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Top Female of Denali National Park's Famed Toklat/East Fork
Family (1) Group of Wolves Is Trapped

Gordon Haber / February 18, 2005

The breeding ("alpha") female of the well-known "Toklat" family group of wolves in Denali National Park was caught and killed by a local trapper late last week. Toklat, also known as "East Fork," is the oldest-known, longest-studied,  most viewed group of wolves in the world.

2005 is the 40th year I have studied successive enerations of this group, along with other groups of wolves in Denali and elsewhere. On Friday, February 11, my pilot and I circled in a small airplane watching Healy trapper Coke Wallace and his partner remove the dead Toklat female from a trapping site and load her onto a snow machine sled for transport to Wallace's home on the Stampede Road, some 12 miles away. Wallace owns Denali Saddle Safaris, a local trail-riding tourist business (683-1200). My pilot and I were on a routine wolf radio-tracking flight in Denali when we heard the Toklat female's radio collar signal and followed it to the trapping site on Savage River within a few hundred feet of the northeast park boundary, on the outside (eastern) edge of the protective wolf buffer zone established in that area in 2001.

I spoke with Wallace by phone twice afterward. He told me the wolf was still alive when he arrived, "double-caught" in both a trap and a snare, and that I arrived overhead just after he dispatched her.

He said she had not yet been caught when he last checked the site "a few days earlier." He said the rest of the group was "howling nearby" earlier in the day - that they had likely fled in response to his arrival.

I reported details to the National Park Service on Monday morning, February 14.  An Alaska State Trooper and I determined in a later conversation that the trapping site was legal, albeit just outside the park and buffer zone boundaries.

Later on Friday February 11, the 10 remaining Toklat wolves - the dead female's mate (the "alpha" male), the eight surviving young he and she produced in 2003 and 2004, and an unrelated young female who joined the group last summer - went almost straight to the group's established natal den 13 miles away. There they dug through 2-3 feet of snow to clean out the main burrow complex, something that they often do during the annual courtship and mating activities in March but not this early.

Their behavior seemed more indicative of a displacement activity related to confusion and distress from having just lost a mate and mother in a traumatic way. Although wolves do not use dens at this time of the year, the Toklat wolves may have associated this established natal den with the female's loss, given that she and the alpha male produced all but one of the others there in 2003 and
2004 and even mated within a couple hundred yards of the site in March 2002.

In late February 2004, my pilot and I observed similar behavior by the neighboring Margaret female and young. In that case they headed 10 miles back to their established natal den after her mate, the alpha male, was snared just outside the north park boundary.

The next day, Saturday February 12, we returned to find the Toklat male heading almost directly back to the trapping area, obviously focused on getting there in a hurry; the others were having a difficult time keeping up with his rapid pace. Once in the area he ascended a high ridge from which he call-howled repeatedly while intently watching the trapping area 3-4 miles below.

The recent Toklat, Margaret, and other continuing trapping and hunting losses of park wolves between Savage River and the Parks Highway were/are predictable. This unprotected eastern area includes major portions of the park ecosystem's most important ungulate wintering area, where wolf groups from both near and distant areas of the park sporadically come to hunt. The entire area is easily accessible by roads, trails, and snow machine/ATV travel across open terrain. The present buffer zone boundary at Savage River amounts to an arbitrary line across the middle of this wintering area. Trappers are taking advantage of an obvious opportunity to wait for park wolves along the unprotected side of the line.

It is likely that the Toklat survivors will return more than once to this area, between now and the end of the current trapping season on April 30. The Margaret family group, which has not yet recovered from the snaring loss of its alpha male along the northeast park boundary last year (and some likely repercussions), has already returned at least three times this winter.

In a February 17 letter, I asked the Acting Commissioner of ADF&G and Chairman of the Board of Game to designate an immediate wolf hunting-trapping closure for this area and ultimately add it to the existing buffer zone.

Buffer opponents argue that trapping-related losses of Denali wolves are minor and merely substitute for natural losses. Not so. Consider some of Toklat's recent human-caused losses: In 1992, the alpha male in his prime and at least three other Toklat wolves were snared just outside the northeast park boundary. In 1997, the beta male was snared in this area while in his prime, just after he bonded with the beta female in her prime. Almost certainly they would have produced a litter in 1997 but did not because of his death just before the mating period, following which she left the group. The established alpha female failed to reproduce for an unknown reason, thus Toklat's first known reproductive failure, in 1997. This and related events contributed heavily to a major decline over the next 12 months.

In 2001, the next alpha male died during radio-collaring while in his prime. His closely bonded mate starved to death in her prime 16 months later,after largely disassociating from the group (but remaining within the established territory) and failing to bond with at least one other available adult male.

Her daughter of 1998 or 1999 bonded with a newcomer male in 2001 and 2002. But only in 2003 and 2004 did they begin reproducing successfully as the next nucleus of the Toklat family. Now she has been trapped, in her prime. Another pair bond has been wiped out. In her case, she was also the last direct descendant of the earlier generation of Toklat wolves, which implies a possibility if not likelihood of important cultural (related to learned traditions) and genetic losses.

There is no way to know what will happen next, including whether this famous, 40+ year-old group will even remain intact. But it can be concluded that the loss of so many key, high-ranking individuals and pair bonds in their prime over such a short interval of time is completely unnatural, especially for such a well-established core family lineage as Toklat/East Fork. Nothing about these human-caused losses "substitutes for" any reasonable scenario of natural losses.

The new uncertainties by themselves are enough to do serious damage to Toklat's high scientific values, which center on opportunities to discover what makes a successful vertebrate society tick. Substantial biological impacts are to be expected as well, at several scales. Any resulting changes in movements and distribution could diminish viewing opportunities for park visitors.

And no good scientist or other thinking, feeling person will ignore the sorry ethics of continuing to allow such wonderfully intelligent, expressive,emotional, interesting creatures to be picked off one by one so senselessly and selfishly.

1 "Family," not "pack," is the proper and most accurate scientific term for describing wolf social organization. Family and related terms(e.g., "mother," "father," "son," "daughter") are not used only for people. They are used routinely in the world's leading peer-reviewed scientific journals (e.g., Science, Nature, Conservation Biology) in papers about non-human vertebrate social systems. A recent example appears in the January 21, 2005 issue of the journal Science, in a paper and related commentary about lion social organization.

Contributed by Mandy Morell  / Alaska Wildlife Alliance


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