During its lengthy meeting in Fairbanks this week the Alaska Board of Game is expected to consider a proposal to extend a wolf protection buffer zone that is surrounded on three sides by Denali National Park and Preserve.
There once was a proposal to turn over to the park this rectangular block of land due west of Healy, Alaska, that follows the Stampede Trail, but it never got off the ground. As a result, wolves that leave the park and follow caribou to wintering grounds on this landscape are subject to trapping in some places. Currently, there is a buffer zone that comprises roughly half of the rectangle on the western end in which wolves can't be hunted or trapped.
“They go there a lot and they’ve been trapped a lot. There have been a couple of packs that actually have been eliminated by trappers in that area," says Joan Frankevich, the program manager in the Alaska office of the National Parks Conservation Association. "There have been, last year or the year before, two that got snared but they broke free of the snares and in the summertime were seen along the park road with swollen necks.”
While the trapping is not having an overall negative effect on Denali's wolf population, said Ms. Frankevich, it does impact research on the park's wolf packs. Many of those that frequent this landscape wear radio collars that allow biologists to track their movements, she explained.
"It is a problem for the knowledge and the longevity of the wildlife studies that have gone on, the knowledge that gets passed down and the viewing for visitors," she said.
At the National Park Service's Alaska office, John Quinley, the assistant regional director for communications and partnerships, said the agency would support a larger buffer zone for this area.
"We’ve got several years of radio-collar data that shows the wolves -- we have a lot of 'park wolves', packs that spend a lot of their time in Denali -- come outside of the park for a portion of the year, and are frequently in that notch," he said. "And a lot of them have been tracked into the portion of the notch that is open to the taking of wolves. Denali has pushed forward a proposal for this Game Board meeting to extend the closed area to cover that piece of the notch where we have been seeing wolves frequently."
The current buffer zone is 90 square miles, according to the NPCA. Packs that frequent it and which often are viewed by Denali visitors include the East Fork Pack, the Grant West Pack, and the Nenana Pack. Packs that were wiped out by hunting and trapping include the Headquarters Pack, Savage Pack, and Sanctuary Pack, according to the group's records. Not every individual of a pack must be killed for the pack to collapse. And in some cases, new packs have re-established themselves in similar territory and have new names.
One of the proposals before the Board of Game would use the George Parks Highway as an eastern-most boundary for the buffer zone, while another would use the Nenana River. The Park Service proposal would use a diagonal line.
“I find their buffer difficult in that diagonal line. For people on the ground it’d be virtually impossible to follow," said Ms. Frankevich. "That’s why either following the park’s highway or the Nenana River makes more sense, because it's an easily defined boundary on the ground.”