The Secret Reasons Wolves Are Dying in Denali National Park

Some say natural causes explain why the park’s wolf population has hit a 26-year low, but there’s more to the story than that.

Denali Wolf
(Photo: Andy Gehrig/Getty)
has an ASME Award, edits for Backpacker Magazine and writes for Outside, Skiing, and more.

Of the top reasons tourists travel thousands of miles for a 12-hour round-trip bus ride into Denali National Park, wolves rank right up there with grizzly bears and the sight of 20,320-foot Mount McKinley on a rare bluebird day.

To the few who know, members of Denali’s wolf population are also some of the longest, continuously studied animal groups in the world, besting even Jane Goodall’s chimps. But in recent years, wolf numbers in the 7,370-square-mile park have decreased even faster than the TV audience of Sarah Palin’s Alaska on TLC. In 2007, Denali Park biologists counted 147 wolves in nine groups that roamed the 93-year-old park. But in their most recent count, taken last autumn, numbers had declined to 54, the lowest since 1986.

Some, like the Alaska Board of Game, blame this die-off on natural causes—wolves killing wolves and low sheep populations. But others, including private citizens, park biologists, and members of the environmental advocacy group the Alaska Wildife Alliance (AWA), believe there are more sinister reasons. According to some AWA members, the recent, radical decline of the park’s most visible wolves—called the Grant Creek group—is the result of three main factors: the dissolution of Denali’s protective buffer zone, the Palin-appointed Alaska Board of Game, and the acute, ethically questionable actions of a small handful of local trappers, including a man named Coke Wallace.

We’ll start with the protective buffer zone. Between 1966 and 2009, celebrated wolf biologist Gorden Haber studied wolves, on the ground, in Denali, hundreds of hours each year. During his extensive observation, Haber witnessed wolves wandering just outside the park and trappers laying their snares along the park’s boundary to kill these wolves. Thanks to his studies, Haber was able, in 2000, to convince the then-Board of Game to establish a protective buffer along the outside edge of the park, within a finger of state land, where wolf trapping was otherwise legal. Tragically, Haber died in a plane crash while observing wolves in late 2009. And the following March, the Board of Game rescinded the protective area.

Trappers once again position their snares along the park boundary, killing not only adult wolves, but pups. And last May, in an act that infuriated both wolf advocates and the usually detached Denali Park Service, the local trapper, Coke Wallace, hitched a dead horse to his four-wheeler, dragged it to the park boundary, and used it to lure and snare the pregnant alpha female of the park’s wolf group, Grant Creek.

AWA member Marybeth Holleman studied these ongoing events as she wrote her forthcoming book, Among Wolves, a profile of the late biologist Gordon Haber. She says that Denali Park biologist Tom Meier (also recently deceased) reported that he and other park biologists believed declining wolf populations weren’t the result of declining prey. Nor did they blame habitat, which is abundant in the 6.3 million-acre park. That, Meier said, left two causes: trapping on park borders and the vigorous predator-control program against bears and wolves currently under way in areas adjacent to the park. “What Tom told me is that when game officials do intensive predator control, it creates a vacuum,” says Holleman. “He believed that Denali wolves may have expanded their territory to fill it.”

Holleman, along with several wolf advocacy groups, have petitioned the Board of Game to “reinstate the protective buffer.” But in about six attempts, between 2010 and present, the Board refused and created a potentially illegal eight-year “moratorium” on even discussing the buffer zone. At its January meeting, the Board also discussed the petition “behind closed doors,” possibly violating the Alaska Open Meetings Act. The AWA has filed a lawsuit contesting the Board’s conduct with that meeting, results withstanding.

Another petition to reinstate the buffer will be discussed at the next meeting of the Board of Game, this May. 

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