Alaska Game Board defers action on Denali Park wolf buffer

Posted: Monday, March 13, 2000

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- The Alaska Board of Game has deferred action on creating a no-hunting and no-trapping buffer to protect wolf packs in Denali National Park and Preserve. The panel says it will set up a committee to look at statewide game management instead.

The committee first will be asked to look at the Denali buffer zone and wolf control around McGrath and it will try to determine areas where wolf control would be allowed and areas where wolves would be protected.

The Game Board said Sunday at its spring meeting in Fairbanks that it would not be playing politics with Gov. Tony Knowles.

The governor told the panel last month that he would not approve the state wolf control programs under consideration for the McGrath and Nelchina areas until the board sets aside areas that protect bears and wolves for watching.

He asked the board to approve the Denali buffer to protect the Toklat wolf pack, which ranges in and out of the park.

No one seemed happy with the deferred action -- hunters, wildlife viewing advocates and Game Board members. But board members said they don't know what else they can do to break the deadlock over wolf management.

Further complicating the debate, some legislators are demanding wolf control, as are many hunters and rural residents, while animal welfare groups and wildlife-viewing interests object.

''We were caught in a Catch-22,'' said board member Greg Streveler of Gustavus. ''I think the governor is going to be very mad. Hopefully partly at himself for putting this on us.''

Knowles spokesman Bob King said the governor would be disappointed but would want to hear the board's reasoning.

Streveler said he fears Knowles will retaliate by not reappointing board chairwoman Lori Quakenbush, whose term has expired.

Past efforts to find common ground on wolf management failed, said Fairbanks hunter and former Alaska Outdoor Council president Bud Burris, and he held out little hope for this one.

Dorothy Keeler, one of the authors of the buffer proposal, said she also put little stock in the committee approach. ''You might as well say fly a spaceship to Mars tomorrow,'' Keeler said.

But board members said they had little choice. Approving the buffer would have angered hunting groups and Fish and Game advisory committees. They also said they felt compelled to vote against it because Knowles had made it a wolf-management litmus test; following the governor would mean abandoning their independent role.

Buffers and wolf control are separate issues, board member Mike Fleagle said.

''There is no relationship between watching a wolf walk down the road in Denali Park to the shortage of moose elsewhere in the state,'' he said.

Fleagle called the governor's position a political game and appealed to the board not to play.

The argument seemed to hit home. Board members at first seemed poised to approve a small, temporary buffer but shifted.

That angered the Alaska Wildlife Alliance and Leo and Dorothy Keeler. Knowles appointed Leo Keeler to the board in February. He got partway through the board's 10-day Fairbanks meeting before the Legislature voted not to confirm him. So he moved to a chair in the audience.

''What else can we expect from a group of hunters and trappers to which the state Legislature has vested with the power to make wildlife policy decisions for all Alaskans?'' Wildlife Alliance director Paul Joslin asked.

Joslin said he was appalled that the board would not protect two of Alaska's estimated 1,500 wolf packs.

The board also appeared swayed by information that the proposed buffer wouldn't do much to protect overall wolf populations within the park: Trapping kills only about 3 percent of the park's wolves annually.

Wayne Regelin, director of the Division of Wildlife Conservation, said this is the most polarized he's ever seen wolf management in Alaska. At the start of the four-hour discussion, he urged the board to protect the Toklats. At the end, he said he was disappointed.

''These wolves are watched very closely, and anytime one dies, trappers are going to be blamed for it, and each one of those times will become a national news event. You can vote no and we will win a small battle, but we might lose the bigger war of the anti-trapping movement,'' Regelin said.

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