ANCHORAGE - Tourists taking in the beauty of Denali National Park and Preserve could be in for a truly ugly sight - two wolves with tight snares around their necks.
The wolves were legally trapped this winter on state land outside the park. The two, a large gray wolf and a smaller black one, escaped the traps and returned recently to Denali, their faces and necks swollen from the embedded snares.
The large gray has a neck wound where the snare has cut into the muscle, creating a flap of skin that hangs down. The black wolf's face is so swollen he now resembles a bear.
Snares are normally made of metal cable in the shape of a loop that cinch tighter as the animal tries to pull free. It's not known exactly how they escaped, but the cables could have broken or the wolves could have chewed through them.
Denali is expecting at least 458,000 visitors this year, with many of them arriving in droves beginning in mid-May. Visitors normally board buses that travel the park road in an area where the famed Toklat pack tends to stay. The black wolf is a member of that pack.
The 6-million-acre national park has about 100 wolves in 18 packs.
While no trapping is allowed in the park, it is legal on state lands outside the park. Trappers sell the pelts.
Problems for the wolves arise on the park's northeast boundary. The area is the traditional wintering grounds for caribou, moose and sheep.
Hungry wolves head there in winter.
"They just go right in that area and unbeknownst to them ... the trappers are waiting and they are caught," Haber said.
At least three trap lines were set this winter outside the northeast boundary and outside a no-trapping buffer zone created to afford the wolves greater protection. As many as 19 wolves have been trapped there, including four radio-collared wolves, Haber said.
One of the Toklat wolves wears a radio collar that provides positioning information every morning. Seventeen wolves were in the group when it headed for the prey-rich area beyond the park boundary in February for a few days. Only 10 returned, Haber said.
The black one rejoined the group in March.
"The only one that ever showed up again was the black one with the snare," he said.
Denali park biologists have been wanting to remove the snares but so far they have had no luck. A couple of times biologists have rushed to an area, only to find the wolves gone, said Pat Owen, a park wildlife biologist.
Both wolves, despite the snares, look to be in good shape, Owen said.