It's a wolf-vs.-wolf world in Denali National Park

Posted: Sunday, May 12, 2002

FAIRBANKS - Like the tourists who hope to see them, wolves in Denali National Park and Preserve come and go.

The average life expectancy for a wolf in Denali Park is three years. About a quarter of the approximately 100 wolves that inhabit the 6-million acre park die each year.

They starve. They get kicked by moose. They drown in rivers. They get buried in avalanches.

The number one cause of death for Denali Park wolves, though, is Denali Park wolves. You might say it's a wolf-eat-wolf world. Of the 20 to 25 wolves that die each year in the park, about half are killed by other wolves.

"We've had several packs die out due to starvation or being killed off by other wolves," biologist Layne Adams, who heads the park's wolf research program, said. "By and large the most important factor when it comes to wolf mortality in the park is other wolves.

"In any given year in Denali a wolf has four times the chance of being killed by another wolf than a trapper or hunter."

Yet, when the last-known member of the Sanctuary Pack was killed in a trap just outside the park's northeast boundary this spring, the state's wolf watchdogs howled in protest.

The Sanctuary wolves, along with the East Fork or Toklat Pack, were the only two packs that were regularly seen by thousands of tourists who travel into Alaska's most famous park each year.

The Sanctuary Pack was wiped out due to several factors. The male leader of the pack was killed by a moose and the alpha female was killed two months later after being tranquilized by researchers. Two of the three remaining pups disappeared and the last pup, a 22-month-old female wearing a radio collar, was the one caught in a trap.

"For the price of a pelt or two, what a waste," said Paul Joslin, executive director of the Alaska Wildlife Alliance, in a eulogy to the Sanctuary wolves.

Wildlife biologist Gordon Haber, who has tracked wolves in Denali Park for the last 36 years and whose research is funded by the animal-rights group Friends of Animals, called the death "predictable."

Both Haber and Joslin scolded the park service for allowing another pack of wolves to be wiped out, which ruined prime viewing opportunities for tourists and valuable research opportunities for scientists.

They used the death of the last Sanctuary wolf as a rallying cry for a bigger no-hunting and no-trapping buffer that would protect wolves from wandering outside the northeast corner of the park where they are legal game for trappers and hunters in the nearby communities of Healy and Denali Park, which sit on the northern boundary of the park.

The Alaska Board of Game last year established a 90-square-mile no-hunting, no-trapping area northeast of the park to protect the Toklat Pack, but animal protection groups attending a recent Board of Game meeting in Fairbanks pushed for a larger buffer to protect the Sanctuary Pack's territory. The game board, however, took no action on the proposal.

"We need to do more for these viewable wolves we have," Joslin said. "The cost of a wolf pelt is nothing compared to the value these wolves hold for the tens of thousands of people that go to the park."

"All wolves are not the same," Joslin said.

He cited the Toklat wolves, which have roamed the park road area around the Toklat River for the last 62 years and are perhaps the most-viewed wolf pack in the world, as an example.

"The Toklat wolves' value runs into millions of dollars a year," Joslin said. "A lot of people get to see them fairly closely."

But park superintendent Paul Anderson said the park is not meant to be a zoo and a buffer is not needed to protect the park's 100 or so wolves or provide increased viewing opportunities. The population is healthy and shows no signs of decline, he said.

"We don't manage wolves for tourists," Anderson said. "We manage wolves as a population of wildlife in an ecosystem.

"What we see here is the natural ebb and flow of the dynamics of the wolf population," he said.

While the loss of the Sanctuary Pack may seem like bad news for the thousands of tourists who flock to the park each year in hopes of seeing a wolf, that may not be the case. There is already another wolf pack in place to replace the Sanctuary wolves, Anderson pointed out.

The Mount Margaret Pack, a group of four wolves, wedged its way between the territories of the Toklat and Sanctuary packs a year ago and appears ready to succeed the Sanctuary Pack as the latest residents of the area around the park entrance.

The Sanctuary Pack is the third pack of wolves in the last 20 years to be erased from the northeast corner of the park, where they were seen regularly by tourists who drive the first 15 miles of the Denali Park Road, the only part of the 90-mile road open to the public.

Prior to the Sanctuary wolves, the Headquarters Pack roamed the same area for 11 years. It, too, was eventually wiped out when the wolves wandered outside the park boundaries and were caught in illegally set snares. Before the Headquarters Pack, the Savage Pack inhabited the area near the park entrance for more than two decades.

Whether or not the Mount Margaret Pack will offer tourists the same kind of viewing opportunities the three previous packs did is up for debate. Haber and Joslin contend that it takes time for wolves to become conditioned to the rumble of buses and the sight of camera-toting tourists.

"It took four years for those (Sanctuary) wolves to learn the same patterns that made the (Headquarters) pack so viewable," Haber said. "It's how they occupy the space that matters. They have to learn the hunting routes and the denning routes.

But Anderson, the park superintendent, said viewing opportunities for wolves and other wildlife along the park road are much the same today as they were 10 or 15 years ago, even though subsistence trapping and hunting is allowed in sections of the park. It's not the park service's intention to condition wolves for tourists, he said.

"We're not here to habituate wildlife, that's not our purpose," Anderson said.

Joslin, though, thinks making wildlife, especially wolves, more viewable to tourists should be one of the park service's priorities.

"Wolves normally are very shy animals and are rarely seen; we've got something special now going on in Denali," he said. "You get on that bus and you have a realistic chance of seeing wolves up close. It's so important to try and protect that interest."

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