FAIRBANKS - Priscilla Feral spent a full day flying to Fairbanks from Connecticut to speak before the Alaska Board of Game for five minutes on Saturday, even though she doesn't think it will do any good.
It was the least she could do for Gordon Haber.
Feral, president of Friends of Animals, one of the country's most prolific animal-rights groups and based in Connecticut, showed up Saturday to testify in support of expanding a 122-square-mile buffer zone. The zone sits on state land in the northeast corner of Denali National Park and Preserve, and trapping wolves is prohibited in the buffer zone.
It was Haber, a well-known biologist who studied Denali wolves for more than 40 years with funding from Feral's group, who originally proposed the buffer zone that the Board of Game adopted in 2000. The board reduced it to its current size in 2004. Haber died in a plane crash while tracking wolves in Denali in October.
"Gordon's gone, and I don't know how to fill his footsteps, but I can start by showing up," Feral said following her testimony.
"What I'm doing is framing what he taught me over 17 years of his work and trying to give it some hope. We want to organize a movement here to keep some decent protection areas for wolves around the Denali area," she said.
The Denali buffer zone, as it is commonly called, was the hot topic of discussion on the opening day of public testimony Saturday on day two of the Game Board's 10-day meeting in Fairbanks. Feral's presence at the meeting only turned up the heat.
The game board is considering proposals to expand and/or eliminate the buffer zone, which has been a point of contention for trappers since it was created.
Critics argue there is no biological reason for having the buffer zone because there are plenty of wolves - about 70 at last count - to see in Denali Park while advocates say the zone protects wolves near the park road that have become "habituated" and are "tolerant" of humans, which makes them easier to trap.
Out of place
With long blond hair and wearing a white, long-sleeve shirt, gold necklace, brown pants and black boots that seemed out of place in a crowd dominated by camouflage and Carhartts, Feral sat behind a microphone facing the board and pleaded for protection of Denali wolves.
"At Friends of Animals, we acknowledge the inherent value of wolves," she said. "Regardless whether we deem them endangered or plentiful, and whether or not we see them and believe they are beautiful, their individual lives and their freedom have meaning to them."
Feral went on to rehash the importance of Haber's research, quoting from papers he wrote. She said a few trappers benefit by trapping wolves that cross park boundaries while thousands of summertime tourists potentially lose out on an opportunity to see a wolf.
After her testimony, Feral acknowledged she didn't expect the Board of Game to pass any of the proposals to expand, or even retain, the buffer zone, especially after hearing board chairman Cliff Judkins compare Denali wolves to "mangy dogs walking down the road" during a National Park Service presentation on Friday. She likened the Board of Game meeting to "an NRA meeting."
"I've never spoken before a board in which the chairman made such rude remarks about wolves," Feral said. "I find it frightening."
Even so, Feral said, she plans to keep up the fight for Denali wolves and plans to attend future Board of Game meetings in Fairbanks.
"I'm devoted to not quitting," she said.
Coke Wallace of Healy, one of the trappers Feral was referring to in her testimony, urged the board to get rid of the buffer zone during his five-minute testimony.
"We've got a park that's already as large as most of the states on the eastern seaboard," said Wallace, whose trapping exploits have been publicly targeted by Feral's group. "These aren't buffer zones. They're extensions of the park."
Alaska Trappers Association president Randy Zarnke also spoke in favor of eliminating the buffer zone. His organization resents the term "park wolves," he said.
"Those wolves do not belong to the park, it's employees or the federal government, but rather to the (residents) of the state of Alaska," Zarnke said. "They should be managed for our greatest benefit."
That's precisely why Denali wolves should be protected, said Rick Steiner, a 35-year Alaskan and retired marine scientist from Anchorage.
"If the object is to provide the maximum value of a wildlife resource, in Alaska the highest value of park wolves is to keep them protected for the 400,000 people who visit the park," said Steiner, who has picked up Haber's torch. "The viewing opportunities at Denali Park are extraordinary. It's one of the best places in the world to see wolves."
Vic Van Ballenberghe, a retired wildlife biologist who has been conducting moose research in the park for 36 years, spoke in favor of the buffer zone. Wolves in Denali Park can offer spectacular viewing opportunities, even if they are habituated, he said.
"I kind of liken Denali to the wolf equivalent of McNeil River Falls," Van Ballenberghe, a former Board of Game member, said, referring to the popular bear viewing area. "It's a wonderful viewing opportunity, and I think we need to do whatever it takes to protect it."