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My turn: Denali wolf packs need protection now

Posted: May 29, 2012 - 12:00am

Recently, Coke Wallace, a Healy trapper, placed a horse carcass on state land near the northeastern border of Denali National Park to attract wolves; he then set snares around the area and left. His tactics were legal and successful. Wolves were attracted to the carcass; a collared female from the park was trapped near the dead horse. Reports state that the wolf had been trapped for a week before Wallace returned. (A male wolf was also trapped, albeit not as close to the bait.)

The female wolf that was killed was the only remaining breeding female in the Grant Creek pack — the most viewed pack in Denali National Park. Because of her death, the pack will probably have no pups this year — at a time when the park’s wolf population is the lowest it has been in over two decades. Furthermore, studies show that the loss of just one reproductive female from a pack can negatively affect the entire pack, which could fall apart as a result.

This wolf was wearing a radio collar attached by scientists; ironically, she was part of an ongoing study to determine the effects of the 2010 elimination of the Denali buffer zone on park tourists.

From 2002 to 2012, the area in which the two wolves were trapped was protected by the Denali buffer zone; wolf hunting and trapping were not permitted near the park border because park wolves are habituated to humans, they are important to the ecosystems of the park, and they are valuable for wildlife viewing. Tens of thousands of visitors — and their money — pour into Denali National Park each year to view wildlife; many come to view wolves.

Denali wolves are so important that at the 2010 Fairbanks Board of Game meeting, the park service submitted a proposal asking for the expansion of the buffer zone, which was widely supported. The board received a 35-page petition containing more than 500 signatures supporting an expansion of the buffer zone, including more than 100 signatures from residents of the park area and nearly 300 from Alaskans. Denali assistant superintendent Elwood Lynn stated, “We believe that the buffer will enhance or protect wolf viewing opportunities in the park....”

In contrast, only a handful of trappers opposed the buffer zone. One of them was Wallace. Another was Al Barrette.

Despite overwhelming support for the buffer zone, the board completely eliminated it by a 4-3 vote — and placed a 6-year moratorium on buffer proposals. Notably, one of the board members voting against the buffer zone was newly appointed trapper Al Barrette, whose appointment was later overturned by the state Legislature because of his extreme views.

The views of a handful of trappers outweighed the views of hundreds of other Alaskans, the Park Service, and the tens of thousands who visit Denali National Park annually.

At the now infamous 2010 Fairbanks meeting, board member Ted Spraker supported the buffer, adding that trappers would be blamed if wolf sightings within the park declined: “The trappers would get a black eye, whether or not trapping affected people’s viewing opportunity.” While one trapper, Wallace, has now clearly affected viewing opportunities in Denali National Park, the black eye actually goes to the state of Alaska for the series of poor wildlife management decisions that led us to the deaths of the two Grant Creek wolves — and to the potential deaths of more park wolves when trapping season resumes.

While we cannot undo the damage that has already been done, we can demand change to help prevent further damage. Ask Commissioner Cora Campbell, Gov. Sean Parnell, and the board to (1) immediately issue an emergency closure to any further wolf take from state lands along the northeastern boundary of Denali National Park, and (2) re-establish the Denali National Park buffer zone: Campbell can be reached at 465-4100 and at cora.campbell@alaska.gov ; Parnell can be reached at 465-3500 and at sean.parnell@alaska.gov. The Board of Game can also be contacted, c/o Kristy Tibbles, at 465-6098 and at kristy.tibbles@alaska.gov .

• Brown is president of the Alaska Wildlife Alliance.

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