Dwindling Denali wolves raise tourism concerns

wolf population across the 6 million acre park and preserve declined from 143 in fall 2007 to just 55 in spring 2013

Wolves on the Denali Park Road. Photo courtesy NPS Photo / Nathan Kostegian.
Wolves on the Denali Park Road. Photo courtesy NPS/Nathan Kostegian.

By Bob Berwyn

FRISCO — An arbitrary decision by the Alaska Board of Game to allow wolf hunting and trapping near Denali National Park has cut the regional wolf population by nearly two-thirds and significantly reduced opportunities for park visitors to see wolves in the wild — one of the main reasons people go to Denali in the first place.

This year, fewer than 5 percent of park visitors were able to see wolves, down from about 45 percent back in 2000, according to National Park Service statistics obtained by a federal government watchdog group.

“This precipitous decline in wildlife viewing success appears to be unprecedented in the history of the national park system,” said Rick Steiner, a retired University of Alaska professor and a Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility board member.

The wolves of Denali have historically been one of the world’s most viewed populations in part because they can be seen inside one of the planet’s few remaining intact functioning ecosystems, near the park’s main road. About 400,000 visitors come to Denali each year, spending more than $150 million on lodging, travel and other purchases.

In recognition of the economic value of wolf viewing in Denali, state officials in 2000 created a 122-square mile no-take buffer zone on the park’s eastern boundary. But in 2010, the Alaska Board of Game, comprised of hunters and trappers, eliminated the buffer.  The wolf population across the 6 million acre park and preserve declined from 143 in fall 2007 to just 55 in spring 2013 – a drop by more than half in just six years.

Even with the buffer, Denali wolves were under pressure from hunting and trapping. In some years, a significant percentage of the total Denali wolf population was killed in the area. And biologists point out that it’s not just about sheer numbers — the hunting and trapping in the buffer zone has disrupted family and pack dynamics in the area.

According to Steiner there was no good biological reason to get rid of the buffer. It may be true that killing wolves in that area won’t have a big impact on the statewide wolf population, but that misses the point, Steiner said, explaining that the wildlife viewing opportunity in the park is a key economic issue.

It’s not clear exactly why the Board of Game eliminated the buffer, and board members did not respond to questions about the decision. But Steiner said it may have done at least partly out of spite, based on state antipathy to the federal government in general, and the National Park Service specifically.

“The State of Alaska should understand the simple economics of this,” Steiner said in a PEER press release. “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.”

According to park service statistics, wolf-viewing success for the park’s 400,000 visitors declined to 22 percent in 2011, 12 percent in 2012, and is estimated to have dipped below 5 percent in 2013.  This drop is associated with the lowest  Denali wolf population in 26 years.

The Game Board rejected a petition from Alaska conservation groups in October 2012 to restore the buffer due to effects on the wolf population and viewing opportunities. Its original 2010 action came over the objections of the National Park Service, which expressed concern over effects on packs within Denali.

The State of Alaska has a long-standing Memorandum of Understanding to work cooperatively with the federal government on wildlife issues. That cooperative spirit has been strained but has broken down completely during the Parnell administration as state-federal conflicts have multiplied and escalated.

“Why would tourists shell out hundreds of dollars to travel long distances to a crown jewel nature park where the most iconic wildlife is missing?” said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. Alaska loses big time if its incomparable national parks cease to remain robust tourist magnets.”

Steiner said a coalition of conservation and wildlife advocacy groups will ask Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to get involved by working out a land swap of sorts that would establish a permanent wildlife conservation easement east of the park in exchange for the conveyance of some federal lands of equal value.



5 thoughts on “Dwindling Denali wolves raise tourism concerns

  1. As tourists my family will not spend a dime in any state that’s slaughtering wolves. Montana, Idaho, Wyoming You guys are completely nuts. Wisconsin your running wolves and bears with dogs is state sponsored dog fighting and completely inhumane. Michigan’s ignoring 250, 000 votes by citizens to stop the hunt on the few wolves they have is criminal. Minnesota is also ignoring the loud protests and monthly rallies by people who are trying to stop this horrific wolf slaughter. Alaska should just know better. Yep my family visited Maine after 20 years of summers in Yellowstone.

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