Alaska declines to protect wolves near Denali National Park

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 19, 2012 

— The state of Alaska refuses to restore a ban on hunting and trapping wolves just outside Denali National Park, despite the killing of a key breeding female and the breakup of an iconic pack viewed by Denali visitors from around the world.

Wolves are protected in the park but not on surrounding state land, where the breeding female was killed last spring. Wildlife groups filed an emergency petition this month calling for the return of a buffer zone east of the park where the wolves would be protected. The state eliminated the buffer in 2010 over the objections of the National Park Service.

Alaska Board of Game members said Wednesday that they’d unanimously decided to reject the petition. The situation doesn’t rise to the level of an emergency, said Nick Yurko, a Board of Game member from Juneau.

“They want everything. We just can’t give to everybody. Every environmental group would like to shut down the whole state, and we can’t do this,” Yurko said.

Those behind the petition said the decision made no sense.

“We’re denying, really, hundreds of thousands of people the opportunity to see wolves with any reasonable prospects of success, and in exchange a couple trappers get just a little bit more area to trap in,” said John Toppenberg, the director of the Alaska Wildlife Alliance, which is among the groups that filed the petition.

The Grant Creek wolf pack lost its two known breeding females last spring, one to natural causes and the other to trapping on state land just outside Denali National Park. The pack was the most-viewed of the wolves in Denali because it denned near the road where visitors go by bus in hopes of seeing wildlife. That’s the main way visitors experience the park.

The pack of 15 wolves split up this summer, and now there are just five known to travel together, said Bridget Borg, a biologist at Denali National Park. Borg said the group might include other breeding females and that it was possible the pack would get back together.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game takes the position that the situation doesn’t represent a biological emergency. The state makes management decisions based on the health of an area’s entire wolf population rather than a single pack, said Douglas Vincent-Lang, the state director of wildlife conservation.

“In that game management area the population of wolves, while lower than it has been in the past, remains viable and sustainable,” Vincent-Lang said.

A spring survey estimated there were about 70 wolves in the 6 million-acre park, with density at a 25-year low, according to park biologist Borg.

Former Alaska Department of Fish and Game commissioner Frank Rue urged the state to restore the buffer zone protecting wolves who stray outside the park. Rue described the pack in a column for Alaska media as “probably the most-viewed wild wolves on the planet,” and said the chance for visitors to see wolves in the famous park was now near zero.

An advocacy group called the National Wolfwatcher Coalition said it was canceling scheduled wolf-watching expeditions to Denali, which it asserted would mean about $200,000 less tourism spending in Alaska.

The Board of Game has indicated that it doesn’t intend to reconsider the issue of a buffer for Denali wolves until at least 2016.

The petition from wildlife groups argued that the board should do it immediately as an emergency defined in the law as “an unforeseen, unexpected event that . . . threatens a fish or game resource.”

Six board members voted by email that it didn’t rise to the level of an emergency under the law.

Teresa Sager Albaugh, a board member from Tok, was among those who’d voted against the buffer in 2010. She said she felt at the time that the buffer was essentially an extension of the park boundary into state land.

“It surrenders that chunk of state land and wildlife management to federal interests,” she said.

Email: scockerham@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @seancockerham

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