The Toklat family of wolves, shown walking in Denali National Park last fall, has been reduced by hunters. (Gordon Haber For The Washington Post)
An Alaskan wolf -- a black male that led the world's longest-studied, most-photographed family of wolves -- was killed last weekend by a hunter outside Denali National Park.
The kill, legal under Alaska law, punctuates a harrowing year for the wolf family, known as the Toklat group, which has been studied for more than four decades and has been viewed and photographed by tens of thousands of visitors to Denali.
Two months ago, the family's senior female and another female were killed in traps, also legally, when they left the park in search of caribou. The family has now been reduced to six pups and a mature pregnant female, which has been separated from the younger wolves for more than a month.
The troubles of the Toklat wolves have raised questions from conservation groups about the ethics of hunting wildlife -- especially a prime tourist attraction such as the Toklat family -- that occasionally wander out of a protected national park.
In March, three Democratic senators -- Frank Lautenberg (N.J.), Carl M. Levin (Mich.) and Barbara Boxer (Calif.) -- wrote to Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton and asked her to take immediate action to protect the Toklat wolves. John Quinley, a National Park Service spokesman, said that protecting the wolves outside Denali is a state decision. If Alaska chooses to protect the wolves, he said, the Park Service would be supportive.
Gordon Haber, an Alaskan biologist who has studied the Toklat family since the 1960s and whose work is funded by the animal rights group Friends of Animals, asked Park Service officials at Denali to intervene last month to protect the alpha male.
The biologist suggested that the wolf and his new mate -- both behaving erratically since the trappings in February split up the pack -- be darted and reunited inside the park. Although concerned about the wolves, park officials said they would not relocate them.
In Denali National Park and across Alaska, wolves are healthy and abundant, according to state and federal biologists. State game officials say they manage wolves based on population, not to protect individual animals. The wolf population is booming, and the state now allows some hunting from airplanes.
The Pennsylvania hunter who on Sunday shot the alpha male could have legally shot nine more wolves that day, said Ray Atkins, a guide who accompanied the hunter. "We are a long ways from being out of wolves," Atkins said in a telephone interview.
Echoing the views of many animal rights and conservation groups, Haber said the Toklat family deserved special protection because its hunting habits and denning traditions have been studied for decades.
"What has been lost is an unbroken sequence of information about a wolf family for 40 years," Haber said.