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Toklat Wolf Deaths Portend Scientific, Ecological, Viewing Losses

Gordon Haber / Opinion / Fairbanks Daily News-Miner / May 8, 2005

The Toklat (East Fork) family lineage of wolves of Denali National Park was hit hard recently by trapping and hunting. Only four or five yearlings and one or two 2-year-olds (six wolves total) remained within the established territory in late April where a vibrant, cohesive family of 11 adults, subadults and pups ranged less than three months earlier. Major questions remain as to what will happen next.

I know from my own field research that Toklat has persisted for at least 40 years. It is almost certainly an extension of the established group that Adolph Murie first studied in 1939-1941. This makes it one of the world's two or three oldest-known family lineages of any nonhuman species in the wild ("lineage" referring to social as well as genetic continuity).

As such, Toklat has been a scientific treasure in providing a decades-long stream of research information from the wild about the characteristics of a successful vertebrate society. This includes insights about the adaptability of social organization to long-term changes in food resources, the prominence of learned traditions and related behavior across generations, and the mix of direct and indirect forms of natural selection that underpin sophisticated cooperative behavior. Simply learning so much about the potential longevity of this kind of society has been of major scientific value. In due course, I will publish all of this research.

The sad truth, however, is that this most unique of Toklat's scientific values has been seriously degraded. Toklat's trapping-caused social breakdown since February is only the latest, albeit most severe, blow it has taken over recent years. This follows "recoveries" from trapping and radio-collaring losses of established beta and alpha reproductive pairs in 1997 and 2001. Unfortunately, such recoveries do not extend to all of the important qualitative features of wolf biology that are likely to have been impacted, including prominent traditions and certain within- and between-group genetic patterns.

The same applies to ecological relationships across the 600- to 700-square-mile area of Denali National Park that Toklat was using. Survivors or recolonizers will continue to range within this area but now much less to the beat of the natural underlying interplay of events and changes (involving traditions, genetic patterns and much else) that is supposed to prevail in a national park.

For many years, Toklat has provided park visitors with extraordinary wolf-viewing opportunities. As much as anything else, these opportunities have resulted from the specific, traditional ways the wolves have denned, traveled and hunted relative to the park road corridor, where they are easily viewed. But there has been relatively little chance for the present six young survivors to absorb this kind of information from earlier generations. Not all of the previous viewer-friendly spatial patterns are likely to survive with them.

Toklat's latest problems originated in a trapping area just outside the northeast park boundary. For decades, published research has identified this area as the park ecosystem's most important ungulate wintering area and a hunting magnet for Toklat and other park wolves. Nevertheless, for more than 15 years state and National Park Service biologists and managers have jointly done everything possible at Board of Game meetings and in the media to thwart attempts to give Denali wolves adequate protection in this area. Both agencies are now leading the charge to trivialize what happened to Toklat, by parroting each other's mantra that "we manage for populations, not individuals."

The underlying notion that populations (areawide numbers) count biologically but that families and individuals do not is such obvious nonsense that proponents seldom argue it explicitly. A detailed debunking appeared in the August-September 1996 issue of the scientific journal Conservation Biology.

Here, remember only that Toklat has survived as a family lineage for more than 40 years (for the last 20 years wearing Park Service radio collars). How could this happen--even just once in the 1 to 2 million-year history of the species--if only "populations" mattered biologically?

Finally, it is difficult to understand how any good scientist or other thinking, feeling person could ignore the sorry ethics of continuing to allow Toklat and other park wolves to be picked off just outside the park, one-by-one, so senselessly and selfishly. This becomes all the more of a breach of a fundamental standard of decency given that the same wolves have lost most of their fear of people inside the park (through a more natural process with a more natural outcome than the usual "habituation" explanations indicate). These wonderfully intelligent, expressive, emotional creatures deserve much better.

Gordon Haber is an independent wildlife scientist who has studied wolves and wolf-prey systems in Denali National Park since 1966 and in the Fortymile and other areas of Alaska since 1993. Friends of Animals provides the funding for his research.

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