A wolf from the Riley Creek Pack is photographed by Park staff wandering alongside the Denali Park Road, in 2017. NPS Photo/Andrew Kirby

In its January 2019 issue, National Geographic published an article on the top spots in the country to see wolves in the wild. On the subject of Denali National Park, the article states “In this remote Alaskan wilderness … expect fewer people and more wolves.”

You’ll get a very different picture if you talk to Bill Watkins, a Denali road bus driver of 30 years.

A makeshift survey organized by Watkins showed a recent drop in the number of wolf sightings along the Denali Park Road, prompting a group of more than 60 concerned residents and advocates to send two petitions requesting the closure of an area near the park’s boundary for wolf hunting.

Meanwhile, the National Park Service has sent its own proposal to the Board of Game, requesting a partial closure of the area for the taking of wolves. NPS is hoping that the board grants its request so it can study how a closure would affect the success of both wolf viewing and wolf hunting in the area. 

Wolf-viewing advocates

The public petitions, which were sent to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game commissioner and the state Board of Game respectively, are just the latest move in a long-fought battle over wolf hunts in the Stampede Corridor, an area in GMU20 just east of the park’s boundary. Wolf hunting in the area is scheduled to begin Aug. 10 and trapping is set to open Nov. 1.

Those behind the petition believe that the taking of wolves is impacting the number of wolves in a couple of packs that tend to roam near the road corridor. These packs represent the few wolves that visitors to the park have a good chance of seeing. According to Bill Watkins, the odds of a wolf-sighting have become increasingly low since a peak in 2010.

“This year I’ve seen zero wolves in the park,” he said, “so what I wanted to know was: Is this just an isolated case of myself?”

So Watkins took to a public Facebook page he set up last year called “Denali Wolves.” Through the page, he organized a survey using observations from 43 park bus drivers and employees based on a 75-day period from April 27-July 10. According to Watkins’ anecdotal survey, only 15 wolf sightings were recorded during this period and two-thirds of the respondents reported no wolf sightings at all so far this year.

“It’s very widespread,” Watkins said. “In fact, one driver admitted he’d seen a wolverine in the park, but had not seen any wolves. That’s the rarest wildlife sighting in the park.”

Watkins acknowledged that the survey is “not scientific in any way, shape or form,” but rather represents a snapshot of wolf-viewing success from the frontline — the bus drivers. He said he’s planning to do another survey later this year to see if the trend continues.

“We’re the people on the ground,” he said. “This is what we’re seeing — or not seeing in this case.”

Among those advocating for the closure is Rick Steiner, an environmental sustainability consultant and board member of the nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. He said the topic is “close to my heart.”

“This has been an issue for over 100 years — since the park was established,” he said. “It’s easy to solve, but no one wants to solve it.”

The petitioners are specific in their concerns and requests. They do not assert that there is a threat to wolf populations at large; rather, that the packs that inhabit the area close to the park boundary are at risk. The petitions purport that trapping and hunting compound with natural threats to these packs, which are of “significant and disproportionate economic value to Alaska.” The petition notes that tourist revenue from visits to the park can run up to $800 million annually.

“When you consider there’s almost 700,000 people that come to Denali — they want to see three things: They want to see bears, they want to see wolves, they want to see mountains,” said Sean Maguire, a member of the Fairbanks-based advocacy group Alaskans For Wildlife. “Denali, of course, is the crown jewel of our tourism industry.”

Maguire referred to the packs as a “world class resource” and one that’s not just for tourists, but Alaskans, too. He also cited past closures of the corridor, including a period from 2000-2010 when the ADF&G commissioner created a buffer, which was closed for the taking of wolves along the Stampede Corridor. The Board of Game removed this buffer in 2010 — but there were emergency closures of the area in both 2015 and 2018 due to concerns over concerns of the taking of wolves near bear baiting stations.

The issue has even made its way to the Capitol. In 2017, Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage, sponsored House Bill 105, which sought to reestablish the buffer zone. Last year, the bill passed the House, 22-18. While the bill is currently sitting with the Senate Resources Committee, its sponsor does not think HB 105 is likely to pass the Senate.

A question lingers, however, over whether the buffer zone is entirely necessary. In an email sent to the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, ADF&G Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang wrote that the BOG has delegated the authority to assess both petitions to him, due to it being outside of 30 days before the next board meeting. He said he has 30 days to make his assessment.

“While I am familiar with the issue I am not current on the data and assessments. I have requested a briefing from my wildlife staff,” he wrote. “We are carefully considering the request and petition and will make our finding within the allowed time.”

While Watkins’ anecdotal data on wolf sightings may be compelling, it isn’t rigorous enough to demonstrate significant threats to packs. Bridget Borg, a Denali National Park wildlife biologist, said that the survey isn’t comparable with the data that NPS staff collect on wolf populations. In order to make a proper assessment, she said, surveys would have to be conducted over the same area during the same period of time, over a number of years.

“Wolf viewing success has varied a lot over the years and I don’t know if this year is a historic low,” she said. “This year doesn’t, anecdotally, seem like it’s going to be super high. But in order to actually make a strong comparison from year to year I’d want to use to repeatable method.”

Borg said that, at a pack-level, park staff have seen fluctuations in the number of wolves, but these are largely due to changes in prey resources, which can be linked to annual variations in winter conditions. These fluctuations, she said, haven’t severely impacted the overall wolf population in the park, which in the spring stood at around 70 wolves (among 10 packs).

“In general, across the park, the wolf population has been lower than its peak in the mid-’90s,” she said, “but it’s been relatively stable for the past few years.”

Borg, however, did corroborate Steiner’s comment about how long people have been paying attention to wolf hunts in the Stampede Corridor.

“When the park was first created and the boundaries established, the idea was that it was a game preserve,” Borg explained. “Some of the early naturalists did propose that the boundary on the east side be further north.”

The reason this area has been long-debated, she said, is that its habitat tends to attract caribou, which, in turn, attract wolves. Borg said that this can make the wolves susceptible to meandering outside of the park boundary, leaving them vulnerable to hunters and trappers.

“The wolves are in these social groupings,” Borg said. “The loss of an individual from a pack can have an impact on that pack — or even remove the reproductive potential for the pack.”

Some wolves, like the matriarch, can be the “social glue that keeps the pack together,” Borg said. She mentioned that both the East Fork Pack and the Riley Creek Pack have decreased in size over the years and that significant wolves from both packs have been taken by trappers.

But Borg went on to note that a number of wolves from both packs survived and some of those joined with other packs. Original members of the East Fork Pack have formed another pack, which has propagated.

While NPS is not involved in the petition for an emergency closure, it has submitted its own proposal to the Board of Game, requesting that the area be closed to wolf hunting from Feb. 1-July 31 and to wolf trapping from Feb. 1-Oct. 31. The proposal will be considered by the board at its March meeting.

Borg explained that the reason they’re requesting the closure is that, between 2000 and 2010 when a state-mandated buffer zone was in place, an increase in wolf sightings was observed.

“What we found was, during the time that closure was in place, there were higher wolf sightings. The wolf population was higher during that time,” Borg said. “That’s a correlation between a closure and an increase in sightings.”

Correlation is not the same as causation and NPS is requesting the closure so it can conduct more surveys, in order to research what impact the inclusion of a buffer zone has, if any.

“Reinstating that closure would be a way for us to continue gathering data and understand more of that relationship,” Borg said. “From the park service perspective, we support anything that’s going to help protect wildlife viewing resources.”

Borg was quick to note that the NPS is not in favor of inhibiting hunting or trapping. In fact, NPS’s proposal for the board of game states the presence of the 2000-2010 buffer coincided with an increase in the number of wolves harvested in areas overlapping the Stampede corridor.

“Things like trapping rights — those are important to those communities,” she said.

Among those to whom Borg was referring is Rod Arno, executive director for the Alaska Outdoors Council. The council is a statewide conservation organization, which was formed prior to statehood. According to Arno, it regularly engages with state and federal land and resource managers with a focus on “the opportunity for the public to access public lands.”

“Shutting down the opportunity for those trappers who — some of them for decades — have lived and trapped in the Healy area and north of the park, that’s not in anyone’s best interest,” Arno said.

Arno cited stable wolf numbers across the entire park, which he puts down to good game management in accordance with the ecosystem’s carrying capacity. He said that he hopes visitors to the park continue to have the opportunity to view wolves and insists that naturalists and hunters/trappers can coexist.

Arno claimed that subsistence hunters/trappers make up a majority of the users who take wolves in the area. He noted that wolf hides were traditionally used to make parkas, and are still sought after today, due to the fact that moisture does not freeze on the fur.

“It’s a matter of sharing — and conservation first,” he said. “All Alaskans are supportive of folks in rural alaska and urban alaska to continue trapping. It’s increasing rare.”

Arno said that both the hunting and viewing of wolves is “an opportunity we want to keep alive.”

Advocates like Steiner, on the other hand, remain resolute. Steiner pointed out that when an emergency closure of the area occurred in 2015, a pregnant female from the East Fork Pack had already been taken by a hunter. According to Borg, that was the first time in 28 years that the pack hadn’t produced pups.

“In 2015 we did manage to have an emergency closure under the previous commissioner,” he said, “but that was only done after a significant breeding wolf was killed.”

“We were glad to have that, but it was too late to be effective,” he added.

Contact staff writer Alistair Gardiner at 459 7575. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMoutdoors