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Alaska's wolves: Big city columnist should know better

Craig Medred
Aaron Jansen illustration

What is it about life in the big cities of America that leads people to become so disconnected from nature? Here's columnist Joel Connelly reporting online for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer this week:

"Alaska to Denali wolves: Tough luck, you die.

Now maybe, possibly, Connelly didn't write that headline, though that excuse has become a lot harder to employ now than in the old days of newspapers. Reporters hardly ever wrote headlines then. Now, who knows? Reporters suggest headlines all the time, especially dramatic ones designed to ramp up "web hits,” as they are called.

"Alaska to Denali wolves: Tough luck, you die" is a pretty good headline in the latter regard.

It's also horribly misleading, and Connelly's story, which follows this little deception, just continues the theme. The story would lead you to believe wolves live peaceful, happy lives in Denali National Park except when harassed by man. Oh, if only.

Connelly once knew better. He was once something of an environmental reporter. I remember him from the late 1970s when we were both reporting on the Tongass National Forest. He was the plump guy from Seattle. He still is. I was the hard-head from Juneau who didn't really care whom he pissed off. If memory serves me right, Connelly was along on a tour the Alaska Loggers Association threw me off. It was so long ago I can't remember exactly why, but I'm sure it had something to do with claims they were making about the productivity of the Tongass.

Southeast Alaska timber companies, with help from the U.S. Forest Service, were always overstating how many board feet of timber the Tongass can produce. The forest is very productive -- by Alaska standards -- but it was never as productive as timber industry promoters made it out to be. It's way north of the equator, and there is a fundamental ecological reality that cannot be ignored: The farther north you go on the globe, the less productive the ecosystems. But don't take it from me. Here's the take from NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration:

In mid-latitudes, productivity is obviously tied to seasonal change, with productivity peaking in each hemisphere’s summer. The boreal forests of Canada and Russia experience high productivity in June and July and then a slow decline through fall and winter. Year-round, tropical forests in South America, Africa, Southeast Asia, and Indonesia have high productivity, not surprising with the abundant sunlight, warmth, and rainfall.

The NASA website on "Net Primary Productive" of the globe has a nifty, animated graphic which shows how the tropics blossom year-round, how the mid-latitudes cook in summer, and how Alaska, well, takes off for a few short months and then hangs on through a long, dark winter.

Connelly knows all of this, I'm sure, so when he writes (no headline-writing editor can be blamed here) that "the 6-million-acre Denali National Park and Preserve is home to ONLY about 70 wolves," he's either being disingenuous, or he's been totally corrupted by life in the city. Because the reality is, 70 is roughly the number of wolves Denali can support. Wolves are at the top of the food pyramid in the park. They are meat eaters, and they need prey to eat, or they die.

Do the math

Denali is home to about 2,000 moose, 3,500 caribou and a couple thousand Dall sheep. Yellowstone National Park, which is less than half the size of Denali, is home to 2,500 bison, 22,000 elk and 3,000 mule deer. The average bison has slightly more meat than the average Alaska moose. An elk has more meat than a caribou. And a mule deer has more meat than a Dall sheep.

Do the math. The reality is that the prey of Yellowstone, a park half the size of Denali, can support more wolves. It would be able to support way, way more if not for the fact the wolves of Denali get some help from salmon runs, as researcher Layne Adams discovered a few years ago. He also noted that this isn't particularly good news if you are a moose or caribou.

"Ungulate densities (ie. moose, caribou and sheep) were 78 percent lower in the northwest flats compared with the remainder of the study area, but wolf densities were reduced by only about 17 percent,” is how the National Park Service reported Adams' research on its website.

"Given the estimated wolf diets and the relative abundance of wolves and their ungulate prey, estimated predation rates on ungulates in the northwestern flats of Denali were about three times higher than those in the remainder of the study area, indicative of influences abundant salmon can have on wolf-ungulate relationships."

The simple translation? Salmon were boosting the wolf population, and moose, caribou and sheep were paying the price. Funny, isn't it, how Connelly has never written -- NEVER -- about how the efforts of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to maximize salmon productivity across the state have messed with the Alaska ecosystem, and there is no denying those efforts have messed with the ecosystem.

Lucky urban moose?

Everything messes with the ecosystem. Rick Sinnott, the retired area biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and I have had something of a running discussion for years about how the development of Anchorage has messed with the ecosystem. Sinnott is of the opinion Anchorage's development has been bad for moose. I'm not so sure, and I'm a guy who moved to Alaska because he hated seeing roads built. But I've noticed a strange thing about roads in Anchorage.

They not only enable people to get around in the winter; they also allow moose to get around. And Anchorage is a place where the moose population was historically limited by its winter range. If moose can get around better winter and get at more food than there are going to be more moose surviving the winter. The big wild card is the "more food" question. Sinnott is of the opinion there has been a net loss of accessible willows and other browse on which winter moose survival depends. I'm not so sure. Moose love those fancy mountain ash that Anchorage homeowners plant as much as they love willow, and it's been my observation that local property owners are more inclined to kill the alder -- which moose generally don't like and don't eat -- than willow.

There is now a study underway, and hopefully we'll know more in the future. But, I digress. This isn't about Alaska salmon or Anchorage moose, this is about Connelly, a smart guy, acting like a city idiot.

"Denali National Park is a major generator of tourism revenue for Alaska, but state politicians bitterly fought the 1980 Alaska Lands Act that enlarged the park and created four new national parks in the state," he writes. This is true, but what it has to do with the wolves of Denali is beyond me. State politicians fought the Land Act because it foreclosed any development (other than government buildings which apparently don't qualify as development) on about 100 million acres of Alaska.

They were wrong to do so. Or at least I think they were wrong. They called the new parks and refuge a land "lock up," refusing to recognize that private land ownership, not public land ownership, is the ultimate lock up. I've seen plenty of "No Trespassing," "No Hunting," "No Fishing," and "F-You" signs on private lands. Aside from those lands in Alaska controlled by the state owned Alaska Railroad, such signs are pretty rare on public lands.

Nature: a jungle, not a zoo

Connelly and I, for better or worse, probably have a lot in common, except for maybe one thing: I really hate it when reporters make things up. And reporters who live in America's big cities have a tendency to make things up because they don't know better, because nature to them is some sort of Eden outside of the city. It's not. Nature is a jungle. I live on the edge of a half million acres of wilderness.

The wolves, although more often the grizzly bears, kill moose and Dall sheep in my backyard. It is not pretty. They do not kill neatly, especially the bears. Bears, a wildlife-biologist acquaintance who spent much of his life observing them once observed, don't really kill, they eat. Wolves are only slightly better. They have no interest in humane killing because there is nothing human about them. They are cold-blooded, professional killers living in a harsh world -- which is what elevates my blood pressure upon reading "Alaska to Denali wolves: Tough luck, you die."

"Tough luck, you die" is the life wolves lead no matter what the state of Alaska does. "The average life expectancy of a (Denali) wolf is only three to four years," according to the National Park Service. "The leading cause of natural death is wolves killing each other, often over territory disputes. Starvation, disease, and accidents also take their toll." Let me repeat, "three or four years."

A 25-year study of Denali wolves found that only about 20 percent, primarily those that venture far outside the park, die at the hands of humans in a given year. People, it would seem, are among the least of the threats to Denali wolves.

"At least 40 percent were killed by neighboring wolf packs," that study said, "generally in winter when packs roam beyond their usual territories. Another 40 percent died of natural causes. Many of these wolves were too decomposed or consumed (by other wolves or scavengers) to determine the cause of death, but some were also undoubtedly killed by wolves."

If Connelly, once billed on the Post-Intelligencer's website as an "advocate for wilderness areas," really wants to do something for Denali wolves, which his story would indicate, maybe he should stop writing about state anti-trapping zones around Denali park, or the lack thereof, and start organizing the well-meaning citizens of Seattle to donate money to pay for aerial food drops for Denali wolves. If the wolves are well fed, they will certainly stop starving to death, and there is good reason to believe they will stop warring with each other as well.

Even better, if the food drops are organized to further habituate the wolves to the Denali Park Road, the wolf viewing there will improve, which seems important to Connelly, although why he doesn't just go visit the wolves in Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo I don't know. They appear fat, happy, well-fed and expected to live 25 years.

And after you see those wolves, it's easy to go get a latte in a comfortable coffee shop along Green Lake and contemplate just how much better off are the wolves in the wilds of Alaska, a place you don't visit all that much because, well, it's far away, and wet and cold, and often effing uncomfortable. Not to mention that it could kill you, because the wilds kill everything eventually.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com

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