Faced with the worrying economic decline of Alaska’s most valuable tourism destination, Denali National Park and Preserve, you’d think state government would want to do everything possible to turn this decline around, particularly with our struggling economy. Not so with the Dunleavy administration.
The National Park Service reports that the number of visitors to Denali fell from approximately 643,000 in 2017 to 595,000 in 2018, while visitor spending at Denali declined from $632 million to $602 million. That’s 48,000 fewer visitors and $30 million less spending in just one year.
One of the main reasons visitors come to Denali from around the world is to see Alaska wildlife, including wolves.
But due to the state’s irrational resistance to protecting wildlife along the northeast boundary of the park, wolf viewing this year dropped to its lowest level on record — just 1%. In 2010, just before the state removed the small protective buffer on state lands, visitor viewing success for wolves in the park was 45%. With 595,000 visitors, that would equate to over 265,000 visitors having the opportunity to view wolves in the wild at Denali. But this year, only about 6,000 people would have had the same opportunity.
So this year alone, the experience for more than a quarter-million paying visitors to Denali, among them thousands of Alaskans, was diminished. This is due mostly to the same irrational hatred of wolves that almost eliminated them from the continental U.S. last century.
In contrast with Denali, after the 1995 reintroduction of wolves at Yellowstone National Park, wolf viewing success there averages 70% and contributes over $35 million annually to the states of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. Again, that’s a 70% chance of seeing wolves at Yellowstone, 1% at Denali. Considerable economic potential exists at Denali if wolf-viewing success can be restored.
In an effort to do just that, Alaska residents filed two emergency petitions this year with the Alaska Board of Game and Department of Fish and Game, asking the state to close wolf hunting and trapping along the northeast park boundary. The commissioner denied both petitions, and the Board of Game has, so far, ignored the petitions.
The commissioner has directed public concerns on the issue to the Board of Game, which will consider a limited, inadequate Denali buffer proposal at its meeting in March. But as the game board, composed exclusively of hunters and trappers, has declined every Denali buffer petition presented to it for over a decade, and even imposed a legally indefensible moratorium on considering any Denali buffer proposal for many years, citizens are not optimistic.
Park research has shown that the loss of even one significant breeding wolf can cause the disintegration of entire family groups, leading to a dramatic decline in visitor viewing. Denali cannot afford to lose any more wolves to the few hunters and trappers along the northeast boundary.
Opponents of a Denali buffer argue that the park’s 6 million acres should be enough for wildlife, ignoring the fact that wildlife are fully protected only within the 2 million acre wilderness core of the park. Further, the Department of Fish and Game concedes that 97.6% of all land in Alaska is open to wolf hunting, with only 2.4% closed (the core of the original parks at Denali, Katmai, and Glacier Bay). So approximately 350 million acres is open to killing wolves, and 10 million acres is closed. And while there are indeed multiple sources of mortality for Denali wolves, the only one we can control is hunting and trapping.
Even more troubling is that Alaska’s multibillion-dollar tourism industry remains silent on this issue. In 2016, Alaskans pleaded with the Alaska Travel Industry Association for its help advocating a Denali wildlife buffer on state lands, but the association declined due to fear of political retaliation by the state.
An opinion poll of Alaskans last year showed overwhelming support for a no-kill buffer to protect wolves, bears, lynx and wolverines along the boundary of Denali — 54% in favor, 37% opposed, 9% undecided.
If Alaskans are concerned and want to weigh in on this, now is the time. People should email the Board of Game, in care of Executive Director Kristy Tibbles (email@example.com) and request that the board hold an emergency meeting soon to consider the Denali emergency buffer petitions before the next scheduled season opening Nov. 1.
Rick Steiner is a biologist living in Anchorage and was a professor with the University of Alaska for 30 years.