State of Alaska abandons newborn pups from Denali East Fork (Toklat) wolf family group

Press Release:  For Immediate Release:  June 14,  2016

Contact: Rick Steiner, Professor (Univ. of Alaska, ret.), Biologist

Oasis Earth, Anchorage; 907-360-4503;

State of Alaska abandons newborn pups from Denali East Fork (Toklat) wolf family group

Hope for survival of famed wolf group fades


Despite a public commitment two weeks ago that it would monitor and intervene if necessary to save newborn wolf pups from the sole surviving female of the East Fork (Toklat) family group from Denali National Park, state officials have refused to confirm any plans for involvement in the issue. A week ago, pups were confirmed at the den, but the mother was not seen. It is likely that, without intervention, the pups will die.

Neither the National Park Service nor Alaska Department of Fish & Game (ADFG) is conducting on-ground monitoring of the den, thus no one currently knows the status of the pups (e.g. whether the mother is able to nurse them, whether they are still alive, etc.). And ADFG has refused to answer countless queries on the issue from the public over the past month.

In a final email to ADFG on this matter yesterday, Monday June 13, we clearly stated that, unless we had a response confirming a plan for the pups by close-of-business yesterday, we would assume the state had abandoned plans to intervene. There was no response.

This leads to the de facto conclusion that, despite earlier commitments to intervene, the state has now decided to simply ignore the pups altogether. ADFG officials likely fear negative publicity that a rescue of the East Fork pups would attract to the long- standing wildlife management controversy at Denali.  The state is clearly trying to kill the current East Fork story by remaining unresponsive.  It is clearly unacceptable that state government refuses to reply to its citizens on the issue.

In early May, while the sole surviving East Fork mating wolf pair were denning and preparing to pup, the father was shot by a hunter at a bear baiting station just outside the Park.   Without the father to hunt and provide for the nursing mother, we were concerned that the mother would be unable to care for the pups on her own, who would then likely perish. The pups represented perhaps the last hope for survival of this long-studied park wolf group.

Newborn wolf pups need to be nursed by the mother several times daily, and it is virtually impossible for a single mother, with no other adults attending, to feed herself and nurse a litter of newborn pups, who are at high risk of starvation, dehydration, and predation. We (and park biologists) recall no documented instance in which a single wolf mother successfully raised a litter of pups on her own.

On March 11, 2016, the Alaska Board of Game adopted a new regulation to close the wolf-hunting season on state lands along the NE boundary of the Park earlier, on April 15, in order to reduce hunter kills of Park wolves while denning/pupping.

However, the new regulation will not take effect until 2017. Thus, the day of the Board decision, we asked ADFG Commissioner Sam Cotten to issue an immediate Emergency Closure of wolf hunting on state lands in the area. He ignored the request.

After the East Fork father was killed in early May (a direct result of ADFG ignoring requests to close the area), we asked ADFG to develop a contingency plan to rescue and place any pups from the female in a care facility (Alaska Zoo, AK. Wildlife Conservation Center, etc.), if it became apparent the mother couldn’t care for them and they were at imminent risk of death. We felt this was the clear responsibility of ADFG under its official Wolf Pup Protocol for rescuing pups orphaned by state actions. While this would not save the East Fork group, it seemed the only humane course to take for the partially orphaned, at-risk pups.

In a May 11 email, Commissioner Cotten responded to these requests stating:

We will look into your suggestion.

But countless subsequent contacts (email and phone) with ADFG received no reply whatsoever, and we are unaware of any action taken by the state or development of a contingency plan to rescue the pups, as proposed. In fact, a month later, the state had not even asked the Park Service for the location of the den.

In addition, the state and NPS refused requests to provide helicopter support for independent biologists to conduct an on-ground assessment of the den and pups, and have indicated no intent to conduct on-ground monitoring themselves; and they will not provide the coordinates for the den so that we could hike in to assess the den ourselves (despite our offer to sign a non-disclosure agreement with the agencies re: the den location). It is important to know whether the pups are being cared for or not, but the agencies apparently think otherwise.

Regarding the potential pup rescue, Commissioner Cotten told the Alaska Dispatch News (ADN) in a May 31 article:

We'd be glad to help out but we don't know the fundamental question: Are there any pups? female-may-be-the-last-of-famed-denali-wolf-pack/

But now, a week after having been informed of the presence of pups at the den, the state has gone silent on the matter.

We had also asked Denali National Park on May 11 whether it planned to rescue/ place any pups from the East Fork den, and they declined, stating:

Rescuing orphaned pup - not part of any plans or part of the NPS mission.

The den is 0.6 miles outside of the Park’s northeastern boundary, but Park officials claimed (in the May 31 ADN article) that they manage for “natural factors,” and that even if the den were inside park boundaries, they would not intervene. Many noted that a hunter killing a wolf father just as the mated pair was denning and pupping, thereby exposing the pups to death by starvation, was anything but a “natural” event.

After the June 7 report of pups at the den, we continued to press ADFG via email to:

1. Establish an observation camp near the den to monitor the situation, e.g. whether the mother was in attendance or had abandoned the site, the status and condition of the pups, etc.

2. Consider an aerial food drop near the den, so that the mother might feed while still nursing the pups (note: this was done successfully in the Park for the lone surviving Sanctuary wolf 2002), and;

3. Immediately inform the public of its contingency plan for the situation.

Still, there was no response from ADFG.

Clearly, if the state had seriously considered a pup rescue, it would have monitored the den, either by air or with an on-ground observation camp. It didn’t, leading to speculation that the state was never serious in its asserted interest in rescuing the pups.

The long-studied East Fork group was the basis for the 1944 book: The Wolves of Mount McKinley by legendary naturalist Adolph Murie, and was studied virtually continuously since, making them one of the longest-studied mammal lineages in biology.

Last year, the group had 15 members, but as they range outside of the park’s NE boundary following prey, they are vulnerable to hunting and trapping on state lands. To avert this risk, we asked Commissioner Cotten in February 2015 to issue an

immediate Emergency Closure of the area. He ignored the request. An out-of-state hunter then shot and killed the pregnant female and a male of the group in May 2015, causing the group to not pup, disperse, and decline to only two members - a radio collared male referred to as “1508 GM” (its collar designation) and the female. This pair represented the last hope for survival of the East Fork / Toklat family group.

This same catastrophic scenario also occurred with Denali’s Grant Creek wolf family group in 2012 (see attached “Synopsis”).

The loss of the East Fork group is the direct result of ADFG not closing the area by Emergency Order in spring 2015 and 2016, as requested by many Alaskans. Had the area been closed, the East Fork family group would almost certainly be alive and well in Denali today. But now, due to the callous indifference of ADFG, this historic wolf group is likely gone. While it is possible the lone female may survive, join another group, mate and pup in the future, this is unlikely.

Commissioner Cotten’s decision to not close the area in 2015 and again in 2016 directly led to the loss of this national treasure – the East Fork / Toklat wolf family group in Denali National Park. The loss to science, Denali ecosystem integrity, and the wildlife viewing economy in the Park is significant.  This was an avoidable loss.

Many feel the commissioner needs to admit his mistake, apologize to the people of Alaska and America, and resolve to prevent a repeat of this tragedy.

The East Fork tragedy underscores the urgent need for the state and federal government to negotiate a permanent wildlife conservation easement NE of Denali National Park, as has been proposed since 2013.

As this in Alaska’s direct and immediate economic interest, we have asked Governor Walker to gift the easement to the people of Alaska and America, in recognition of this summer’s 100th anniversary of the National Park Service.


Agency contacts:

Sam Cotten, ADFG Commissioner: Bruce Dale,

ADFG Game Division Director: Darren Bruning,

ADFG Area Biologist, Delta:

Dave Schirokauer, Denali National Park,

Deputy Superintendent: