The Alaska Board of Game acted appropriately when it rejected the latest attempt to revive a no-wolf trapping buffer zone around the eastern end of Denali National Park and Preserve. The buffer was a poor policy when it was installed for a brief period years ago. It should remain history.
Proponents of the buffer zone cast the issue as matter to be resolved with a sort of cost-benefit analysis. Thousands of park visitors presumably would see the wolves spared from the traps, making those folks more satisfied with their experiences. That outweighs the benefits that wolves would provide to the mere handful of trappers in the area, buffer proponents said.
That formula is far too simplistic.
Researchers know that wolves most often die in fights with other wolves, often from rival packs. They also die from illness, parasites, injuries from moose, accidents, malnutrition and even starvation.
In a comprehensive 1998 study describing years of wolf research in Denali Park, internationally renowned wolf biologist David Mech and others found that human trapping and hunting around the park’s borders only killed about 1 percent of park wolves annually. Non-human-caused mortality is far greater.
The researchers found that Denali’s wolves are part of a constantly shuffled population extending across Interior Alaska. Wolves also have a high reproductive rate and populations quickly recover from losses.
Such evidence indicates that trapping a few wolves around the eastern side of the park is unlikely to be noticeable over time.
In addition, the fact that the most common cause of a wolf’s death is another wolf raises a curious question about the usefulness of a no-trapping buffer. If the odds of a wolf being killed by another wolf are far greater than being killed by a trapper, the wolves with territories primarily located in Denali might actually see a net statistical improvement in their survival odds because trapping around the borders could reduce conflicts and fatal fights with wolves from other packs.
Proponents of the buffer ban note that it didn’t work that way this past winter on the park’s eastern boundary. A trapper caught the only breeding female in the pack that traveled the eastern boundary area. So the pack produced no pups, and then it dispersed. Far fewer wolves were spotted by people visiting the park this year, according to park statistics cited by buffer proponents. Perhaps there is a correlation; perhaps other factors were also involved that caused the pack’s dispersal or prevented other wolves from moving into the gap.
However, the gap is not likely to last long, and blaming a few trappers isn’t fair. One could just as easily blame a moose for kicking a key breeding wolf in the head and killing it. That circumstance occurred a few years ago and led to the temporary dispersal of an earlier pack that lived in the park entrance area. Yet wolves were back the next year.
A park boundary represents a political decision, in this case a decision by Congress that ended a long and difficult process. Denali Park’s boundaries were set first in 1917 and then expanded in 1980 after a lengthy national debate about the future of Alaska’s lands.
The park reflects our society’s desire to create a relatively accessible place where humans don’t hunt and where little development is allowed. Such a place obviously has great value to many people who enjoy wildlife and wild places. However, trying to adapt that political boundary to reflect the ever-changing and ephemeral boundaries established by wolf packs not only violates the compromise reached decades ago but also appears to be task of dubious value.
— Fairbanks Daily News-Miner,