Wolf populations in Denali National Park and Preserve have dropped 60 percent in just over two years. (File/KTUU-DT)
Biologist Rick Steiner says the National Park Service should have stepped in to curb the decline sooner. (Eric Sowl/KTUU-DT)
John Quinley with the National Park Service says sport hunting has been shut down in the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve. (Eric Sowl/KTUU-DT)
The decline in the Yukon-Charley Rivers Preserve has been 43 percent in just one year. (File/KTUU-DT)
ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- Denali National Park and the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve have seen a drastic decline in their wolf populations.
Some biologists say the government needs to step in, but the National Park Service believes most of the deaths are part of the natural cycle of life.
In a little over two years the wolf population dropped from 147 animals to 59; a 60 percent decline.
"Shocking. It constitutes to many of us in the scientific community as something of a biological emergency for the park," said biologist Rick Steiner.
Steiner says Denali National Park is down nine wolf packs, and that includes some of the park's most notable.
"The Mount Margaret pack, which was one of the most viewed by Denali visitors, is gone; it's down to zero now," he said.
Federal biologists blame a variety of factors.
They say subsistence and sport hunting play a small role, but that the majority of wolves die of natural causes. Beyond that they can't pinpoint anything in particular.
"The last couple of years we've seen fairly pronounced declines. The prey populations, so far as we know, the moose, caribou and sheep populations are fairly stable. So we're not quite sure what's going on with the wolf numbers," said John Quinley with the National Park Service.
Biologists say the situation is more serious at the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve.
The population there dropped 43 percent in one year.
Federal biologists believe sport hunting and subsistence hunting may play a larger role, along with the state's aerial predator control program.
In March, Alaska Fish and Game biologists shot and killed a pack of four wolves that frequented the preserve.
The government shut down sport hunting in the area to curtail the drop.
"There was the potential there to lose additional wolves that spend much of their time in the national preserve, so those factors caused us to institute a sport hunting closure," Quinley said.
Critics like Steiner say the drop is unacceptable.
"These numbers really, truly are shocking, and they should not have gotten this low. The Park Service should have acted years ago," he said.
"We're sort of at a yellow light, you know. We're going to keep monitoring the numbers and understand both the harvest and the natural mortality as best we can," Quinley said.
The National Park Service expects the population to be on the upswing by next year.
It conducts aerial wolf surveys twice a year in the spring and fall.
Contact Jackie Bartz at firstname.lastname@example.org