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The myth of the ancient Toklat wolf pack

The myth that Denali National Park’s Toklat Wolf Pack has a lineage going back to the wolf pack studied by Adolph Murie in 1939 persists. The notion of a wild “family” passing on its heritage for 60 years (or who knows, maybe 600?) is appealing. So appealing, in fact, that extremist critics of hunters and trappers love to perpetuate the myth of the ancient Toklat Pack and how its future is imperiled by hunting and trapping. The Toklat Pack is always good for a sensationalized headline or letter to the editor.

I have wondered how, if the myth were true, could that ancient Toklat line have survived all those early years? At various times since Murie’s day, there was widespread federal wolf control, trapping in the park by Park Service employees, a bounty system, poison baits and aerial shooting — right up to the border of that hallowed ground - and occasionally in it. There was no buffer zone where hunting and trapping wolves was illegal back then.

I turned to a reputable research report for information, “The Wolves of Denali” (1998), a book by Dave Mech and several other professional biologists. Here’s what they said about Murie’s East Fork (of the Toklat River) Pack, now called the Toklat Pack. “The claim has even been made that the East Fork Pack has maintained the same genetic lineage for 56 years (Haber, 1996). However, the claim was undocumented, and until the advent of molecular genetics techniques (Lehman, et.al., 1992) could not have been documented.” 

They continue: “Given the high rate of turnover and genetic interchange in the Denali wolf population (see chapter 4), it is highly unlikely that the wolves currently occupying the East Fork Pack territory are any closer related to the wolves Murie (1944) or even Haber (1977) studied than are any other Denali wolves.” 

They add “… and because wolves tend to avoid inbreeding, most wolves replacing old breeders are likely to be unrelated, contrary to Haber’s (1996) claim.” 

Further on, the authors document the high rate of exchange among wolves in various parts of Interior Alaska, including Denali National Park. In short, there is no “ancient Toklat Pack lineage.”

Mech and co-authors also noted that during the nine-year study period, wolves killed by humans accounted for about 1 percent of the Denali wolf population per year; and the greatest wolf mortality factor was other wolves.

No wonder, then, that when the proposed Denali Park buffer zone prohibiting the hunting or trapping of wolves was debated at the Alaska Board of Game several years ago, both National Park Service and state biologists said there was no need for it. But Gov. Tony Knowles threatened the board with no predator management elsewhere unless the buffer zone was implemented, so it was approved and justified as a compromise. Now, typically, critics of wolf hunting and trapping say it’s not big enough.

Between 1922 and 1938, a road was built through the park to access gold mines at Kantishna. No doubt park visitors saw wolves from the road then where the Toklat, or East Fork, pack roams today. But the 60-year “Toklat Pack lineage” is nothing more than an imaginative and appealing myth, invented and perpetuated to persuade the public that there¹s a crisis about to overtake wolves in that area. Neither history nor reputable wolf studies support the myth or the crisis theory.

A rebuttal of recent claims: The “wolf townships” were never considered for addition to Denali National Park in ANILCA. They had been previously selected by the state as part of its statehood land grant. Also, the state considered trading the wolf townships to Denali National Park, but as I recall, the deal failed at the last minute due to some arbitrary and unacceptable demands by the National Park Service.

Finally, if the Park Service and/or critics of state predator-prey management are telling the world that Denali Park visitors are entitled to see a wolf, they are just blowing smoke for political purposes. There is no such legal or ethical mandate. Wolf numbers in Denali Park are low because there’s not enough prey left for wolves to eat — not because 1 percent to 2 percent of the wolves are caught nearby. A major prey species, the unhunted Denali caribou herd, is almost gone.

Dick Bishop is a retired Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game biologist and longtime Interior resident.

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