Study shows conflict between wolf watching and wolf hunting

Trapping and hunting near parks cuts has big impact

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

Staff Report

Many Americans travel thousands of miles for a chance to spot wolves in the wild, but a new study shows that their chance of spotting the predators decreases dramatically when hunting and trapping is allowed. In 2013, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility first raised the alarm that dwindling wolf numbers near Denali National Park are affecting wildlife watching.

The new research, published in the journal PLOS ONE, suggests visitors to national parks were just  half as likely to see wolves in their natural habitat when wolf hunting was permitted just outside Denali National Park’s boundaries during a period from 1997- 2013. Other important factors linked to wolf viewing rates include, the proximity of wolf dens to the Park Road and the regional wolf population.

In 2013, documents obtained by PEER showed wolf hunting and trapping near Denali National Park had cut the regional wolf population by nearly two-thirds and significantly reduced opportunities for park visitors to see wolves in the wild.
“This is the first study that demonstrates a potential link between the harvest of wildlife on the borders of a park and the experience that visitors have within the park,” said lead author Bridget Borg, a Denali National Park wildlife biologist who completed this research while earning her doctorate from the Institute of Arctic Biology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Researchers looked at the dynamics between harvesting and viewing wolves at these two national parks because they are among the few places in the world where visitors have a good chance of seeing wild wolves. Both parks have long-term monitoring programs that have collected years of data on resident wolf populations, including years when wolf harvest was permitted and years when it was prohibited near the parks’ borders.

Adjacent to Denali National Park, wolves are primarily trapped during legal harvests, while states adjacent to Yellowstone permit shooting wolves during hunting season.

Wildlife viewing is an important economic driver for the states surrounding the two national parks. A 2008 economic assessment determined that wolf-watching activities in Yellowstone after the 1995 reintroduction have brought in an estimated $35 million each year to Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. In Alaska, wildlife viewing activities supported more than $2.7 billion in economic activity in 2011.

At the same time, these states are required to provide for consumptive uses of wildlife. In 2011, hunting in Alaska supported more than $1.3 billion in economic activity, and Montana received over $400,000 from the purchase of wolf tags.

“We have shown there is a tradeoff between harvesting and viewing wolves, but these findings could extend to other large carnivores that also move in and out of parks,” said senior author Laura Prugh, an assistant professor of quantitative wildlife sciences in the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences at University of Washington.

Tracking wolf and other wildlife sightings along the Denali Park road is an active area of research with a long history in Denali according to Denali’s Science and Resources Team Leader Dave Schirokauer. “This long-term monitoring of wildlife sightings was valuable to draw upon to investigate the role of wolf harvest adjacent to park boundaries.”

The researchers analyzed data on wolf sightings, pack sizes, den locations and harvests adjacent to the parks in Denali National Park from 1997 to 2013, and in Yellowstone from 2008 to 2013. In both parks, visitors were more likely to see wolves when the wolf populations were high and their dens were close to park roads.

Models also suggest more subtle effects of harvests on the ability of visitors to see wolves. Sightings are perhaps driven by specific individuals. As wolves that are less wary may contribute disproportionately to viewing opportunities, sightings could decrease if harvest selects these individuals.

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2 thoughts on “Study shows conflict between wolf watching and wolf hunting

  1. I agree with you that predators need larger protected areas. However, I suspect, they will always leave boundaries. So the only way to protect them is to limit the number of allowed trappings and killings (to zero if needed).

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