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Denali wildlife ‘crisis’

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A threatened Denali moose?/National Park Service photo

The first significant, national criticism of Alaska’s unique subsistence hunting and fishing system is coming from a group that represents local, state and federal resource professionals.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) this week charged that the wildlife in Alaska’s iconic Denali National Park and Preserve is being decimated by hunters and trappers. 

A PEER press release never uses the word subsistence, but most of the hunting and trapping  done in the Massachusetts-size national park is done in the name of subsistence.

Only 1.3 million acres added to the 6-milion-acrepark as preserve in 1980 are open to general hunting and trapping, and even there subsistence hunters and trappers have a priority.

Subsistence is something unique to Alaska. It dictates that rural residents of the state get special hunting, fishing and trapping privileges on federal lands. Generally, this means longer seasons and bigger bag limits than other Alaskans or non-residents, and continuation of uniquely Alaskan activities like spring waterfowl hunting.

Subsistence was written into the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act in 1980. The act created more than 100 million acres of new national parks, preserves and refuges in the 49th state. Part of the deal made with Alaskans was that rural residents would not only get the subsistence priority over everyone else everywhere, but they would be allowed to hunt within national parks.

Because of this law, some of the best Dall sheep hunting in the world is now reserved to a few thousand residents of the eastern part of the state who are allowed to hunt within the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve.

Sheep hunting also takes place in Denali, where the majestic, white, big-horned rams are also a huge draw for photographers.

By the numbers

From 2013 to 2015, a PEER press release said, Alaska Department of Fish and Game statistics reveal an average, annual Denali kill of:

  • 178 moose
  • 43.3 grizzly bears’
  • 31.3 Dall sheep
  • 27.3 lynx
  • 25.0 black bears ri
  • and 17.3 wolverines

“Denali is today more of a secretive hunting reserve than a protected natural area,” Rick Steiner, a retired University of Alaska professor and PEER board member, said in the press release. “This reported intensity of human take of wildlife, both outside and inside Denali, has seriously degraded the natural integrity of one of our most important national parks.”

“Lack of federal-state cooperation has reduced wildlife management in Alaska to crisis mode,” added PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch.  “If these wildlife populations crash, they may never rebound.”

The latter comment is an absurd over-statement. As the recovery of white-deer almost everywhere in North America and of grizzly bears in the Yellowstone ecosystem have shown, wildlife populations will rebound from extremely low levels as long as habitat remains and people stop killing them.

Grizzly bears populations within Denali are also considered healthy, or as healthy as un-hunted populations can be. About 75 percent of the grizzly bear cubs born in the park will never survive to become adults.

“Low cub survival in non-hunted areas, such as national parks and wildlife preserves, where populations are at near capacity, is believed indicative of density-dependence population regulation,” Denali researchers wrote. “Although not confirmed, high cub and yearling mortality in Denali is believed to be a result of either starvation or predation (by other bears or wolves) as was the case for Yellowstone National Park.

“No cubs were known to have been removed from the system by man during the study. Although density-dependent regulation is suspected, the fact is that the causes of most cub and yearling deaths remain unresolved.”

But hunting within the park has been an issue with wildlife researchers. To try to figure out how natural ecosystems function, they say, you really need natural ecosystems to study. Much of Denali is now a human-altered habitat.

What to do

The PEER press release offers no suggestions on how to fix the problems it suggested are plaguing Denali, but hints that more research is needed.

” Denali park officials possess an uncertain and, in some cases, dated, grasp of how many of which animals reside in the park,” the press release says. “Moreover, the park does not systematically monitor annual hunting and trapping, which is licensed by the state. Yet, from the loose figures on the park website, the annual take of grizzly and moose equals almost 10 percent of the entire estimated Denali population.”

A link on the website titled “Examine limited state of Denali wildlife population estimates” leads to a National Park Service post on animal numbers in the park. The post  underlines the difficulty of counting animals in wildernss areas and the variability of the ecosystem there.

“…It’s unrealistic to know exactly how many large mammals there are in Denali National Park and Preserve at any given time,” the park service reports says.”Knowing about population trends, as well as about the quality and distribution of habitat for cover and food, is as important as knowing population sizes.”

The one thing the little dust-up over wildlife management does best is underline how unproductive northern ecosystems. Tourists flock to Denali to see the seemingly bountiful wildlife, but it’s really not bountiful, it’s simply easy to spot on the open tundra.

PEER laments a wildlife kill “averaging well above 300 bears, moose, and caribou, as well as Dall sheep, otters and wolverines per year.”

For comparison sake, more than 10,000 white tail deer are killed in Mass. each year, ans hunters there each year kill a number of black bears (225-240) almost equal in number to all wildlife killed in Denali National Park and Preserve.

Massachusetts covers 10,600 square miles. Denail National Park and Preserve covers 9,5oo square miles.

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4 replies »

  1. Actually, two men were responsible, both very avid hunters, Sheldon and Belmore Browne. Hunters in the early years were conservationists who worked to promote and protect special widlife areas. Among others, guide Andy Simons, and local hunters helped establish McNeil River. Pack Creek also had much hunter support w hen it was first protected. That is one of the main differences between pioneer hunters and the current breed, they believed in, and created, wildlife refuges and parks, all with the blessing if the uber-hunter Teddy Roosevelt.

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  2. Though Denali National Park and Massachusetts are close to the same size, there is a significant difference. Massachusetts has 6.7 million people. DNP has, according to Google, 359 residents. Bottom line: you can get away with a lot more when there are less people watching. So, reported kills in Mass are likely pretty accurate. As for reported kills in DNP, or anywhere that “subsistence” hunting occurs and no one is there to see what is going on … the reported kills are likely to be less than actual kills. How much less? No one knows that answer (until it’s blatantly evident, because game becomes scarce).

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    • yes, it was, Dan. that was why it become a park in large part. charles sheldon launched the campaign to create the old mckinley national park to protect Dall sheep being hit heavily by market hunters.

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