If a radio-collared wolf dies in Denali National Park and Preserve and no press release is written, does its death matter? Or are the deaths only of note when they come at the hands of humans?
Wolves die in the popular national park all winter long. Seventy-five percent of them are killed by nature, according to National Park Service research. A full third are the victims of other wolves. Fewer, about 25 percent, are killed by human trappers and hunters when they venture outside the park.
The 25 percent attract 100 percent of the attention.
A female wolf died just outside the park boundary on February 18. She was not killed by humans. She died, as many others do, in the fangs of another pack.
A member of the Comb pack, she appears to have been killed by the neighboring Riley Creek pack, though there is no way to know with absolutely certainty which of the park’s wolves did the killing, according to wildlife biologist Bridget Borg.
At the time, the wolf’s death went unnoticed.
A little over a month later, however, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game ordered an early closure to trapping in the area of her death near the park boundary, but outside of it. The agency at that time reported a human kill of eight dead wolves for the season, about twice the average seasonal total for the past five years.
An increased kill is often the sign of a growing population but Division of Wildlife Conservation Director Bruce Dale made no mention of that possibility in a press release, saying only that “current levels of wolf harvest do not cause a biological or conservation problem for wolves in (Game Management) Unit 20C, which includes a large portion of Denali National Park and Preserve.”
The sole stated reason for shortening the season was “an effort to manage harvest closer to the previous 5-year average.”
Dale did not mention it is an election year in Alaska and the number of people in the state who love wolves is significantly bigger than the number who trap or hunt the animals for their fur, which can save someone’s face from frostbite in the 40- to 50-degree-below-zero cold of the far north.
The closure was a political win for wolf advocates who’d earlier demanded the closure of a finger of state lands that juts into the popular, 6-million-acre national park, one of the state’s top tourist attractions.
Wolf lover Rick Steiner quickly praised Gov. Bill Walker and Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotten for the decision, the Associated Press reported, though Steiner complained the closure affected an area smaller than what he and others sought.
Steiner believes trapping and hunting near the park are interfering with wolf-viewing opportunities in the park. The belief rests on the idea that wolf kills outside the park decrease the number of wolves inside the park, though the data on that are not clear, and that wolves that learn to be wary of people outside the park are less likely to make themselves visible for viewing or photography inside the park.
Wolf population dynamics are complicated. Food availability in Alaska depends not only on the number of moose, caribou and Dall sheep available in a pack’s hunting-territory, but also the age and health of the animals being hunted, and weather conditions that can make hunting harder or easier.
On top of that, wolf packs are ever-changing entities. Young wolves often take off in search for mates or new territories. The park’s “2016 Annual Wolf Report” (the 2017 report has yet to be completed) noted that an East Fork Pack male collared in February a month later took off on a long trek north.
It was “shot in March…west of Fairbanks near the Chatanika River,” the report said. By then it was about 100 miles north of the park. Why the wolf left is unknown, but the report makes it clear life in the park wasn’t nirvana.
It reported one wolf dead from starvation, and two wolf packs at war:
“In December, the Riley Creek pack (the pack implicated in killing another wolf this year) and Grant Creek pack had an apparent run-in which began on December 10th when the packs encountered each other on Sable Pass. All of the pack members then ran towards the Stony River, where a violent skirmish near an old moose kill site resulted in the death of the Grant Creek females 1404GF and 1602GF on December 12th.”
Two males and a female from the pack took off across the Alaska Range to the south pursued by the Riley Creek wolves. One of the radio-collared males would later be spotted with “three other wolves that appeared to be pups,” the report said. “Prior to the skirmish, the Grant Creek pack numbered at least 11 wolves.”
Such wolf-pack fracturing, new pack formation, wolf deaths and most of what goes on in the lives of wolves in the park does not make the news. What’s makes the news is simple:
“Assault Rifle Slaughter of Denali Wolves” was what was bubbling up as news in the tubes on Wednesday. National Parks Traveler used a slightly tamer headline – “Hunting Decimating Wolf Populations At Denali National Park;” it saved the assault rifle accusation for the lead on the story:
The story – complete with photos of dead wolves and someone holding a military-style rifle – arrived in the news courtesy of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), which bills itself as a national non-profit alliance of local, state and federal scientists, law enforcement officers, land managers and other professionals dedicated to upholding environmental laws and values.”
“The state of Alaska is scrambling to shut down hunting and trapping adjacent to Denali National Park over concerns that excessive kills may destabilize this iconic wolf population,” the press release said. “Photos posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) show a man armed with an AR15 semiautomatic rifle displaying ten wolf carcasses outside Denali.”
The wolf carcasses were indeed from outside of Denali, said Tony Kavalok, the deputy director for the state’s Division of Wildlife Conservation. They were from “outside of Denali” in the way that Milwaukee is outside of Chicago.
The wolves in the photo were killed about 70 miles from Denali Park in a different “Game Management Unit” – GMU 13 – on the south side of the Alaska Range. The area the state closed to wolf trapping and hunting is on the north side of the Alaska Range in GMU 20. The units are generally drawn to conform to the normal ranges of wildlife living therein.
Whether a rifle – semi-automatic or other – was used to kill the wolves is unknown, Kavalok said. The man in the photo, he agreed, is either a hunter or trapper posing with 10 dead wolves and a semi-automatic. But the wolves were killed and the hides sealed, as required by law in Alaska, by two individuals, he said.
State law blocks the disclosure of their names and other details.
“The (Alaska State) troopers did do an investigation,” Kavalok said, “and those wolves were taken in Unit 13 east of Denali Park. The wolf population there is growing. They’re doing well.”
The dead animals in the photo have no known connection to Denali Park other than that they are almost certain to be genetically related to the wolves in the park. As L. David Mech, the dean of U.S. wolf researchers noted after a lengthy study of 49th state wolves, the wolves of Denali are the wolves of Alaska.
The state is home to a large, healthy and constantly intermixing population of wolves, “but that doesn’t sell newspapers,” said Kavalok, who credited the PEER press release for playing well to the trending issues of the day with “assault rifle” at the top of the list.
“It looks evil,” he said.
Wolf trapper Travis Smith had an only slightly different assessment.
“People are so ridiculous,'” he messaged. “If they only had a clue.
“The tree huggers don’t give wolves the credit they deserve. They make (wolves) out to be a house pet. They’re a highly skilled and very adaptable killer. When one dies they are quickly replaced. Or when one is weak, they are killed and life goes on.”