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Latest Numbers Show Decline in Wolf Sightings Along Denali Park Road

National Park Service

Fairbanks, AK - Environmental groups are asking the state and the federal government to exchange or purchase land to create a permanent wildlife buffer along the eastern border of Denali National Park.  The  request comes in response to numbers released by the park service that show a decline in the number of wolves viewed by visitors.  

5,841 bus trips took place along the road inside Denali National Park this summer.  The Park Service sampled less than one-and-a-half percent of those trips to find out how often visitors spot wildlife.  Wolves, in particular, were only sighted on three occasions out of 80 trips sampled.  Don Striker is the Denali National Park Superintendent.  He says wildlife viewing is something visitors have come to expect.
“I think the ability to experience wolves in the wilderness on their own terms is an amazing and often times transformative experience for people,” says Striker. Wolves that have been spotted along the Denali Park Road in the past are likely members of the Grant Creek Pack. “The Grant Creek Pack breeds right near the road," says Striker. "So they offered the best opportunity for people to be able to see wolves.  They sort of grew up with buses going by.” But in May of 2012, the Park Service reported the pack’s dispersal.  A breeding female was trapped and killed that year.  Striker says the loss of the pack means there are fewer wolves to spot in the area, but he doesn’t think those numbers are an indicator of larger changes in overall population“In no way, shape or form would I suggest that this data suggests that we have a problem with respect to the viability of the wolf population in Denali," says Striker. 

“There’s not necessarily a link between how many wolves are seen in the park and how many are there," Says Cathy Harms.  She is a Wildlife Biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.  For the most part, she and Don Striker agree. “A specific wolf taken by a trapper was the breeding female in a pack commonly viewed and it did disrupt viewing, but it didn’t disrupt overall wolf numbers in the park,” says Harms. 

But environmental groups argue hunting and trapping outside the park is affecting the population inside the boundary. Last spring, the Park Service counted 55 wolves, down from 143 in 2007.  It’s the lowest count since the Park started keeping track of wolves in 1986. Rick Steiner is a conservation biologist and wolf advocate.  “We don’t know all the causes of the decline," says Steiner, "but without question it is indisputable that take of park wolves when they cross the invisible boundary park on the east side by trapping and hunting has contributed to the decline of wolves in the park and certainly in viewing success,” he says. 

In 2010, the Board of Game voted to eliminate a buffer zone that protected wolves that crossed cross the northeastern park boundary.  Since then, Steiner and others have made multiple efforts to reinstate the buffer without success.  But Cathy Harms says harvest numbers in the area where the buffer used to exist are too low to significantly impact the population. “In the area formerly known as the buffer zone, the maximum number of wolves taken per year has been four wolves and often it’s zero to two so there’s no correlation between trapper and a decline in wolf population in the park,” say Harms.

Rick Steiner says both the state and the federal government are focused on numbers when they should be looking at wolf behavior. “It’s not just about numbers," says Steiner.  "It’s about family groups and pack integrity and the actual cultural behavioral characteristics that they develop over years.”

In a letter to US Department of Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Alaska Governor Sean Parnell, Steiner has requested that the state and federal government negotiate an easement exchange or land purchase to secure a permanent buffer to protect Denali area wolves.  Neither office has responded, but the Governor’s staff is reviewing the document. The Park Service is still compiling numbers from this year’s fall counts.