Game Board Leaves Wolf Buffer Intact

DENALI: Members opt to retain no-kill zone to take pressure off other projects

The Associated Press / Anchorage Daily News / March 11, 2004

FAIRBANKS -- A controversial wolf protection area on state land near Denali National Park and Preserve will be retained, the Alaska Board of Game has ruled.

In a split vote, the board opted to keep in place the Denali Buffer Zone to make killing wolves elsewhere more palatable to the public. The 130-square-mile area has been closed to the hunting and trapping of wolves to protect two highly visible packs for viewing by Denali visitors.

"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," Fairbanks board member Sharon McLeod-Everette said of the decision late Monday. "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."

The board voted Tuesday to eliminate a sliver of land east of the Parks Highway near Healy, but the buffer zone created four years ago and expanded in 2002 remains mostly intact.

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

The buffer zone has been a point of contention since it was created by a previous Game Board appointed by former Gov. Tony Knowles. The two wolf packs sometime roam outside park boundaries onto state land around Healy.

The buffer zone was expected to expire after Gov. Frank Murkowski took office more than a year ago and appointed a more hunter- and trapper-friendly board.

The panel's 4-3 vote to continue protection wasn't based on saving wolves as much as winning public support for predator control programs. The state recently began aerial wolf hunts in McGrath and in the Nelchina Basin and is considering several others.

"I think removing the buffer would lose us some support," said board chairman Mike Fleagle of McGrath.

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.

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."

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 larger.

While the current buffer zone is "better than nothing," said Paul Joslin of the Alaska Wildlife Alliance, a preservationist group that has fought for a larger buffer zone for several years, he 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."

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