Denali Wolf Buffer Retained

Tim Mowry / Fairbanks Daily News-Miner / March 10, 2004

The Denali Buffer Zone lives, but not because the Alaska Board of Game wants to save wolves for tourists to see.

Instead, the board voted to keep the controversial buffer zone in order to make killing wolves in other parts of the state more palatable to the public.

In a split vote late Monday night, the Alaska Board of Game voted to retain a 130-square-mile chunk of state land that has been closed to the hunting and trapping of wolves to protect them for viewing by tourists in Denali National Park and Preserve.

"My whole being said to get rid of this, but the caveat I ended up dealing with is that I can sacrifice that buffer zone for all the other wolf plans we have coming up," said Fairbanks board member Sharon McLeod-Everette. "I think kicking the buffer zone out would give (animal-rights groups) an opportunity to scream and yell and cry and put it in the news again and I don't want it there."

Although the board voted Tuesday to reduce the buffer zone by eliminating a sliver of land east of the Parks Highway near Healy, the buffer zone that was created four years ago and expanded in 2002 to protect a pair of highly-visible wolf packs in Denali Park remains mostly intact.

The board also put a six-year moratorium on new proposals dealing with buffer zone.

The game board, which wraps up a marathon meeting today in Fairbanks, has spent the last two weeks debating changes to hunting and trapping regulations throughout the Interior and around the state.

The buffer zone has been a point of controversy since it was created four years ago by a previous game board appointed by former Gov. Tony Knowles to protect two wolf packs that inhabit the northeast corner of the 6-million-acre park. The packs sometime roam outside park boundaries onto state land around Healy.

The buffer zone was thought to be on its death bed when Gov. Frank Murkowski took office more than a year ago and installed a more hunter- and trapper-friendly game board.

The board's 4-3 vote to keep the buffer zone wasn't based on saving wolves as much as it was on winning the support of the public for predator control programs in other parts of the state, as well as for future programs. The state recently began aerial wolf hunts in McGrath and the in the Nelchina Basin and is looking at initiating several more predator control programs around the state.

"Now that we have active predator management, we have a lot of public support," said board chairman Mike Fleagle of McGrath during deliberations that ran to almost 11 p.m. Monday. "I think removing the buffer would lose us some support."

McLeod-Everette, along with Fleagle, Ben Grussendorf of Sitka and Ted Spraker of Kenai voted to retain the buffer zone while Fairbanks' Pete Buist, Ron Somerville of Juneau and Cliff Judkins of Wasilla voted against it.

Buist, former head of the Alaska Trappers Association, was adamantly opposed to keeping the buffer zone.

"Four and a half million acres should be enough to contain several wolf packs," said Buist, referring to the portion of Denali National Park and Preserve that is closed to hunting and trapping. "Taking opportunity away outside the park on state land is not fair nor will it buy us any goodwill from animal rights groups, which for some reason some of my fellow board members think it will."

Somerville, former head of the state's game division, said advocates of the buffer zone "have an insatiable appetite" and will never be satisfied with the size of the area.

"This isn't about wildlife viewing," Somerville said. "This about a group of people being opposed to any kind of hunting or trapping. Pretty soon buffers will be running into each other."

As for creating a public backlash and exposing the state's predator control programs to criticism by animal-rights groups, Somerville didn't buy that argument.

"We're being proactive in so many fronts that haven't been done for so many years I don't think we're going to give them additional fodder," he said.

The board bucked the recommendations of eight local advisory committees, all of which favored eliminating the buffer zone. The board typically heeds the advice of advisory committees but this was an exception.

"We turned our backs on them," Somerville said.

In proposing the six-year moratorium on new proposals, Spraker said the board needs to stick with one buffer and see how it works. He also said the moratorium will give National Park Service officials time to try to develop other wolf-viewing opportunities in the park.

With an estimated 10,000 wolves in 1,500 packs roaming the state, proponents of the buffer zone say the least the state can do is offer protection to the state's two most-viewed wolf packs. They also contend the buffer zone needs to be bigger, evidenced by the fact the alpha male in one of the two packs was recently trapped just outside the area.

While he said the current buffer zone is "better than nothing," Paul Joslin of the Alaska Wildlife Alliance, a preservationist group that has fought for a bigger buffer zone for several years, was disappointed with the board's reasoning behind keeping it.

"It would have failed if there was not concern about the backlash from (eliminating) it," he said. "(The buffer zone) is regarded as an enormous gift to the non-consumptive interests."

One of the packs, the Toklat pack, is the oldest known and studied wolf pack in Alaska and an estimated 20,000 visitors in Denali Park see wolves from the two packs each year, Joslin said.

"The biological value of serving the (wildlife viewing) needs of thousands of people, you need to protect those wolves from that standpoint alone," he said.

Staff writer Tim Mowry can be reached at or 459-7587.

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