The fate of Alaska's most famous wolf pack is uncertain after a hunter shot and killed its alpha male Sunday a few miles south of Cantwell.
The reigning patriarch of what is known as the East Fork or Toklat wolf pack in Denali National Park and Preserve was legally shot in the Pass Creek area.
It was the third Toklat wolf to be killed in two months, including the alpha female, which was caught in a trap in February just outside a buffer zone established to protect the wolves for tourists to see.
With only six young wolves remaining, some say this likely will mean the end of the decades-old Toklat pack, which was first studied by the legendary Adolph Murie in 1939.
"It represents a complete social breakdown," said Gordon Haber, an independent wildlife biologist who has studied the Toklat wolves for almost 40 years. "All the key wolves are gone."
Haber, who is funded by and reports to the Connecticut-based animal-rights group Friends of Animals, said this likely will reduce the number of wolves tourists see in Denali Park this summer and in future years.
While there is little doubt another pack of wolves will recolonize the area if the remaining Toklat wolves split up, they probably won't display the same tolerance of tourists that the Toklat wolves did.
"What influences how much wolves are seen by visitors are the specific ways they use the established territory," Haber said. "That's all been blown away, at least most of it."
But Park Service officials say they're not worried about the demise of one particular pack of wolves, even one as well-studied as the Toklat pack, as long as the number of wolves in the 6-million-acre park remains within biological limits.
"We manage for population levels, not individuals," spokeswoman Kris Fister said.
There are approximately 70 wolves in the park. While that's in the low end of the acceptable range, it doesn't represent any kind of emergency, Fister said.
Debate over how much protection wolves that stray outside park boundaries should receive has been a topic of debate for several years in Alaska.
The death of the alpha male also illustrates why the buffer zone to protect wolves that stray out of the park should be bigger, said John Toppenberg, director of the Alaska Wildlife Alliance in Anchorage, which has long advocated for a larger buffer.
The current buffer zone, which measures about 55 square miles in the northeast corner of the park near Healy, is a "symbolic measure" that does little to protect wolves like the Toklat pack from hunters and trappers, he said. Wildlife viewing advocates have asked the state Board of Game to expand the buffer zone several times but have been rebuffed.
"What we have now is totally inadequate," Toppenberg said.
The Toklat wolves are valuable and should be protected for several reasons, Haber said. The fact the same bloodline has been studied for decades is reason alone to protect them.
"One of the greatest values is providing information about the characteristics of how successful vertebrae societies other than humans work," he said. "It's a rare biological treasure."
The wolves are also important from a naturalist viewpoint, Haber said.
"If you're simply worrying about the presence or absence of animals, that's what you do when you're managing a zoo," he said. "When you're managing a national park, your primary concern should be the integrity of underlying ecological relationships."
The Toklat wolves also offer tourists a better chance of seeing a wolf in Denali Park than anywhere else in the world, Haber said. Thousands of tourists see wolves in the park each year and up until last year, when another pack denned close to the road, it was mostly the Toklat wolves that were visible.
The Toklat pack has been threatened before but there has always been at least one experienced alpha male or female to maintain the hierarchy, Haber said. The young wolves rely on the older wolves to teach them the ins and outs of living in an area.
"It's a combination of genetic and learned information," Haber said of a pack's family structure. "Those young wolves haven't had the opportunity to acquire that learned information. Things like denning sites, hunting areas, hunting routes and even hunting methods."
What will happen to the remaining six Toklat wolves remains to be seen. They could move out of the area and join or form another pack or they could remain. They could also be killed by other wolves.
"Some might stay but I'd be surprised if all six stayed," Park Service biologist Tom Meier said. "It's not a good social system when the young ones are left without adults. Things don't go smoothly for them and they usually split up."
Whether that will mean fewer wolf sightings for tourists this summer remains to be seen.
Park officials say many of the wolves seen in the park last year actually belonged to the Grant Creek pack, an offshoot of the Toklat pack that roams further west but has started to encroach on the Toklat territory.
The alpha male in that pack, which consists of eight wolves, was trapped and moved from the upper Chena River as part of a predator- control program to help boost the Fortymile Caribou Herd. He joined the Toklat pack briefly four years ago before hooking up with a female and forming another pack. The pack denned next to the Toklat River last year and was regularly seen from the road. There's a chance the Grant Creek pack could assume control of the territory used by the Toklat wolves.
"We'll just have to wait and see," Fister said.
If the Grant Creek or another pack moves into the area, Meier doesn't think it would be long before tourists start seeing them.
"Personally, I think wolves catch on pretty quick and they'd quickly figure out how to live in the area," he said.
The demise of the Toklat pack began Feb. 11 when a Healy trapper caught the alpha female just outside the buffer zone.
Though the alpha male took the loss of his mate hard, he hooked up with and bred another female a week later, said Haber, who radio-tracks the wolves by air.
But those two wolves split up and the male began making erratic movements to and from the area the first alpha female was trapped.
"He pretty well abandoned the territory," Haber said. "He was clearly focused on the loss of that female."
The wolf shot Sunday was another Fortymile transfer that joined the Toklat pack in May 2001. The previous alpha male in the pack died a month or two earlier when Park Service biologists tranquilized it to check its radio collar.
"He just showed up at the right place at the right time," Haber said. "He just kind of took over."
The only hope now is that the impregnated female returns to the area to have her pups, Haber said. Even then, the question of who will care for them remains. Typically, several wolves in a pack share responsibility for feeding and raising the pups.
"Until (the loss of the alphas) happened, I was pretty confident there would be two litters this year," Haber said. "It would have been a beehive of activity."
News-Miner staff writer Tim Mowry can be reached at tmowry @newsminer.com or at 459-7587.