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Falling wolf population in Alaska's Denali National Park should concern us all

Rick Steiner
Denali NPS Twitter feed

Closed-minded ideologues are characterized by their stubborn refusal to amend their perspective when presented with information that doesn’t conform to their position. This sort of rigid thinking is evident in denials of such established facts as climate change, the health impacts of pollution, and even evolution. Ideologues feign a respect for science, but quickly discount it when it conflicts with their long-held point of view.

We see elements of this same thinking in Craig Medred’s recent article in which he blames the decline in Denali National Park wolves on everything except hunting and trapping. Interestingly, this very same rationalization has been invoked for decades by some resource management agencies, when they blame any downturn of a fish or wildlife population on natural causes beyond their control, while claiming credit for stable or increasing populations as the result of their ‘good management.’

A bit of background on the current Denali wolf issue may help open-minded readers decide for themselves what is a rational viewpoint on the issue.

Along with Yellowstone National Park, Denali National Park is known as one of the best places in the world to view wolves in the wild. More than 400,000 visitors come to Denali each summer, with many hoping to see wolves as one of their main objectives for visiting the park. More than anywhere else in Alaska, wolves in eastern Denali provide significant benefits to tourism, and studies estimate that Denali tourism brings over $140 million each year to the state economy (PDF) Wolf viewing opportunities are mostly provided by three eastern packs (PDF) -- Grant Creek, Nenana Canyon, and East Fork -- a total of just 20 to 30 animals. 

In recognition of this wildlife viewing value, the state in 2000 closed lands adjacent to the park’s eastern boundary to the take of wolves. But even this partial “buffer” along the Stampede Trail, surrounded on three sides by the park, did not adequately protect park wolves. Alaska Department of Fish and Game records showed an increase in hunting and trapping of park wolves that roamed into areas east of the buffer. 

The National Park Service noted that in 2007 as many as 12 wolves were killed in the area immediately east of the existing buffer. Dr. Gordon Haber, who studied Denali wolves for over 40 years and was closely monitoring them at the time, said that “(a)t least 11 and as many as 18-19 wolves from five radio-collared Denali study groups -- including the famous Toklat/East Fork family… were snared, trapped, and shot in the area, beginning in late October or early November 2007.”

That was a significant bite out of the park wolf popuation. Haber and I cited this in our October 27, 2008 emergency petition (PDF) to Fish and Game asking that the existing buffer, which obviously was insufficient, be expanded. That petition was ignored. This was also the year the park wolf population began its recent dramatic decline.

The politics of game management

Another common misconception, repeated by Medred, is that wolves are protected across all of Denali, while in actuality most of its land, outside the original core park wilderness, is open to wolf take. The Park Service is developing regulations now to better manage hunting and trapping within its boundaries. But surprisingly, the Park Service doesn’t even have solid information on the number of wolves killed on its lands.

In 2010, despite several public proposals submitted to the Alaska Board of Game to expand the existing wolf buffer -- including one from Denali National Park itself -- and despite overwhelming public support for expanding the buffer, the Board instead voted 4 to 3 to eliminate the existing buffer altogether. The tie-breaking vote to eliminate the buffer was cast by a new Parnell appointee, owner of a fur tannery in Fairbanks, whose appointment was subsequently not confirmed by the Alaska Legislature in its 2011 session. And in an act of questionable legality, the Board established a moratorium on future consideration of any Denali buffer proposals for at least 8 years.

In spring of 2012, a breeding alpha female wolf from the famed Grant Creek pack was legally snared by a trapper in the former buffer, near the boundary of the national park, prompting concerns that the loss of this one female might lead to the entire loss of pups from the pack for the year, abandonment of their historic den, or dispersal, resulting in a further reduction in wolf viewing success in the park.

In response, I petitioned Fish and Game to use its emergency order authority to close the former buffer to help protect these eastern Denali wolf groups from further decline (PDF). The department denied the request, stating that it had no concern for the sustainability of the wolf populations in Game Management Unit (GMU) 20, a vast 35,000 square mile area in interior Alaska about the size of the State of Maine. By such an absurd standard, even if all of the wolves in Denali were lost it still would not rise to the level of concern for the state.

How much does one wolf matter?

The Grant Creek incident attracted national media attention, which often seems to attract Medred’s enmity. In his May piece on the incident in Alaska Dispatch, Medred dismissed concerns over the loss of the Grant Creek female, proclaiming that the loss of one individual was insignificant. His rant in defense of wolf-killing was replete with inaccuracies, which he was forced to retract and correct, and was so inflammatory -- inspiring comments online calling for an “open season” on wolf lovers -- that the Dispatch wisely took down the comments page to the piece.

Medred habitually exalts biologists he agrees with as “world-renowned,” and denigrates those he disagrees with, such as Gordon Haber, who knew Denali wolves better than anyone ever has and likely ever will. Haber spent more time directly observing Denali wolves than any biologist in history, and documented the critical importance of social integrity of wolf family groups, and the importance of individuals in those groups.

Medred belittles Haber, who died in a 2009 plane crash while conducting wolf research in Denali, as “a one-time scientist who let his love of wolves consume his professional credentials.” That venomous and inaccurate assertion likely derives from the fact that Haber’s research findings directly contradict what Medred wants to believe.

For instance, Haber’s thousands of hours of meticulous field research found that the loss of just one significant individual from a wolf family group, like an alpha female, can cause significant long-term consequences, including the breakup of a pack, and the loss of unique hunting, pup rearing, and other behavioral traits developed over generations.

Haber lamented in a 1991 interview that, despite his findings, “(m)ost biologists still take a superficial, numbers-based view of what constitutes a healthy wolf population … The problem is that wolves have complex societies. It takes a long time, at least several generations, for a family group to reach its societal cruising speed.”

And as it turned out, Medred was dead wrong about the significance of the Grant Creek loss this spring, as our worst fears were realized. While the pack temporarily occupied its historic den site near the park road in early June, there were no pups, and with no pups to hold them there, they quickly abandoned the site. With no cooperative pup rearing to serve as their “social glue,” the pack dispersed and fragmented. Over the summer, the park service could track only 5 members of what had just last spring been a 15-member pack, and the most-viewed sub-arctic wolf pack in the world.

The results of the buffer’s removal, including this individual female’s death, could not be more obvious. Park Service data on Denali wolf viewing success document a dramatic decline since the state removed the buffer in 2010, from a 45% chance to see a wolf in the park in 2010 down to just 12% in 2012. Statistically, that’s a 70% drop, representing some 130,000 fewer park visitors having the opportunity to watch wolves in the wild this year compared to before the state eliminated the buffer.

Correlation versus causation

The most recent survey in Denali (fall 2012) estimated a total wolf population in the park of just 54 animals in 9 packs -- the lowest count in 25 years. And the blame for this decline can’t be placed on reduced prey populations, as some want to believe. In fact, national park biologist Tom Meier told us this past summer that the park’s prey populations are healthy, and thus the wolf population decline is not the result of prey availability.

Everyone realizes that correlation does not always equate to causation, and that there can be many natural causes for such population declines, but it is inarguable -- at least to open-minded people -- that killing park wolves when they cross the park boundary onto state lands has contributed to the decline. The Grant Creek loss this spring is a perfect example: not only the alpha female was lost, but likely with her the pack’s only pups for the year as well. And most importantly, while we can’t do much about natural mortality, we can do something to reduce human-induced mortality. Recall the old adage: change the things you can, accept the things you can’t change, and know the difference.

Given Fish and Game's refusal to act on the situation, this fall a group of individual Alaskans and conservation organizations, including the Alaska Wildlife Alliance, National Parks Conservation Association, and the Alaska Center for the Environment -- collectively representing thousands of Alaskans -- petitioned the Board of Game to reestablish a Denali buffer to help to arrest the decline. The Board, behind closed doors and without comment, rejected the emergency petitions. Trapping and hunting is now open again in the area, exposing park wolves to additional losses this winter.

But there is a glimmer of hope. The Board will take up a proposal at its January 10 meeting in Sitka to rescind its moratorium on considering Denali buffer proposals. Many of us feel that the Board’s moratorium is illegal, as it unduly restricts the public’s right to submit proposals to the Board of Game, which is statutorily constituted to consider all such proposals.

And at its February meeting in Wasilla, the Board will consider proposal #86, to reestablish a partial Denali wolf buffer. The Board can, and should, use its discretion to adjust and expand the area proposed for closure in proposal #86, and reestablish the entire buffer necessary to protect park wolves as proposed in the public petitions last fall. In a December 21, 2012 letter to the Board of Game, the National Park Service reiterated its support for the Board to rescind its moratorium and reestablish a Denali buffer.

Recognizing that there are still no non-consumptive wildlife users on the Board -- that is, those who don’t hunt or trap, which is the largest constituency in the state -- it remains an uphill battle to get the Board to understand and appreciate the value of a Denali buffer. In fact, many Alaskans have simply given up hope that the Alaska Board of Game can ever bring itself to genuinely consider, much less act to protect non-consumptive values of wildlife. But even in Montana, state wildlife commissioners recently established a similar no-take buffer on state lands outside Yellowstone National Park, in order to protect park wolves. If the State of Montana can rise to this challenge of protecting park wolves, Alaska should be able to as well.

Finally, Article VIII of the Alaska Constitution requires that natural resources be managed as a “public trust,” providing “for maximum use consistent with the public interest,” and for the “utilization, development, and conservation…for the maximum benefit of (the) people.” Clearly, the value and public interest to thousands of Alaskans provided by viewing Denali wolves, as well as the value to the many Alaskan businesses reliant on wildlife tourism, greatly outweighs the interests of a few individuals being allowed to continue trapping and hunting Denali wolves along the park boundary.

The rational choice here is clear, and we remain hopeful that the Board of Game will, faced with this new evidence, do the right thing this time and act for the benefit of the majority of Alaskans by reestablishing a Denali wolf buffer.

Rick Steiner was a marine conservation professor with the University of Alaska from 1980-2010, stationed in Kotzebue, Cordova, and Anchorage. He now consults internationally on conservation issues, through Oasis Earth, based in Anchorage.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Alaska Dispatch welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email it to commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.