Denali wolf

A wolf stands in the brush near Wonder Lake in Denali National Park and Preserve.  File photo courtesy of National Park Service 

Denali National Park wolf buffer bill goes to Alaska House floor

FAIRBANKS - State biologists issued an emergency order Friday closing the wolf hunting and trapping season on state land along the Stampede Trail, including land adjacent to the eastern boundary of Denali National Park and Preserve.

The area has been the site of a years-long political and public policy battle about the killing of wolves that roam on state and federal land.

"Preliminary data indicate up to eight wolves have been taken this year in the area near the Stampede Trail, though exact harvest locations are unknown," a news release from the Department of Fish and Game reads. "Over the last five years, the average area harvest has been about four wolves per year."

Hunting season for wolves had been scheduled to run through April 15, and trapping season was to end on April 30. The wolf season will remain open for hunters until 11:59 p.m. Monday and for an additional week for trappers, until 11:59 p.m. April 9.

The final number of wolves legally killed in the unit won't be known until trappers report their harvest. They have until 30 days after the season closes to file their report.

“Current levels of wolf harvest do not cause a biological or conservation problem for wolves in Unit 20C, which includes a large portion of Denali National Park and Preserve," Division of Wildlife Conservation Director Bruce Dale said in a news release. "However, there is the potential for more wolves to be harvested this season.”

The wolf population around Denali National Park has been a highly controversial subject for decades. Opponents of wolf hunting and trapping the area say the number of wolves being killed is having a detrimental affect on the overall wolf population in the region, especially in Denali National Park, where reported wolf sightings by visitors have declined in recent years.

"This high level of take has impacted several wolf family groups, ecological dynamics, and the prospects for wolf viewing for hundreds of thousands of visitors to the park — our top value tourism destination in Alaska," said Rick Steiner, a years-long vocal advocate for a no hunting or trapping buffer zone on state land along the Denali National Park boundary.

Steiner praised Gov. Bill Walker and Cotten for the decision, though he said the closure affects an area smaller than what he and others sought on March 24 in a letter to Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotten.

"It is a recognition of the exceptional value of Denali wildlife to the state’s tourism industry," he said in an emailed response to the emergency closure. "The fact is that this area should never have been open to wolf hunting/trapping in the first place."

"The area we proposed to be closed is much larger than what the state has closed here, but at least it is something," he said.

A bill to create a buffer zone in the area passed the Alaska House in May 2017 but was not taken up in the Senate until last week, where it was heard in the Senate Resources Committee and held. 

House Bill 105 passed 22-18, with all of the votes in favor coming from the Democrat-led majority coalition. The bill is not expected to pass the Republican-controlled Senate.

This story will be updated.

Contact News-Miner Editor Rod Boyce at 459-7585. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMeditor.