Wolf Song of Alaska News

Musings on Wolves, the Denali Buffer, and Alaska’s Board of Game

Alaska Voices / Anchorage Daily News / March 9, 2010

Bill Sherwonit

In recent days, a number of Denali wolf advocates have expressed both shock and outrage that the Alaska Board of Game voted to eliminate the decade-old wolf-protection “buffer zone” that existed on state lands along the northeastern edges of Denali National Park and Preserve. My own response has been closer to discouragement than outrage. And if surprised by the BOG’s decision, it’s only because the vote to do away with the buffer was 4-3 and not 6-1 or 7-0. That one-vote difference makes the final result seem like more of a cliffhanger than it really was. This outcome was likely determined long before the BOG took its vote last Friday and, I suspect, even before it began to hear public testimony a week earlier.

Here some background might be in order. At the risk of oversimplifying a complex issue, the buffer had originally been put in place to protect Denali’s wolves from trappers when they sometimes wandered outside the park in winter, while following prey onto state lands. The thinking was that the packs most vulnerable to trapping just beyond park boundaries also happened to be among the most-viewed and longest-studied wolves anywhere. Therefore they deserved extra protection. At the same time, few trappers would be “harmed,” because only a few people ran traplines in the area. In short, it seemed a reasonable tradeoff. The National Park Service, surprisingly, didn’t take a stand on the issue, which irked many people who sought the extra protection. That’s part of a bigger story, for another place and time.

While supporting the buffer, many wolf advocates have continued to argue for a larger zone, because there’s substantial (and growing) evidence that the existing one doesn’t sufficiently protect Denali’s wandering wolves. Again, very few people would be inconvenienced or hurt by an enlarged buffer. Meanwhile trappers, hunters, and state’s rights advocates have insisted the buffer infringes on their rights, in order that tourists can see “tame” wolves confronting buses and eating visitors’ sandwiches along the Denali Park Road. Where’s the fairness in that? And besides, the buffer doesn’t really work the way it’s intended, if wolf lovers keep wanting to expand it. Where will it all end? Back in 2004, the BOG had put a six-year moratorium on this increasingly contentious issue. In other words, it wouldn’t consider any new Denali wolf buffer proposals until 2010. With the moratorium ending this year, the Board was swamped with a bunch of buffer proposals, some seeking its expansion, others asking it to be eliminated. This time the Park Service got involved, proposing a moderately expanded buffer. That action seemed to both surprise and annoy the state’s wildlife managers and policy makers, who took it as inappropriate interference.

I happened to be in the audience when the BOG meeting began Feb. 26 in Fairbanks and remained there through the weekend, when public testimony ended. It’s true I missed the Board’s deliberations. But I’d already heard more than enough to know which way this vote would swing. Chairman Cliff Judkins foreshadowed the Board’s decision that very first day, when he reminded everyone in the overcrowded room that “boundaries are boundaries,” then added “we need boundaries” when adjoining lands are managed by government agencies with differing mandates and regulations. The implication seemed clear enough to me: when you have a sharply defined border between federal parklands and state-managed lands, what’s the need for some damn buffer zone that complicates matters? Keep things simple. Wolves are protected on one side of the boundary; they can be trapped on the other side. And that’s that.

The Board listened politely, and occasionally with interest, to individuals who spoke (and in some cases pleaded) on behalf of Denali’s wolves and the need for their expanded protection on neighboring state lands. But its members showed less patience with the federal government and especially the National Park Service. Judkins, in particular, seemed disdainful of the Park Service, which he blamed for complicating the buffer debate by actively supporting its expansion. This seemed to irritate Judkins no end: “It really perturbs me,” he complained, “that the National Park Service puts Alaska in this position.” How, exactly, the Park Service put the BOG “in this position” is unclear. The buffer zone was an issue long before Denali staff took an advocacy role on behalf of the park’s wolves. Still, I wonder if the Park Service’s decision to enter the fray actually backfired. That made it easier for Judkins specifically and the Board, generally, to frame this as a state’s-rights vs. feds-overstepping-their-reach kind of battle. And we know how much Alaskans like to fight the feds.

I similarly wonder if Priscilla Feral’s testimony – or mere appearance – at the meeting hurt the buffer-expansion proponents. Feral has become the all-too-familiar face of Friends of Animals, one of the “extremist” Outside animal-rights groups that many Alaskans hate almost as much as (if not more than) the feds. (But hey, all Outside groups are extreme – unless they happen to be pro-gun, pro-hunting and trapping and pro-predator-control groups like the NRA and the ironically named Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, who actually seem to prefer dead animals to live ones.) With Feral and the Park Service lobbying for a buffer expansion, and one trapper or hunter or advisory-committee representative after another blasting away at the damned buffer and the silliness of trying to protect human-habituated wolves that aren’t really wild animals anyway, the many Alaskans who support the buffer and its expansion were easy to ignore.

Wolf advocates who’ve been interviewed since the Board’s 4-3 vote have pointed again and again to the hundreds of Alaskans who wrote or spoke in support of the buffer’s expansion. But they overlook the many impassioned pleas made at the meeting to eliminate the buffer and “make things right again.” Many of the trappers and hunters who addressed the Board absolutely believe that the wolf lovers will keep asking for more protections, no matter how much they gain. And they argued, sometimes convincingly, that their rights keep getting eroded. They firmly believe they’ve been wronged again and again, first by former President Jimmy Carter and Congress’s passage of the 1980 Alaska Lands Act, or ANILCA, and more recently by those who established the buffer in the first place. As one trapper explained to me, “I may not remember what I had for breakfast this morning, but I’m always going to remember what happened in 1980.” He also admitted the fight isn’t over the lives of a few wolves or the rights of a few trappers, but what they represent: “The whole thing is symbolic.”

Even word choice becomes symbolic. Again and again, buffer opponents derided the term “Denali wolves.” Several argued the wolves don’t belong to Denali or the Park Service, but to the state. To call them “Denali wolves” is an affront.

In short, many of the trappers and hunters who testified in Fairbanks were clearly outraged by any additional attempts to protect wolves at their expense (usually more symbolic than real), especially when Denali affords the animals special protections over 6.2 million acres. So the outrage goes both ways. I think the wolf advocates sometimes forget – or overlook – that fact.
My point, I guess, is that both sides have valid arguments. This isn’t a question about who’s right or wrong, of science vs. emotion (both sides have plenty of both), but of politics and values. As Cathie Harms of Fish and Game told a public-radio reporter after the vote, “It’s not a popularity contest . . . The pendulum goes in a variety of directions depending on the politics of the times, who’s on the Board, what proposals are brought before them.”

Right now state politics overwhelmingly favor widespread predator control and increased kills of wolves and bears, all to produce more moose and caribou for human hunters. Plenty more happened at the Fairbanks BOG meeting that is equally disconcerting and outrageous to those of us who deplore the state’s current emphasis on predator control and what is essentially wild-game farming, often to benefit urban hunters and the big-game guiding industry.

There seems to be a small core of us Alaskans who strongly and passionately oppose the state’s “old school” wildlife politics, management priorities and liberalized ways of killing predators, all of which seem ever more extreme and, we would argue, increasingly inhumane. We’re also convinced that state policies and priorities are out of touch with the values of most Alaskans. But as long as mainstream Alaskans keep electing governors and legislators who favor “intensive management” (read that as predator control) and favored-species management strategies over more balanced, science- and ecosystem-based approaches, the wolves that inhabit Denali National Park most of their lives – but in winter sometimes wander onto state lands – will suffer the consequences. So will all the other wolves, plus black bears and grizzlies, that happen to inhabit Alaska’s state-owned lands.
Some day the pendulum will swing again. But for those of who prefer live wolves visible from the Denali Park Road to dead ones in traps, that day seems a long way off.


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