Anchorage -- The alpha female in the Toklat wolf pack, which has delighted visitors to Denali National Park and Preserve for years, was killed by a trapper outside park boundaries.
Gordon Haber, an independent wildlife scientist who has studied the pack for 40 years, said the radio-collared wolf was killed February 11 by a trapper on state land on the Savage River within a few hundred feet of the park's northeast boundary and on the outside edge of a wolf buffer zone created in 2001.
"This is a very serious loss," Haber said Friday. "A loss from a scientific standpoint and also from the standpoint of the many of thousands of people that come to Denali every year and look forward to seeing these wolves."
Haber, whose work is funded by Connecticut-based Friends of Animals, said he and a pilot were on a routine tracking flight in the park when they heard the Toklat female's radio collar signal and followed it. They watched as the trapper, who he identified as Coke Wallace, and his partner removed the wolf and loaded her onto a snow machine sled to be taken to Wallace's home about 12 miles away.
Wallace did not immediately return a call for comment.
Haber reported the wolf kill to the National Park Service. An Alaska State Trooper later determined that the trapping site was legal and just outside the wolf buffer zone.
Haber said the 10 remaining wolves in the Toklat wolf pack, including the dead wolf's mate and eight young produced in 2003 and 2004, went almost straightaway to the group's den 13 miles away. The pack also includes an unrelated female that joined up last summer.
Denning this time of year is unusual, Haber said, and was likely an indication of confusion and stress within the pack.
Haber returned to the area the next day and saw the pack headed to the trapping area again. Once there, the alpha male headed to a ridge and howled repeatedly.
Haber said he tried to convince Wallace to remove his traps but was not successful.
"They want to keep coming back," Haber said. "Obviously, the male is still looking for his mate."
Haber sent a letter February 17 to Wayne Regelin, the acting commissioner of the Department of Fish and Game, and Mike Fleagle, chairman of the Board of Game, asking for an emergency closure of hunting and trapping in the area until the end of trapping season.
Haber said he has not yet received a response.
While the federal park won't call for the closure itself, it would support such a measure, said Philip Hooge, the park's assistant superintendent for resources. The pack not only is important to park visitors but has been the focus of lengthy research, Hooge said.
Last summer, dozens of people received a special thrill as they saw the pack kill a caribou, he said. "The park would be supportive of a closure in that area," Hooge said.
Haber and wildlife biologist Vic Van Ballenberghe, a former game board member, said the wolves need expanded buffer zones around the park. There are about 75 wolves in the park. The Toklat pack could go back as far as the late 1930s, Haber said.
Haber recommended establishing a 600-square-mile buffer zone that would wrap around the north and northeast corners of the park and extend down the side. He said the buffer zone is needed because the area, which is rich in moose and caribou, attracts hungry wolf packs from 70 to 80 miles away.
Van Ballenberghe said the death of the alpha female, who was probably 6 or 7 years old, means that the pack may not produce pups this year. If they don't produce young, they won't use their dens near the park road and probably won't be seen as much by park visitors.
"These wolves are valuable assets to the park," Van Ballenberghe said. "It is one of the few places in the world where you can actually stand a good chance of seeing a wild wolf."