An adult wolf is seen crossing the Alaska Railroad inside eastern Denali National Park with a wire snare embedded in his neck Saturday, March 29, 2008. The wolf broke free from a trapping site outside the park. He was first observed ranging inside the park in March, accompanied by a smaller adult.
Tourists in Denali National Park and Preserve could be in for a gruesome sight this summer if two particular wolves are still hanging out in the park.
The wolves were caught in snares outside the park 3 /12 weeks ago but managed to escape - with the snares still on their necks.
The park service began receiving reports about one of the wolves, a big, gray male, in mid-February. That wolf has been seen along stretches of the Parks Highway near park headquarters, as well as on the first 10 miles of Denali Park Road, which is open to the public. The latest sighting came on Tuesday evening at Mile 7 of the park road, but the wolf was gone by the time park service biologists Tom Meier and Pat Owen arrived with the hope of tranquilizing it so they could remove the snare.
Considering that the wolf has survived two months, there's a good chance it could still be around when shuttle buses begin ferrying tourists in and out of the 6-million-acre park on May 20, especially given the fact it has been seen hanging around in several highly visible areas.
"Given the places it's been seen, I'm kind of worried it could show up and be seen around a campground or the visitors center," Meier said. "If that happens, it's going to be a huge stink for the park service and trappers and everyone else."
The wound on the wolf's neck is "pretty ugly," he said.
"If this wolf is seen by a lot of people, we're going to have a lot of explaining to do," Meier said. "People will ask how we can tolerate that. Of course, it's not up to us whether we tolerate it or not."
The wolves were most likely legally trapped on state land when they roamed outside the park and then returned after breaking loose, he said.
Other than a nasty wound around its neck, however, the gray wolf hanging around park headquarters seems to be managing, Meier said. The fact that it has survived more than two months is evidence that it can still eat and drink.
"A lot of people have seen the gray one and they all describe it as looking good," he said. "It's not skinny; it's moving well."
The other snare-wearing wolf, a black that is part of the East Fork or Toklat Pack, hasn't been seen in two weeks because it hasn't returned to its pack, which biologists can track because some wolves in the pack are fitted with radio collars.
Trapping is not allowed in the park or a "buffer zone" of state land adjacent to the northeast park boundary. The most likely scenario is that the wolves roamed outside the no-trapping zone and stumbled into a trapline on state land where trapping is allowed. There are several trappers operating on the northern boundary of the park along the Stampede Road trail and this year there seem to be more than in past years, Meier said. Several wolves in different packs have been shot or trapped in the area this year, he said.
The wolves with snares around their necks most likely chewed through or broke the snare cables, which might mean the trapper who caught them isn't using big enough cable or is not anchoring the snare well enough, Meier said. There is also a chance they were caught in lighter snares set for coyotes, he said.
If they have a chance, park service biologists will tranquilize the snared wolves and remove the snares, Meier said.
"Park service policy is to let nature take its course but since they were suffering from a human-caused injury it would be our policy to do what we could to help them," the biologist said. "If an animal was naturally injured, we'd let it go."
If the injuries were serious enough that biologists didn't think the wolves would survive, they would kill them, Meier said.
Need for protection
The plight of the snared wolves has fueled the fire of independent wolf researcher Gordon Haber, who has been studying wolves in Denali Park for more than 40 years. Haber has been pushing to expand the area where trapping is prohibited around the northeast boundary of the park for years.
Haber argues that the boundaries for the no-trapping zone on state land are arbitrarily drawn and don't cover the winter territories of several packs that venture into the Stampede Flats in search of caribou or moose. Radio-tracking flights prove that, he said.
"There's no doubt park wolves are getting hit hard over there," he said of the area along the Stampede Trail just north of Healy. "This winter alone we're talking up to 19 wolves from five different groups.
"That area needs protection immediately," said Haber, who faults the Department of Fish and Game for not pushing for an expansion of the no-trapping boundary.
The Alaska Board of Game has issued a moratorium on any proposals to expand the no-trapping zone on state land until 2010.
While the park service would "appreciate it" if the state expanded the no-trapping buffer zone, the feds aren't going to push for it. That's the state's decision to make, Meier said.
Haber agrees that the park's overall wolf population, estimated at about 100 wolves in 18 packs, is not threatened by trapping and hunting along the park boundaries. But the value of scientific research gleaned from years of studying those wolves is, he said. The Toklat wolves are the most-studied, most-viewed wolves in the world and have "world-class importance," said Haber, who maintains a Web site (www.alaskawolves.org) dedicated to the wolves of Denali.
"The issue is more than just how many are there, that's irrelevant," he said. "It's the integrity of family group that counts the most. When you have a chance to get information over a long period of time, like the (Toklat) group, that's unique and invaluable. When somebody comes along and shoots or traps those wolves it screws it up."
Contact staff writer Tim Mowry at 459-7587.