Washington, DC — Fewer than 5% of the tourists in Alaska’s Denali National Park who tried to see wolves in the wild were able to do so this year. The current abysmal level of wolf-viewing success sank from 45% in 2010, just before the State of Alaska allowed wolf hunting and trapping in areas adjacent to the park leading to a sharp drop in the wolf population, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) citing the latest soon-to-be-published park statistics.
The wolves of Denali have historically been one of the world’s most viewed populations in part because they can be seen inside one of the planet’s few remaining intact functioning ecosystems, near the park’s main road. Approximately 400,000 visitors come to Denali each year, spending more than $150 million on lodging, travel and other purchases. Many visitors report the desire to see wolves as one of their main viewing objectives for visiting the park.
In recognition of the exceptional economic value of wolf viewing in Denali, from 2000 to 2010 the state had closed 122 square miles of lands on the park’s eastern boundary to the hunting or trapping of wolves. In 2010, the Alaska Board of Game, comprised of hunters and trappers, eliminated this no-take wolf buffer altogether. The wolf population across the 6 million acre park and preserve has declined from 116 wolves in 2006 to just 55 in spring 2013 – a drop by more than half in just six years.
“This precipitous decline in wildlife viewing success appears to be unprecedented in the history of the national park system,” stated Rick Steiner, a retired University of Alaska professor and PEER board member who has led efforts to persuade the State of Alaska to restore the buffer. “The State of Alaska should understand the simple economics of this. In places like Denali, wolves are worth far more alive than dead. Removing the buffer benefits two or three trappers, but costs thousands of park visitors the opportunity to watch wolves in the wild, and thus costs the Alaskan economy.”
In 2010 (the year in which the state removed the no-take wolf buffer east of the park), wolf-viewing success for the park’s 400,000 visitors was estimated by National Park Service staff at 45%, declining to 22% in 2011, 12% in 2012, and is estimated to have dipped below 5% in 2013. This drop is associated with the lowest wolf Denali population in 26 years.
The Game Board rejected a petition from Alaska conservation groups in October 2012 to restore the buffer due to effects on the wolf population and viewing opportunities. Its original 2010 action came over the objections of the National Park Service, which expressed concern over effects on packs within Denali.
The State of Alaska has a long-standing Memorandum of Understanding to work cooperatively with the federal government on wildlife issues. That cooperative spirit has been strained but has broken down completely during the Parnell administration as state-federal conflicts have multiplied and escalated.
“Why would tourists shell out hundreds of dollars to travel long distances to a crown jewel nature park where the most iconic wildlife is missing?” asked PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “Alaska loses big time if its incomparable national parks cease to remain robust tourist magnets.”