DENALI NATIONAL PARK - Lying alone and listless on a snow-covered ridge, the large male wolf appeared injured, probably from a trap. Blood stained the snow near his front paws.
Circling above in a single-engine airplane, wildlife biologist Gordon Haber found it difficult to maintain his composure. For nearly 40 years, he has been observing a family of wolves, whose current leader was the lethargic alpha male down below him in the snow.
That family, which lives in Denali National Park and is often described as the longest-studied, most-photographed group of wolves in the world, is now at risk. In the past two months, trappers operating just outside the park's northeastern border have picked off two senior females in the 11-member group. For weeks, the alpha male and his new mate have been separated from each other and from six younger members of the pack.
"It's so senseless," Haber shouted over the aircraft noise. "I'm not sure what is worse: the animals being killed or all the so-called experts allowing it to happen."
The demise of this family of wolves, known to tens of thousands of park visitors as the Toklat group, would end a unique stream of research. For nearly six decades, Haber and other scientists have chronicled the hunting techniques, mating habits and social interdependence of generations of a geographically stable group of wolves.
Trapping the Toklat wolves also raises questions about the ethical treatment of animals that for decades have been cosseted inside a park, where they have been regarded as prime tourist attractions and have learned to associate people with harmless curiosity - not with the slow, lethal torment of a trap.
At the urging of wildlife preservation and animal rights groups in the lower 48, three Democratic senators - Frank Lautenberg (N.J.), Carl Levin (Mich.) and Barbara Boxer (Calif.) - wrote last Monday to Interior Secretary Gale Norton, citing a "biological emergency" and imploring her to take immediate steps to save the Toklat family.
"These wolves are a national treasure and are of inestimable value to scientists and thousands of park visitors each year," they wrote. Norton has not responded, a department spokesman said.
The Toklat wolves have become relatively easy targets for trappers, said Thomas Meier, a wildlife biologist for the National Park Service at Denali.
"Frankly, these wolves aren't as wary of humans as the average wolf," he said. "Trappers usually catch young wolves, stupid wolves, but that is not the case here. They are catching mature animals habituated to people."
In February, Haber, whose work is funded by an animal rights group and whose views often annoy state and federal wildlife experts, asked the Alaska Board of Game to stop wolf trapping in a narrow wedge of state land that juts into the national park's northeastern corner. That is where the Toklat wolves, wandering out of the park in search of caribou, have been caught in traps in recent months.
But the board, which several years ago did create a small no-trap buffer in that area, has refused to expand it.
"We don't manage wolves for their safety and livelihood and whatnot," said Mike Fleagle, the board's chairman. "We feel that wolves shouldn't be treated individually. Sure, wolves are complex, and sure, they have a pretty interesting social structure, but the bottom line is Alaska is crawling with wolves. We manage for population."
That population is thriving, with about 7,000 to 10,000 wolves in the state. Matt Robus, director of wildlife conservation for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said wolf numbers in Alaska are as robust as they have ever been.
State game officials also object to any increase in the amount of protected territory for wolves on the grounds that the federal government has already grabbed far too much state land in the name of wildlife preservation. There is enduring resentment here at a 1980 act of Congress that carved off 104 million acres of state land for federal parks and refuges.
The politics of federal resentment - even though this state is the largest per-capita recipient of federal money - helps fuel the dominance of conservative Republicans in state and federal positions. By and large, those politicians are not advocates for wolves.
"Resentment is the right word," Robus said. "There is a definite desire to make sure Alaskans have access to state land and can manage the land not covered by the big federal footprint."
But in Haber's view, state game managers are deliberately being obtuse: "The primary functional unit in wolf biology is the family group, not the total area-wide population. The very thing that sets wolves apart as a species is their high level of cooperative behavior. You trash that and what you have left is coyotes."
Furthermore, Haber said, killing off the Toklat family would harm wolf viewing in Denali. For decades, the wolves have been trotting up and down a main road in the park, delighting tens of thousands of visitors.
The value of the Toklat family for research and for park visitors has registered with the Park Service. It has said that expanding the no-trapping zone would help protect the wolves. But the Park Service has not asked the state to take emergency action to do so because it believes the Toklat group, despite trapping that has broken it apart, is "not in danger of dying out," said Philip Hooge, assistant superintendent at Denali.
Part of the reason for federal inaction, said Meier, the federal biologist, is the park's ongoing friction with Haber, a longtime critic of the Park Service. "Haber is outspoken and can be a thorn in the side of the park," he said.
Haber learned that Toklat wolves were dying in traps during one of his routine radio-tracking flights on Feb. 11. He photographed a local trapper, Coke Wallace, as he handled the carcass of the group's alpha female. Haber said he contacted Wallace and tried to persuade him to stop trapping wolves near the park.
"I explained what the Toklat group was and how valuable it is to so many people for so many reasons, but Wallace elected not to stop trapping," Haber said. "So I went to the media and sent a letter to the Board of Game, asking for an emergency closure."
Wallace, though, said he is not intimidated and will continue to trap wolves because "my impact on the population is inconsequential." As for any special value in keeping the Toklat family from dying out, Wallace does not see it.
"Wolves come and go," he said. "From a biological standpoint, you don't worry."
Juneau Empire ©2013. All Rights Reserved.