DENALI — For a third consecutive year, National Park Service researchers have found that visitors traveling in buses on the Denali Park Road, in Denali National Park and Preserve, have seen fewer and fewer wolves.
In a random sample of 80 bus trips this past summer, wolves were seen on three occasions, or about 4 percent of the trips, according to a release from the National Park Service. By contrast, in the three previous years the percentages were 12 percent (2012), 21 percent (2011) and 44 percent (2010).
NPS biologists gather data on the wolf packs that range on the north side of the Alaska Range by radio tracking, and have documented the decrease in the number of wolves that den and roam in closer proximity to the road in the eastern half of the park, the release stated, as well as a decline in the overall number of wolves in Denali north of the Alaska Range.
The relationship between the decline in wolf populations and the decline in viewing opportunities is complex.
“We are just beginning to learn about the factors, such as pack disruption, that play a role in magnifying the impacts of individual wolf losses on viewability,” said Dr. Philip Hooge, Assistant Superintendent for Resources, Science and Learning.
The decline of wolf numbers has not translated to larger numbers of viewed prey species, the research data showed. The proportion of bus trips where bears, moose, caribou and sheep were seen varies by year, but none show the steady decline found with wolves.
The overall number of wolves in the packs north of the Alaska Range in Denali is also down. Spring counts went from 66 in 2012 to 55 in 2013, which is in the lowest level documented since counts began in 1986. Hooge said that while this low number has impacts on the visitor experience and may have ecosystem effects, the population remains viable.
Sport hunting and trapping are legal in Denali, located on the far western edges of the park. Subsistence harvests are legal in the preserve and in the national park, as of 1980. Most of the combined hunting and trapping efforts take place in the western areas of the new park lands, but documented wolf harvest is quite small.
“We generally don’t see the wolves in the western portions of Denali moving to den near the park road,” Hooge said. “The wolves commonly seen by visitors often leave the park to follow migrating prey species such as caribou.”
Hooge said 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. In 2010, the NPS asked the Alaska Board of Game to expand the buffer zone, which would have prohibited hunting and trapping in additional areas where many of the most-viewed wolves winter. The board declined this request, according to a NPS release, and voted to also eliminate the existing buffer zone along the park’s northeast boundary.