AK Voices: Bill Sherwonit

Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is the author of more than a dozen books, including "Living with Wildness" and "Changing Paths: Travels and Meditations in Alaska’s Arctic Wilderness."

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No Surprise: BOG Denies Petition to Protect Denali’s Wolves

As reported in the Anchorage Daily News and other assorted media, members of the Alaska Board of Game have denied a petition that the board once again prohibit the human kill of wolves on certain state lands adjacent to Denali National Park and Preserve, lands where some of Denali’s wolves are known to occasionally roam in winter, when seeking caribou or other prey.

The petition to close those lands by emergency order was made by four groups (two Alaskan, two national) and several individuals, me included. We did so in response to the trapping death, last winter, of a breeding female wolf that belonged to the Grant Creek Pack, a family group that for most of the year lives within Denali National Park.

For close to a decade, the Grant Creek wolves had been the most highly viewed wolves at Denali, seen more often than even the famed East Fork/Toklat wolves, first studied by Adolph Murie and later Gordon Haber. Following the trapping kill of the pack’s alpha female and the unrelated death of another female of breeding age inside the park, members of the Grant Creek Pack dispersed (as wolf biologists expected they would, without a litter of pups to keep the family together). Not coincidentally, the number of wolves seen by Denali visitors dropped substantially this year.

Besides being philosophically opposed to the recreational trapping of wolves and other animals—and the few trappers who operate just beyond Denali’s northeastern boundaries do not subsist on trapping or depend on it for their survival—I am among those who believe that Denali’s wolves are worth a lot more alive than dead. By all accounts, only a few people trap on the state lands just beyond the national park border, and their take of wolves that venture outside the park is small. Meanwhile tens of thousands of people—and some years, more than 100,000 visitors—are annually rewarded by the sighting of wolves when exploring the park (whether by bus, car, or foot).

It is hard to overestimate the value of a wild wolf sighting, even if the animal is in the far distance, especially to people who do not live in wolf country. I have been on buses with tourists when a wolf passed our way. For most it was a great thrill, even a magical moment, a once-in-a-lifetime, spirit-lifting experience. This is no small thing. Neither is the fact that visitors get to see wolves being wolves. Now and then this means watching them hunt and kill other Denali wildlife. While certain BOG members and some other Alaskans like to denigrate Denali’s wolves—one board chairman infamously likened them to “mangy dogs walking down the road”—visitors can see firsthand that these are wild animals, and yes, they must kill other animals to survive, even small and cute moose calves. This is no Disneyesque portrayal, it is nature raw and uncensored.

One could argue, as many Alaskans do, that the harvest of a few wolves that venture outside Denali is, in the bigger picture, no big deal. They rationalize, as BOG members did when rejecting the petition, that there is no biological emergency. Though wolf numbers inside Denali are currently at an ebb (only 70 were counted last spring, among the lowest number tallied over the past quarter century) neither the park’s wolf population nor the regional one is threatened by human harvest.

But there’s a problem with this “population biology” perspective and rationale. There are certain places set aside as wildlife refuges—the McNeil River brown bear sanctuary is one prime example, Denali is another—where the human kill of individual animals can have a substantial negative impact. The trapping death of the Grant Creek’s alpha female is a case in point. Her death contributed to the pack’s break-up (whether temporary or permanent is for now uncertain). And that, in turn, greatly diminished visitors’ likelihood of seeing Denali wolves. Several years ago, in 2005, a similar trapping kill of the East Fork’s breeding female led to that family’s near disintegration. And when her mate subsequently was shot outside the park, a family group once led by two wolves highly tolerant of people became more wary, much less visible. The East Fork wolves remain less visible to this day.

None of that matters to this BOG, of course. Its members have consistently shown they are way more interested in killing wolves and bears than protecting them. Add the fact that they are largely anti-feds, and it’s no surprise at all that they chose to reject the petition, 6-0 (one member was absent for the vote).

To be honest, I didn’t expect the board to enact emergency regulations that would once more protect wolves in what was once (from 2000-2010) a protective “wolf buffer zone.” The petition’s arguments were largely economic and tied to tourism. They didn’t—and couldn’t—adequately address the state’s position that no biological emergency exists.

It is sad, but true, that until the Board of Game changes its philosophies and/or make-up—which is not going to happen while Sean Parnell is governor—neither Denali’s wolves nor those anywhere else in Alaska will receive special consideration or protection from our state's wildlife officials. This is true even when such protection is in our state’s, and the larger public’s, best interests. Never mind the wolves themselves, despite the fact that they add joy and wonder to the lives of so many people when roaming wild through Denali’s landscape.

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