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Alaska's Wolves Face Hunter-Driven Decline, Admits Park Officials

May 11, 2015 11:04 PM EDT
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For five years now, there has been a notable decline in the number of wolf sightings in Denali National Park and Preserve. Now a new report from the National Park Service (NPS) is suggesting that wolf hunting could be to blame, as there are few limitations on when a wolf can be killed by a hunter in the Alaskan wilderness.

For the United States, the fierce gray wolf is not exactly a common creature. Although once prevalent throughout the North and Midwest, human development, excessive hunting, and encroaching coyotes and their hybrid cousins pushed gray wolves out, leaving them with territories only in Canada, Alaska, and later Yellowstone National Park.

However, wolves in Alaska are not protected under state law or by the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). With estimated numbers reaching up to 11,200 as of 2013, hunters, loggers, and farmers in Alaska are permitted to kill these deadly predators for self protection or even for sport.

While this has seemed harmless in the past, new research indicates that wolf mortality rates in Alaska's Denali National Park have recently spiked to worrying levels, with the lowest estimated wolf density since monitoring began in 1986.

Originally, the investigators behind the report concluded that the decline was likely due solely to "natural causes" such as unusually little snowfall in the region. However, after a host of experts disputed this claim, the NPS has since updated their conclusion, admitting that the decline was actually a complex combination of both natural and heightened human influence. (Scroll to read on....)

You can read the report, and its changes (in yellow) here.

"It is time for the Park Service and State of Alaska to publicly admit the fact that trapping and hunting of Denali wolves has contributed to the unprecedented decline in wolf numbers and visitor viewing success," Rick Steiner, a retired ecology expert and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) member, said in a recent statement.

"Instead of blaming the Denali wolf decline on sunspots or Obama Care, the state and federal governments need to admit the proven facts, and immediately close Denali and its surrounding area to any further wolf killing," he pressed with dry humor.

Worrying Wolf Stats

According to Steiner and his colleagues, the "unprecedented" decline of the Denali wolf population began in the winter of 2007, "when about 10% of the entire park population was killed by trappers and hunters northeast of the park."

Continued hunting around the park's borders, they say, is directly related to Denali's native wolf population dropping from an estimated 143 wolves in fall 2007 to only 48 in spring 2015. Meanwhile, the percentage of sightseers who actually spotted a wolf, according to random surveys, had dropped from 45 percent to only six percent as of last summer.

"The park's primary purpose is to 'protect intact the globally significant Denali ecosystems,' but park managers have no credible plan for fulfilling this central mission," stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. "At the present rate, dysfunctional wildlife politics will end up killing the wolf laying huge golden eggs for Alaska's tourist economy." (Scroll to read on...)

What About "Dysfunctional Wildlife Politics?"

Interestingly, PEER might be angry at the wrong party. Back in 2013, the NPS did indeed note that summer bus trips up to the national park were seeing fewer wolves roaming about. They attributed this to a potential decline in wolf numbers, and expressed their own concern about an event three years prior, when the Alaska Board of Game abolished anti-hunting zones just outside Denali.

"The wolves commonly seen by visitors often leave the park to follow migrating prey species such as caribou," Philip Hooge, Assistant Superintendent for Resources, Science, and Learning with the NPS explained.  "Prior to 2010, one of the areas at the boundary of the park most frequented by wolves was closed to hunting by the State of Alaska."

However, in 2010, the NPS made a bid to actually expand that buffer zone. Instead, the Alaska Board of Game not only denied that request, but also voted to eliminate the zone entirely - a bid to attract more hunters and their associated revenue (from license fees, taxing, etc).

Now, despite the fact that hunting and trapping is illegal within the national park itself, wandering wolves are vulnerable as soon as they slip into unprotected wilds. And that's no doubt common, as the standard range for a gray wolf can be anywhere between 50 and 1,000 square miles.

It's Not All Bad News

Thankfully, people are rallying behind the Denali wolves. A petition posted back in April by Marybeth Holleman, an Anchorage-based author, is calling for those no-kill buffer zones around the park to be reinstated and more carefully enforced. The petition had drawn well over 110,000 signatures, with similar letters being sent out every day.

And thanks to conservation efforts in other northern regions, some wolves are finally heading south, wandering to places like Utah and Arizona, and reaching record-high populations in Washington state. (Scroll to read on...)

However, in the face of this good news, there is also controversy. New wolf populations are seen as a dire threat to livestock throughout the continental US, and farmers and sportsmen are set against the kind of legislation Holleman, PEER, and other conservationists are calling for.

And you can understand why, too. After all, the wilds that these canines once stalked are now spotted with chicken coops and cow pastures. The fear is that recovering wolves will find Bessie the cow - the source of a farmer's entire livelihood - just too tempting to pass up.

Still, past reports have found that wolves, in their still incredibly small and undispersed numbers, are responsible for a mere 0.1 to 0.6 percent of all unexpected livestock deaths in the United States. Disease and other predators - namely the coyote - deserve most of the blame.

That's why many are arguing that hunting restrictions are absolutely necessary, especially around regions like Denali where the Midwest's wolf 'immigrants' are coming from. The return of wolf populations in the areas has allowed for local ecosystems to return to how they once were, where overpopulated and overgrazing elk are finally put back in check, and thriving coyote populations are reminded who is actually the apex predator in the North American wilderness.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

- follow Brian on Twitter @BS_ButNoBS

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