A famous black male wolf from Denali National Park and Preserve's most viewed pack was legally killed by a Pennsylvania hunter this weekend outside park boundaries near Cantwell
A famous black male wolf from Denali National Park and Preserve's most viewed pack was legally killed by a Pennsylvania hunter this weekend outside park boundaries near Cantwell.
The kill added emotional fuel to one of the state's most fiery and long-running wildlife controversies.
The alpha from the Toklat or East Fork pack had been behaving erratically and wandering mostly alone ever since his mate, the pack's breeding alpha female, was killed in February by a trapper just outside park boundaries, according to longtime wolf biologist Gordon Haber.
The 7-year-old male, recognized by thousands of park visitors, was known for his epic travels across northern Alaska, often triggered by human interference.
In 2001, state biologists transplanted the wolf from the Chena region to the Melozitna River valley north of the Yukon as part of a plan to reduce predation on Fortymile caribou. Accompanied by a black sibling, the wolf then traveled on his own 200 miles south to become the Toklat's breeding male later that spring.
Depending on whom you ask, the death of this individual animal Sunday represents a tragic loss, a legal harvest that raises no biological issues, or just a nice pelt for a guy on a guided bear hunt.
"It's wildlife, it's fair game and it's conservation," said Ray Atkins, a longtime master guide from Cantwell who escorted the hunter. "A mama wolf can produce a dozen wolves in six weeks, and in six months she can have them hunting. In the whole scheme of things, this is about as significant as one grain of sand in the Pacific Ocean."
Atkins would not identify the hunter.
Taking an opposite view was Karen Deatherage, Alaska representative for Defenders of Wildlife.
"That one person can truly destroy one animal that means so much to thousands of others is wrong -- it certainly has devastated me," she said Tuesday. "He just was a pretty incredible animal that led a very challenging life, and it's just very sad that it had to end this way, particularly when there was just 13 days left in the hunting season."
At least 70 wolves roam Denali park in 15 packs, a population considered slightly low but within normal ranges, said park spokeswoman Kris Fister. The loss of the single wolf "is not a biological problem," said Cathie Harms, spokeswoman for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
How much protection should be given to the packs that stray outside park boundaries near the Parks Highway has been argued at the Alaska Board of Game for decades. Much of the issue focuses on a rectangular extension of state land nicknamed the "wolf townships" for its use by the animals in winter.
After the male wolf immigrated into Denali and bonded with a female Toklat wolf, he basically took over the group. Over the next three seasons, the pair produced two litters and became one of the most visible wolf families in history, seen by thousands along the park road during summer, according to wolf advocates and biologists.
Then, on Feb. 11, a Denali-area trapper killed the Toklat alpha female just across park boundaries in the wolf townships. Another adult female from the group was also trapped, and then a young wolf was seen dragging a trap on its foot inside the park.
Through March, the male kept returning to the trapping area, then began wandering to the southeast, first one way and then another. He mated with a so-far-unidentified female, but then they separated too.
Last week, the animal veered into the park, Haber said. Last weekend, he moved south toward Cantwell, where he was killed.
"Everything about his behavior just went wacko," Haber said Tuesday. "I've never quite seen anything so erratic in my 40 years of studying wolves.
"They form extremely close bonds, certainly comparable to human bonds, maybe even more so. It's not all too difficult to imagine a mate getting his head pretty messed up after losing a companion," said Haber, whose work is funded by the animal rights group Friends of Animals.
The alpha male's death now leaves six animals born in 2003 and 2004 still wandering in the pack's territory within the park. It's unclear how much they know of the group's learned traditions, or whether they will even stay together, Haber said.
"There never has been any question that wolves will be present" in the Toklat area, Haber wrote in a report about the alpha male's death. "But Toklat's world-class scientific value as a source of information about the characteristics of a successful vertebrate society ... has been destroyed."
Several biologists said they disagreed with Haber about the importance of that pack as a unit, and questioned whether the loss of a single wolf could have such enormous significance.
"I guess maybe you could make some kind of an argument that (the alpha wolf) was taught something by all the wolves that had been there, and now all that was lost. But personally I don't buy it," said park wolf biologist Tom Meier.
"Wolves are really good at what they do, and they don't need to be taught how to be wolves," he added. "I don't think that five years from now that wolves will be living any differently in that part of the park. This year, yes. But not in five years."
Adult wolves in Denali have a one-in-four chance of dying in a given year, said wildlife biologist Layne Adams with the U.S. Geological Survey.
"They get killed by other wolves, they starve to death, they get kicked by moose, they drown, they die in avalanches -- sort of the whole gamut of things. And wolves are built to deal with that," he said.
Daily News reporter Doug O'Harra can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.