ANCHORAGE — Visitors to Denali National Park and Reserve are seeing fewer wolves as the predators’ numbers continue to decline, according to the National Park Service.
Park researchers randomly sampled 80 bus trips this summer and found that bus riders only spotted wolves on three occasions, or about 4 percent of the trips, park officials said Wednesday.
That continues a downward trend documented in recent years. Wolves were seen during 44 percent of bus trips in 2010, 21 percent in 2011 and 12 percent in 2012, the Anchorage Daily News reported Thursday.
The trend seems to correspond with a steady decrease in the number of wolves researchers themselves are seeing. Spring counts went from 66 in 2012 to 55 wolves this year, the fewest since the research began in 1986. Fewer wolves also haven’t resulted in greater numbers of the animals that wolves eat, the park says.
Opponents of predator control policies blame the state’s decision to allow wolf trapping on state land on the east side of the park. State wildlife officials have said in the past that few wolves are killed in the once-protected area. But individual wolf kills can have a greater effect on overall numbers, according to the park service.
Wildlife advocates noted the state Board of Game’s removal of a no-trapping, no-hunting zone for wolves on the park’s east side, where visitors are most likely to see wolves along the park road.
The buffer was put in place in 2002, and the Park Service in 2010 proposed expanding the zone, which would have prohibited hunting and trapping in areas where many of the most-viewed wolves winter.
Instead, the seven-member Alaska Board of Game voted 4-3 in 2010 to remove the buffer and placed a six-year moratorium on discussing the issue except in the event of an emergency.
On Wednesday, about a dozen environmental groups and wildlife advocates proposed expanding protections for wolves. They sent a letter to Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell, Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell proposing a temporary emergency closure to wolf hunting in the area and a “federal-state easement exchange” or land sale to restore the buffer.
Parnell spokeswoman Sharon Leighow said Wednesday afternoon that the governor had not yet seen the letter.
“We will need some time to review the proposal before commenting on specifics,” Leighow wrote in an email to the newspaper.
Board of Game member Teresa Sager Albaugh, who voted to remove the buffer, told the newspaper she stands behind the decision.
“It’s my belief the state of Alaska should be managing for the state’s purposes and for the Department of Fish and Game’s purposes, as opposed to basically adding state land to a federal area that’s already huge,” Sager Albaugh told the Daily News.
Denali is one of Alaska’s most popular destinations for tourists. More than 400,000 people visit the park each year. About 200,000 people travel on buses along the park’s one road, Denali Park Road, each year.