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Wolf Kill Stirs Old Debate

Denali: Buffer zones should be increased
around protected areas, some say

Doug O'Hara / Anchorage  Daily News /  March 4, 2005

A female wolf was legally trapped and then killed with a pistol shot to the head a few weeks ago just outside a protected zone on the northeast border of Denali National Park.

Another female wolf from the same well-known pack was reported to have been killed this week, a park biologist said Wednesday. A third may have been injured.

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On the eve of the Alaska Board of Game meeting -- with a slate of proposals that would expand wolf control around the state -- these new reports of wolf harvest near Denali have reignited one of Alaska's most intense wildlife controversies.

How much protection should the park's most visible wolves get when they stray onto state land near the road system?

His answer is zero, says Healy resident Coke Wallace, the recreational trapper and professional guide who took the first adult female on Feb. 11.

Since many thousands of wolves live across Interior Alaska, including about 75 animals among 15 packs based in the park, the killing of a single wolf causes no biological problems and raises no important conservation issues, Wallace said.

"I haven't done anything wrong," he said this week, in a telephone interview. "My impact out here is inconsequential."

"Wolves kill way more wolves than people do," he added.

But to thousands of wildlife enthusiasts, including a biologist who has studied Denali's wolves for 40 years, that harvest was no anonymous mortality.

That wolf was the current breeding "alpha" female of the Toklat or East Fork pack, a group of animals glimpsed each summer by thousands of park visitors. Her ancestry, birth, youth, courtship, habits, photographs, mating and offspring can be discussed in detail by people who keep track of Denali's packs.

"This is the most viewed, most photographed and most scientifically studied wolf pack in all of history," said John Toppenberg, executive director of the Alaska Wildlife Alliance.

"Park visitors for years have been thrilled by watching her, her parents and generations before them, play, sleep, hunt, trot, touch noses together," added Denali area resident Barbara Brease, a member of a local advisory committee to the Board of Game, in an e-mail message. "Now that she is gone, it is an unknown if the group will stay intact, or even in the area."

The animal also represents the last adult descendent of a pack that has persisted for decades with its own den sites and habits, according to wolf biologist Gordon Haber, who has studied that pack and other Denali Park wolves since the 1960s.

"It's a very old family lineage, which is what gives it its greatest value from a scientific standpoint," he said. "It's just a gold mine of an opportunity to learn about how successful vertebrate social systems function, and not just canine or wolf societies."

Haber, a researcher funded partly by the group Friends of Animals, has long argued that the Toklat group should be considered a family unit that passes knowledge about hunting and the territory down generation to generation.

Other biologists have disagreed with Haber about that. "The notion that there's this one little wolf family that has maintained its identity ever since the days of Adolph Murie, well that's not a perspective that we would take," said Matt Robus, director of the state Division of Wildlife.

Murie was a pioneering Denali wolf researcher who began studying the Toklat wolves in 1939.

Tom Meier, Denali National Park wildlife biologist, said, "What we found in our research here is that these wolves are not genetically isolated, wolves come and go, packs come and go, and they actually take in strangers from outside."

After the first female was killed, Haber called on the state to close trapping in that area to protect the remaining pack in case it returned.

"Anything could happen, including the breakup of that group," Haber said.

Meier said he agreed that the Toklat pack could now be disrupted.

"We've had a couple of packs split in half when the female was lost, and we had one pack disintegrate when the alpha pair was killed," Meier said.

"In the long run, there will be wolves in the park. ... But it will change the dynamics and its value for research, and it will change the number of wolves that will be seen by the public."

Meanwhile, news of the wolf's death triggered an e-mail-driven uproar across the country.

Thousands of messages urging people to support Haber's trapping-closure request were sent out over the weekend by the wildlife alliance, Toppenberg said. Another 100,000 messages requesting help went out Monday by Defenders of Wildlife, said local representative Karen Deatherage.

"We're trying to keep these viewable wolf packs intact, and it's really getting out of hand," she said.

Wallace called the existence of wolf buffer zones around the park "nonsensical." After a wire service story named him, Wallace said he and his family began receiving "hate e-mail" and angry phone calls -- all over something he said has no bearing on healthy wolf populations.

"I would like the buffer zone to go away, because it's unnecessary," he said. "All I've done is diversify the gene pool. I haven't done anything wrong, and I really dislike the fact that these organizations put out the word to harass me."

The issue over wolf protection on state land near the northeast and eastern boundaries of Denali National Park stretches back decades, much of it centered on a rectangular extension of state land nicknamed the "wolf townships" for its use by the animals in winter.

On Feb. 11, Haber and a pilot were on a routine flight tracking the signal from the Toklat female's radio collar. A few hundred feet from the park boundary on the east side of the Savage River, Haber said he saw Wallace and partner loading the wolf's carcass on a snow machine.

Haber sent a letter on Feb. 17 asking Wayne Regelin, acting commissioner of Fish and Game, and Mike Fleagle, chairman of the Board of Game, to institute an emergency hunting and trapping closure to protect the rest of the Toklat wolf group.

The park would support such a closure because it would help protect the park's most visible wolves, but will not actively pursue it before the board, said spokeswoman Kris Fister.

Regelin denied Haber's request in a letter Feb. 22, saying that the Board of Game created the buffer west of the Savage River to protect the pack, but chose specifically not to extend that protection east of the river to the Parks Highway.

"We manage for sustained yield and healthy populations, rather than for the protection of individual animals," Regelin wrote Haber. "The existing wolf trapping closure west of the Savage River is an exception to that rule, and the (Board of Game) carefully tailored the size of that buffer over the course of several board cycles."

The loss of that single wolf, while upsetting to some people, doesn't amount to a "wildlife emergency" that would warrant a closure during the season, Robus said.

After the kill, Haber said the remaining wolves went 13 miles to the pair's den and dug it out. Then the pack returned to a ridge over the kill site, where the male appeared to be howling when Haber observed him from an airplane. He worried that the animals would return and be trapped too.

Since that time, Meier said he's received a report that another black female from the pack was trapped and killed, and that a pup was seen running with a trap on its foot near Sable Pass.

Wallace was at his hunting camp Wednesday and Thursday, and could not be reached for a comment, said his wife, Joanne Wallace.

Daily News reporter Doug O'Harra can be reached at do'harra@adn.com.


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