Synopsis: Denali Wolf Decline
• Denali National Park is Alaska’s most visited national park (530,000 visitors last year, 50,000 of whom were Alaska residents), and is the third largest revenue generating national park in the nation, contributing over $560 million/year to Alaska’s economy.
• One of the primary reasons visitors come to Denali is to see its wildlife, and one of the main species visitors want to see is wolves. Along with Yellowstone National Park, Denali is, or used to be, one of the best places in the world to view wolves in the wild. It is no longer.
• In the 1980 ANILCA expansion of the park, the “Wolf Townships” northeast of the park were originally to be included in the expanded park, but in the final bill were not included. Congressional committee language made it clear that these areas were important for park wildlife, including wolves, and that the areas should eventually be added to the park. They have not been.
• The park’s legal mandate is to protect natural ecosystems, natural processes, and wildlife undisturbed by human activity, which it has been unable to do due to the continued take of wolves along the boundary and inside the park.
• The wolf population across the 6 million acre park and preserve has declined from 147 wolves in Fall 2007 to 49 in Spring 2016 – one of the lowest counts in the park’s historical record.
• One of the causes for the wolf decline is trapping/hunting on state lands along the NE boundary of the park, and to some extent, inside the park itself.
• A previous small (122 mi2) no-kill buffer on state lands NE of the park was eliminated by the Alaska Board of Game (BOG) in 2010, allowing trappers/hunters expanded access to park wolves. The BOG also placed a 6- year moratorium on considering any further Denali buffer proposals.
• Most of the killing of Denali wolves is conducted by just a few trappers/hunters, for sport - not subsistence - purposes.
• On average, about 4-5 park wolves are reported killed each year along the boundary (there may be more killed that go unreported). In some years as many as 19 were killed (even with the small buffer in place). And 1-2 wolves/year are estimated to be killed inside the park and preserve.
• In addition, each year hunters/trappers kill an average of 7 park brown bears, 43 moose, 5 lynx, and 4 wolverines along the NE boundary of the park, which also poses significant impact to park wildlife populations, natural processes, and visitor viewing.
• Research shows that hunting/trapping often affects wolf family groups more than mortality from natural causes, because hunting/trapping often kills alpha breeding wolves.
• If significant breeding individuals are killed, their loss can cause a cascade of losses in the family group. This occurred with the Grant Creek group in 2012, after the last breeding female was trapped along the park boundary, leading to the disintegration of the family group from 15 to only 3 wolves that year.
• This “breeder loss effect” occurred again in 2015, when the pregnant female of the East Fork (Toklat) family group was shot by an out-of-state hunter at a bear bait station just outside the park. Just as with the Grant Creek in 2012, the East Fork group in 2015 then failed to pup or den, dispersed and declined from 15 to only 2 last winter. In May 2016, one of the remaining East Fork wolves was shot by a hunter, leaving one lone survivor of this long-studied (70-year) Denali wolf family group.
• Before their disintegration due to the kill of individual breeding females on the boundary of the park, both Grant Creek and East Fork had been the most viewed wolf family groups in Denali, indeed in Alaska.
• Just since the no-kill buffer was removed in 2010, wolf-viewing success for the park’s visitors has dropped from 45% in 2010 to just 5% in 2015. This decline in wildlife viewing success may be unprecedented in the 100-year history of the National Park System.
• By comparison, wolf-viewing success in Yellowstone National Park is reported to be 45% - 85%. With some 4 million visitors/year, that equates to 2 million - 3 million visitors seeing wolves/year in Yellowstone. Some Alaskans now travel to Yellowstone in order to view wolves in the wild.
• The decline in visitor viewing success in Denali has cost over 200,000 park visitors each year the opportunity to view wolves, contrasted with a few trappers/hunters/guides being allowed to continue killing park wolves. Economically, Denali wolves are worth far more alive (for wildlife viewing) than dead (for their pelts).
• Natural factors (e.g. low snowfall, etc.) may play a role in the wolf population and viewing decline, but it is clear that trapping/hunting take of important breeding individuals on state lands northeast of the park is also a significant contributing factor. And while wildlife managers can’t do much about natural causes, they can and should help to restore the population by minimizing additional losses from trapping/hunting.
• Wildlife advocates have proposed several times that the BOG reinstate the buffer, yet it continues to decline such proposals. As well, ADFG has declined repeated requests to issue an emergency closure on state lands (except for a brief two week emergency closure in May, 2015, after the East Fork female was killed).
• The Park Service has also refused requests to close wolf killing inside Denali (most of the park & preserve remains open to wolf killing).
• Even in the unlikely event that the BOG would impose another no-kill buffer, it would almost certainly not be large enough (as the original buffer was not), nor would it be permanent. What the BOG adopts one year can be eliminated the next, as was the case with the former buffer. Thus, the BOG will not provide effective resolution to the Denali decline.
• Both the State and Park Service continue to refuse requests to close wolf hunting/trapping in and around the park, requested again in Fall 2015 and Spring 2016.
• Recent news stories/commentaries:
• Care2 online petition urging the Park Service and State of Alaska to agree to the wildlife conservation easement deal now has over 310,000 signatures:
Proposed Solution: Denali Wildlife Conservation Easement
A number of Alaskans proposed in 2013 that the US government secure from the State of Alaska a permanent wildlife conservation easement northeast of Denali, prohibiting take of certain park wildlife species. The proposed easement would cover about 250 mi2 (160,000 acres) of state lands NE of the park boundary, and would protect some 20-30 wolves in the park’s three eastern family groups from being killed, thus helping these groups and wolf viewing in the park recover.
The financial value of the easement would be appraised, and then in exchange for the easement, the US government would either trade to the state a like- valued federal asset (e.g. federal surplus property elsewhere, an easement across federal lands, etc.), or purchase the easement outright. Land title would remain as it currently is with private and public landowners, but the take of designated park wildlife in the area would be prohibited. The few hunters/trappers that would be displaced by the easement would retain access to over 270 million acres of lands open to such activities elsewhere in Alaska.
Securing this easement would allow the wildlife populations and viewing amenity of Denali National park to be restored and sustained over the long term, and would benefit all Alaskans and Americans alike. Even if the state were to simply gift the easement, the state interest would be well served.
The National Park Service has expressed its support for this concept, and the state has indicated an interest in exploring such as well.
In a Mar. 31, 2016 letter regarding the proposed Denali Wildlife Conservation Easement, the Director of ADFG Division of Wildlife Conservation Bruce Dale wrote the following:
Recent discussions with NPS indicate both agencies still consider this approach a potential long term solution.
Those interested in helping to establish the Denali Wildlife Conservation Easement can contact the following:
ADFG Commissioner Sam Cotten: firstname.lastname@example.org
NPS AK Regional DirectorBertFrost: email@example.com