. That's the lowest level since 1986, but the wolf population remains viable, the park service said.

Trapping as well as hunting for sport and subsistence remain legal in certain areas of the federally owned land, but the "documented wolf harvest is quite small."

The decrease in wolf numbers has not led to higher numbers of prey in the park and preserve, such as caribou or moose. And while populations of moose, caribou, sheep and bears vary annually, those animals have not undergone the "steady decline found with wolves," the agency said.

Spraker said he has twice voted to support the buffer. But as a board member, he said he supports the body's decision, which will be reconsidered in 2016.

He said wolf numbers have fallen across the park, not just the area near the buffer, another indication that the hunting and trapping outside the northeast boundary is not to blame.

"We need to have more science and less emotion involved in this discussion because once it gets to this state you have these circular arguments," he said.

A statement from Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility said the drop in wolf numbers was even sharper and blasted the state's policy.

"In 2010, the Alaska Board of Game, comprised of hunters and trappers, eliminated this no-take wolf buffer altogether," said a statement from PEER. "The wolf population across the 6 million acre park and preserve has declined from 143 in fall 2007 to just 55 in spring 2013 -- a drop by more than half in just six years."

The PEER statement said the cooperative spirit between state and federal wildlife managers has "broken down completely" under Gov. Sean Parnell, who became governor in summer 2009 after Sarah Palin quit.

PEER board member Rick Steiner said the game board's 2010 decision hurts tourism.

"The State of Alaska should understand the simple economics of this," he said. "In places like Denali, wolves are worth far more alive than dead. Removing the buffer benefits two or three trappers, but costs thousands of park visitors the opportunity to watch wolves in the wild, and thus costs the Alaskan economy."

Spraker, who said he enjoys wolf trapping though he doesn't take many, said a potential solution may be a land exchange with the federal government. An exchange would allow the feds to increase the park's holdings. If the trade is fair for the state, perhaps the federal government could trade for a much larger area than the current buffer. That's a decision that would be made at a higher level than the Game Board, most likely the Legislature.

"The board is understanding and sympathetic to the viewing public," he said. "But we feel hunting and trapping and viewing can be done at the same time if done properly."

PEER laid out its concerns in a letter to Gov. Parnell and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.

The park service and Spraker agreed the problem is complex.

"We are just beginning to learn about the factors, such as pack disruption, that play a role in magnifying the impacts of individual wolf losses on viewability," said Philip Hooge, assistant superintendent for Resources, Science, and Learning with the park.

The issue will be explored more deeply in a peer-reviewed paper expected to be released in the spring.

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com