The Fate of the Famed Denali National Park Wolves May Depend on an Emergency Hunting Ban

Because of the deaths of the pack's two main breeding females, no offspring were produced this year.

The fate of the Denali National Park wolves hangs in the balance now that two breeding females are dead. (Photo: Eastcott Momatiuk/Getty Images)

The wolves of Denali National Park in Alaska rose to fame in 1939 when they became the subject of biologist Adolph Murie. It was the first time wolves were ever studied in their natural environment. Despite attempts to eradicate the species entirely in the United States, the Denali wolves have survived years of systematic hunting, and some believe that the animals who inhabit the park now possess genetic remnants of the pack Murie made famous. Year after year the wolves draw hundreds of tourists to the park, bolstering Alaska’s economy.

Sadly, the fate of these esteemed beasts hangs in a terrible, controversial balance now that two of the pack’s breeding females are dead. The pack produced no offspring this year, and with the two main breeding females gone, there is little hope for a new litter. One Denali pack female was found dead near the pack’s den and is thought to have died of natural causes. The other, however, was killed by a trapper just outside Denali National Park’s boundaries. The trapper used a dead horse carcass to lure wolves to his snare, killing a female wolf outfitted with a radio collar.

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The area where the female wolf was trapped is part of a “buffer” zone that has long been the subject of controversy between hunters and conservationists. Once the wolves depart from the Denali Park boundaries they are considered fair game for hunters. However, in 2002 conservationists convinced the Alaska Board of Game to outline a park buffer in which hunting was not allowed. In 2010 the National Park Service joined conservationists in an effort to extend and expand the buffer zone, citing the wolves’ dwindling numbers as need for further protection. Their effort was met by the Board of Game, which totally eliminated the safety zone, allowing hunters to kill animals right up to the Park’s borders. For animals—to whom human drawn boundaries mean nothing—the buffer zone afforded them additional protection.

In the wake of the female wolves’ deaths and the uncertain fate of a pack without pups, the Alaska Wildlife Alliance, the National Parks Conservation Association, and other groups have filed a petition with the Alaska Board of Game asking for an emergency ban on hunting and trapping in a reestablished buffer zone. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game rejected a conservation biologist Rick Steiner’s first emergency ban proposal, and the new direct appeal to the Board of Game may be the wolves’ only hope.

Joining the appeal is Valerie Connor of the Alaska Center for the Environment. “To me—and I know probably 400,000 other people who visit Denali—these wolves are way more valuable alive than dead,” Conner said, “I don’t know what they get for a wolf pelt, but it’s not much.” And whatever that pelt may earn is nothing compared to the pricelessness of the wolves themselves.

Make the case to Alaskan officials that Denali National Park's wolves need to be saved, that hunting them should be banned.

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