Let Denali Animals Roam Free

COMPASS: Points of View from the Community/ Anchorage Daily News / May 29, 2003


The woman was irate. On her only trip to Denali National Park, her visit had been marred because four of the eight animals she'd seen that day -- a moose, bear, caribou and a wolf -- wore radio transmitters.

"It diminished the experience to see a wolf for the first time but wearing a collar," she said. "A man hollered that it was a loose dog. And people believed him."

For almost three decades Denali had a quasi-official stance that animals accessible to the road would not be marked in a way that would diminish public enjoyment. The two exceptions to the policy were the tags or collars placed on problem bears, and beginning in the late 1970s, a limited number of collared moose. Otherwise, as former chief ranger Gary Brown once said, "we don't want to mar visitors' wildlife viewing."

The hands-off policy eroded in the late 1980s. Managers approved grizzly, caribou and wolf research projects that included drugging and tagging. Roadside sightings of collared wolves and other animals are now commonplace. Public complaints about this often fall on deaf ears. One biologist blasted photographers for the criticism and cited "important research which outweighs public viewing." Other biologists not associated with the park, however, point out the redundancy of some of these park projects. One massive grizzly bear study, which cost the public hundreds of thousands of dollars, has yet to publish a full account or details.

Some biologists view visitors as threatening to wildlife. I argue back that chasing, drugging, immobilizing and collaring animals is a more genuine threat than that posed by even dozens of wildlife viewers.

Accidents happen. Animals die of drug overdoses. Some projects stipulate an acceptable mortality level. In 1991, a park biologist killed seven of 14 bull caribou he darted. Later, another technician shot a capture dart through a wolf, killing it. During one relocation effort, a bear fell out of a helicopter. More recently three wolves died after handling. Oddly, at the same time that the public cries out for buffer zones to protect park wolves from trappers, the wolves inside the park are put at risk. If wolves are as valuable to the viewing public as often stated, critics ask, why are they put in jeopardy? Simple expediency is not an excuse.

One point to consider: Even if these studies are as critical as some claim and do disclose some predator or disease threat to park wildlife, nothing will happen. The Park Service adheres to a "let nature take its course" mandate.

Denali Park is advertising for a new resource manager. Perhaps now is the time to demand an ethical and aesthetic re-evaluation of wildlife management practices. Easily viewed, commonly accessible wildlife should not, in my opinion, be disfigured with collars and other man-made devices in high-use visitor areas.

Where can wildlife live free of intrusive human manipulation, if not in a national park? Where, if not in a national park, can animals live without the risk of helicopter chases and drug-induced death? Or having its body vandalized with collars and tags?

We likely don't need a new policy but rather a return to an old one that emphasized aesthetics and ethics. Although one modern biologist calls the following sour grapes, biologist Adolf Murie left a record of his views of research in national parks:

"I shy away from the word 'management' because it has been misused, and the less we have of it in national parks, the better. Wildlife managers want to manage everything. ... The observations of tassels in the ears and the knowledge that the bears have been manhandled systematically destroy for many people the wilderness ethic, ... We might imagine a situation so critical that intrusive, harmful techniques would be necessary. But ... in Mount McKinley National Park the added information obtained does not merit the sacrifice of the intangible values for which parks should be in harmony with the spirit of wilderness, even though efficiency and convenience may at times be diminished."

Tom Walker lives near Denali Park and is the author of a dozen books on nature and wildlife. He first visited Denali Park in 1969 and has been a patron ever since.

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