FAIRBANKS - The National Park Service is proposing to increase a no-trapping zone for wolves on the northeast boundary of Denali National Park and Preserve.
However, the chairman of the Alaska Board of Game has questioned the need for the 77-square-mile expansion on state land.
The proposal marks the first time the service has formally asked the state to enlarge or retain the Stampede Closed Area, one of two areas of state land adjacent to the park closed to wolf trapping. Currently, wolf trapping is prohibited on 122 square miles of state land around the park.
"We believe that the buffer will enhance or protect wolf viewing opportunities in the park, especially in light of the increased trapping efforts we've seen along the (Parks) highway," Denali assistant superintendent Elwood Lynn said.
Each year, trappers catch a few wolves - usually fewer than 10 - that cross park boundaries onto state land.
In its proposal, park officials say data collected on three wolf packs during the past six years indicates the expansion would protect the park's two most vulnerable and viewed wolf packs, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported.
"Several known animals people were seeing along the road have been trapped in the last five or six years," park biologist Tom Meier said. "We've had a number of packs wink out up there to the northeast of the park."
The service says Denali park's wolf population is at its lowest point in more than 20 years - an estimated 70 wolves, down from more than 100 a few years ago.
Meier said trapping likely has not caused the decline, but it's a reason for concern.
The Alaska Board of Game is to consider buffer zone proposals at its meeting this week in Fairbanks.
During public testimony Saturday, board chairman Cliff Judkins criticized the park service for pressing the buffer zone issue.
"It really perturbs me that the National Park Service puts Alaska into this position," Judkins said.
Judkins questioned whether the tens of thousands of Denali tourists who spot wolves each year actually are seeing a wild animal.
"A wolf tolerant of people is not a natural wolf," he said. "Some people from New York might think it's a great thing to see a wolf walking along next to a bus on the (park) road, but it's hard for me to get my hands around."
"They're easy to trap and shoot because they're not afraid of people," Meier said.
The Denali Citizens Council also submitted a proposal to expand the buffer zone. President Nancy Bale gave the board a 35-page petition containing more than 500 signatures from people in support of the expansion.
"We're Alaskans who want this to happen," she said. "We're not opposed to trapping but think this is a significant resource protection."