Washington, DC —The iconic wolf population of Denali National Park has plummeted to its lowest level on record in the park, and hunting may be a key factor, according to a revised National Park Service (NPS) monitoring report posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). At the same time, a citizen petition calling for an end to wolf hunting and trapping inside Alaska’s Denali Park and no-kill buffers on its border has drawn in excess of 110,000 signatures in little more than a week.
Last week, the NPS issued its annual wolf monitoring report for Denali and officials appeared to suggest that the reason for the “lowest (wolf) density estimate since monitoring began in 1986” may be due solely to “natural causes” such as low snowfall. Experts disputed both the facts and logic of that suggestion and this week NPS issued a new report admitting that “mortality of wolves from both human and natural causes” was a factor in Denali wolf population decline.
“It is time for the Park Service and State of Alaska to publicly admit the fact that trapping and hunting of Denali wolves has contributed to the unprecedented decline in wolf numbers and visitor viewing success,” stated Rick Steiner, a retired University of Alaska professor and PEER board member, noting that visitors’ ability to see Denali wolves in the wild has also dropped to record lows. “Instead of blaming the Denali wolf decline on sunspots or Obama Care, the state and federal governments need to admit the proven facts, and immediately close Denali and its surrounding area to any further wolf killing.”
The current unprecedented decline in Denali wolves began in winter 2007-08, when about 10% of the entire park population was killed by trappers and hunters northeast of the park (despite a buffer in place at the time). The decline continued after the buffer was removed in 2010, with the park’s wolf population dropping from 143 in fall 2007 to only 48 in spring 2015. Meanwhile, viewing success has declined from 45% in 2010 to only 6% last summer. Denali draws more than 500,000 people from all over the world each year to see North America’s highest peak, its wilderness, and its wildlife – especially wolves.
The scientific research clearly demonstrates that if trapping or hunting kills a significant breeding individual, it can disrupt the entire wolf family group. This “breeder loss effect” is a critical dynamic driving population decline in the park. Significantly, the 2015 Denali wolf monitoring report concluded: “We found that breeder loss preceded or coincided with most documented cases of wolf pack dissolution (when a pack disbanded or was no longer found).” Two more park wolves were killed by a hunter along the boundary of the park last Saturday, May 2, when they were attracted to a bear baiting station.
“The park’s primary purpose is to ‘protect intact the globally significant Denali ecosystems,’ but park managers have no credible plan for fulfilling this central mission,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, pointing out that with a new Governor perhaps Alaska and NPS can once again start cooperatively managing Denali’s wolf population. “At the present rate, dysfunctional wildlife politics will end up killing the wolf laying huge golden eggs for Alaska’s tourist economy.”
The citizens’ petition on Denali wolves was posted on April 29 by Marybeth Holleman, an Anchorage-based author. The petition asks U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to immediately close all wolf killing throughout Denali and to acquire a permanent wolf buffer conservation easement from the State of Alaska along the northeastern boundary of Denali.
The NPS is presently considering an emergency request to close all park lands to wolf killing, and the State of Alaska is considering a similar request for an emergency order establishing a wolf buffer on its lands along the boundary of the national park.