I'll never forget seeing the black alpha male and small gray female of the East Fork wolves in Denali National Park that day
I was walking up the road near Polychrome Pass and looked behind me to see three wolves coming my way. It was a hot day, their heads hung low as they plodded along the dusty road. While they simply looked out of the corner of their eyes, seemingly uninterested in my presence, it was one of the most memorable experiences I have ever had in Denali. Little did I know it would be the last time I would ever see these wolves.
The wolves in Denali are believed to be the first and longest-studied group of wild wolves in the world. Until more recent years in Yellowstone National Park, they were also the most viewed wolves, seen by hundreds of thousands of visitors. Often they are seen loping along the park road, sometimes carrying a snowshoe hare or caribou leg. If you are lucky, you may get to see a moose or caribou kill. These extraordinary viewing experiences are threatened by a handful of trappers who set gauntlets of traps just along the border of the park. Denali's wolves are especially vulnerable to trapping and hunting due to their tolerance of human presence. As a result, the history of several wolf families seen along the park road is a history of loss.
In the 1980s, Denali's Savage pack was wiped out by a hunter. In 1995, the sole survivor of the Headquarters pack, a pregnant alpha female, was illegally snared less than 300 feet outside the park boundary. In 1997-98, the East Fork wolves declined from 12 to two; heavy trapping was the suspected cause. In 1998, the Sanctuary wolves declined from 15 to eight members; one year later, three pups from this pack were snared less than a mile outside the park.
In 2000, five pups from Denali's Pinto pack were shot by a hunter. In 2002, the sole survivor of the Sanctuary pack was trapped and killed, her radio collar signal going off in a local trapper's house. The Margaret wolves moved into the territory but suffered the loss of their alpha male to trapping, and only two wolves remain today. A wolf with a snare caught around his neck moved into the Margaret territory. The wound was so severe his head was grossly swelled, prompting the Park Service to capture him and remove the snare. After his mate was killed he was never seen again. That same spring, another wolf was seen with a leg-hold attached but disappeared shortly thereafter.
There has been no more tragic loss, however, than that experienced by Denali's East Fork wolves. Denning some 30 miles into the park, many believe they are descendants of the wolves Adolph Murie studied back in the late 1930s. The book "The Wolves of Mt. McKinley" is based on Murie's research and is still sold in bookstores today. In 2005, the small gray East Fork female I had seen on the road was trapped by a recreational trapper near the Stampede Trail. The late Dr. Gordon Haber, an independent wolf biologist, and others observed her mate and pups around the trap area for many days, perhaps bewildered by her capture in both a leg-hold and snare. The trapper eventually shot her and carried her out on a sled pulled by a snowmachine. Biologists reported she had been alive for 10 to 14 days in the trap. The necropsy revealed she had broken teeth from eating rocks. Not too long after her death, the alpha black male was shot in the back by a hunter in the Cantwell area.
This week, the Board of Game has an opportunity to stop this history of loss and extend protection to these wolves for the benefit of hundreds of thousands of visitors to Denali National Park. Countless letters of support, along with hundreds of signatures from local residents and Alaskans are calling on the board to do the right thing.
Karen Deatherage is a member of the Denali Citizens Council and has been involved in wildlife conservation work for 13 years. She has also researched Denali's wolves with the Dr. Gordon Haber. She currently lives in Anchorage.