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History of Solid Science Behind Effort to Save Toklat Wolves

Opinion / Fairbanks Daily News-Miner / Gordon Haber / June 12, 2005

In a May 8 Community Perspective, I wrote about the trapping-hunting breakup of Denali National Park's decades-old Toklat family lineage of wolves and the resulting scientific, ecological, and viewing losses. I attributed what happened ultimately to professional neglect and incompetence, especially opposition to an adequate protective buffer in the northeast park boundary area, where Toklat's latest problems began in February. I singled out the debunked management mantra about the biological preeminence of wolf "populations" over family groups.

David Kelleyhouse, a retired state biologist and buffer opponent, responded mostly off-topic in a May 22 Community Perspective. His comments are nonetheless worth answering for what they reveal about his accuracy and veracity as a longtime contributor to News-Miner opinion pages.

Kelleyhouse said that I don't do science, that I'm just an "animal rights activist." Ask the National Park Service for the April 2004 account of my research objectives in Denali. Consider if this sounds like science or the off-the-wall activism Kelleyhouse alleged. Check out the references therein, including my published 817-page doctoral dissertation with its 190 tables and figures of data. Try to find a larger, more detailed source of primary research information about subarctic wolves and wolf-prey systems, especially one that introduces as much major new thinking and was as extensively peer-reviewed beforehand.

Ask the deputy Fish and Game commissioner, Wayne Regelin, for my Feb. 17, 2005 letter requesting protection for Denali wolves on adjacent state lands. Refer especially to the accompanying 12-page report to see if my buffer-zone arguments seem rational and the extent to which they derive from the foregoing basic research.

Read the August-September 1996 Conservation Biology paper in which I challenge the notion that only areawide numbers are important in managing wolves. Note the large amount of supporting data summarized in the appendix while recalling Kelleyhouse's comment that this peer-reviewed paper is "unsupported opinion."

Ask Kelleyhouse for the outside scientific reviews that he and Regelin commissioned on behalf of the state in 1993 for a representative 108-page technical report that I wrote in 1992, advocating against a large-scale state wolf control plan (Two other prominent outside scientists provided detailed reviews for control opponents). Look for any mention by the reviewers of animal-rights activism.

See what other scientists think about this kind of advocacy by reading the special section on advocacy in the June 1996 issue of Conservation Biology.

Kelleyhouse claimed that my circling airplane drew attention to the dominant (alpha) Toklat pair near Cantwell and caused their shooting deaths. The female was trapped and shot on Feb. 11 some 30 miles north of Cantwell before I arrived overhead. Her death appears to be why the male abandoned the established Toklat territory and eventually ended up near Cantwell. He was shot along the Parks Highway a couple miles southwest of Cantwell on April 17. The last time I circled him was on April 15, some 20 miles to the north. I did not fly on April 16 or 17.

Kelleyhouse said these two wolves were "transplanted" from the Fortymile. The male was translocated about 240 miles to the west, then found his own way about 180 miles southeastward to Denali, opportunely arriving after the established Toklat alpha male was killed during radio collaring in late March 2001. The female came from the 1998 or 1999 Toklat litter.

Kelleyhouse is "sure" that "many" unrelated wolves have joined Toklat and injected new genes over the years, thinks this refutes any notion of an unbroken lineage, and says this is how wolves avoid inbreeding.

There have been two documented newcomers to Toklat--the above male due to human causes and a young female under natural conditions last summer. I looked forward to determining if the young female would eventually become a Toklat breeder, but she was trapped last winter. Regardless, "family lineage" refers to social as well as genetic continuity and thus doesn't terminate simply with the introduction of new genes.

Nor do wolves avoid all inbreeding. Consider, for example, that in the old Savage family four father-daughter matings produced 27 pups from 1970 to 1973 and that a sib pair from the 1970 litter of nine produced four more pups within the family in 1972.

This hints at what makes wolf social systems so interesting, their scientific value, and how easily exploitation introduces variables that confound an understanding of what makes them tick--most of which flies right over the heads of David Kelleyhouse and too many other wildlife professionals.

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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