FAIRBANKS—Fewer visitors are seeing wolves in Denali National Park and Preserve, and the National Park Service is looking for the reason.

Researchers for the National Park Service estimate that only about 8,000 — or 4 percent — of the approximately 200,000 visitors who traveled the park road in shuttle buses this past summer saw wolves. That compares to viewing percentages of 12 percent in 2012, 21 percent in 2011 and 44 percent in 2010.

There is only one road — the 92-mile Denali Park Road — that leads into the 6-million acre park, and tourists must ride buses to get beyond mile 15. It's after this marker where most wolf sightings occur.

The decline in wolf viewing opportunities coincides with a decline in the park's overall wolf population. The 2013 spring count of 55 wolves is the second-lowest documented since counts began in 1986, according to researchers. The only lower count was 53 wolves in the spring of 1987, park biologist Steve Arthur said. The 2012 spring count was 66 wolves.

Biologists don't know why the park's overall wolf population has declined in recent years but said a decline in viewing opportunities is more tied to the fact that no wolf packs denned near Denali Park Road the road the past two years than the decline in the overall population.

"This summer we didn't have any packs that denned close to the road, so there wasn't a lot of wolf activity near the road until the end of August and early September when one of the packs brought their pups down close to the road," Arthur said. "Typically when a pack dens close tot he road we have a lot more sightings."

A study is under way to look at the factors that influence wolf viewing opportunities along the park road, he said.

"Wolf abundance is one of those and probably a fairly important one, but there are other factors, such as where are the wolves in proximity to the road," Arthur said.

Biologists gather data on wolf packs in the park by radio tracking and have documented a decrease in the number of wolves that den and roam in close proximity to Denali Park Road in the eastern half of the park where tour buses travel, as well as a decline in the overall number of wolves in the park, according to a Park Service news release.

While the park's wolf population fluctuates from year to year and remains viable, the Park Service is concerned with the decline in wolf viewing opportunities in the park "because wolf viewing is a very popular activity in the park," Arthur said.

"We're certainly concerned in the reduction of viewing opportunities and would like to understand more about what factors influence that activity," he said.

Researchers conducted a random sample of 80 bus trips into the park over the summer and found that wolves were only seen on three of those trips, according to the Park Service.

Permanent buffer zone

News of the decline in wolf viewing opportunities in Denali prompted quick action from wolf advocates who for years have been petitioning unsuccessfully for a protective, no-kill buffer zone around the northeast corner of the park to prevent the trapping and hunting of wolves that stray outside park boundaries.

A group of a dozen individuals representing various organizations and interests wrote a letter to Gov. Sean Parnell and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell asking that the state and federal governments negotiate an easement exchange or purchase "to secure a permanent wildlife conservation buffer" to protect wolves that venture outside park boundaries along the Stampede Trail near Healy. Until that happens, the group requested the state to "demonstrate good faith" and issue a temporary emergency closure.

"The only way to really restore and sustain wolf viewing opportunities in the park is to have this buffer," said Rick Steiner, who authored the letter to Parnell and Jewell. "Without the buffer east of the park, I think it's very unlikely the wolf populations in the park and viewing opportunities would recover significantly enough to be able to market wolf tourism in the park."

The idea of an easement or a land exchange is a new tack taken by wolf advocates in what has been a decades-long battle over the protection of wolves that live in the park but sometimes wander outside park boundaries onto state land and are killed by a handful of trappers and hunters in the community of Healy, which sits on the northeast boundary of the park. The wolves that roam that area of the park are the ones most often seen by park tourists on buses.

Wolf advocates in 2000 successfully petitioned the Alaska Board of Game to establish an approximately 120 square-mile buffer zone that prohibited trapping or hunting wolves along the Stampede Trail that runs east of Healy. The buffer zone remained in place for 10 years until the game board reversed its decision in 2010 and legalized trapping and hunting on state lands adjacent to the park, despite proposals from the public and National Park Service to expand it.

Ever since, wolf advocates have been petitioning the state, unsuccessfully, to close that area to wolf trapping and hunting. In fact, the state game board in 2010 went so far as to issue a six-year moratorium on any proposals dealing with a Denali buffer zone. Repeated requests by wolf advocates to Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell to issue an emergency hunting and trapping closure were also rebuked.

"What we need is a permanent buffer solution there, and the best way to do it we can see is do an easement exchange," said Steiner, a retired marine biologist from Anchorage who adopted the Denali Park wolf cause after friend Gordon Haber, who spent 40 years studying wolves in the park and fighting for their protection, was killed in a plane crash in 2009.

The reason no pack denned near the road the past two summers is because the last breeding female in the Grant Creek Pack, which had been denning close to the road in previous years, was trapped and killed in what was the former buffer zone in the spring of 2012, causing the 15-member pack to fracture and abandon its traditional den site, said Steiner. As a result, wolf viewing opportunities dropped by 50 percent that year, he said, citing Park Service statistics.

"It's indisputable that trapping along the northeast boundary is contributing to a decline in wolf-viewing opportunities," Steiner said.

What happens to a wolf pack when certain wolves are removed from the pack is one of the things the Park Service is studying, Arthur said.

"It's possible when particular individuals are removed, such as the alpha male or female, that can cause disruption in the pack and influence movements," he said, before adding "It's basically a theory at this point."

Novel proposal

In his letter, Steiner proposed that the state transfer a "wildlife conservation easement" to the federal government in exchange for an equal-valued easement on federal land.

One possibility would be for the federal government to convey an easement on the portion of the Tokositna River that runs on the south side of the park along the boundary of Denali State Park. That could open up recreational opportunities to Alaskans and tourists, especially if the state develops an entrance to the park south of the Alaska Range. Steiner also mentioned lands owned by the Bureau of Land Management and Department of Defense as possibilities.

"The novel part of our proposal is we're asking the feds to give equal value in exchange," Steiner said.

He cited the Falls Creek Land Exchange in Glacier Bay National Park in 2006 in which the park transferred lands to the state for a hydroelectric project near Gustavus in exchange for state lands along the Chilkoot Trail to the Park Service.

"There is precedent for this," Steiner said.

Another option is for the state to purchase an easement from the federal government, as was done following the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.

"Hundreds of thousands of acres of coastline were protected that way using Exxon restoration funds," Steiner said.

Steiner said he has been "quietly seeding the idea" in meetings with state and federal officials and that here is interest.

A spokesperson for Parnell said the governor had yet to see the letter.

"We need time to review the proposal before commenting on specifics," said Sharon Leighow, Parnell's spokeswoman.

A message left by the News-Miner for Pat Pourchot, head of the Department of Interior in Alaska, regarding the possibility of a land easement exchange or straight-up purchase, was not returned.

Longtime Healy resident and Denali Park wolf advocate Barbara Brease was one of the dozen people who signed the letter sent to Parnell and Jewell.

"The economics of this whole thing are so perfectly clear," said Brease, who in the past has submitted proposals to the Board of Game to establish a buffer zone. "Denali Park wolves are worth far more alive than dead. In the end it would be far more lucrative for the state to protect the resource than to give it away to one or two trappers."

Brease works in the visitor center at the park during the summer and says tourists are disappointed when they find out their chance of seeing a wolf are not good.

"Every day people come in and they want to see wolves," she said. "When they hear about the decline in viewing opportunities and why it happened, it's a huge disappointment."

Contact staff writer Tim Mowry at 459-7587. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMoutdoors.