Wolf Viewing Declining in Denali National Park
DENALI PARK, Alaska: For a third consecutive year, National Park Service (NPS) researchers have found that visitors traveling in buses on the Denali Park Road have had significantly declining opportunities to see wolves. In a random sample of 80 bus trips this summer, wolves were seen on three occasions, or about 4 percent of the trips. By contrast, in the three previous years the percentages were 12 percent (2012), 21 percent (2011) and 44 percent (2010).
NPS biologists gather data on the wolf packs that range on the north side of the Alaska Range by radio tracking, and have documented the decrease in the number of wolves that den and roam in closer proximity to the road in the eastern half of the park, as well as a decline in the overall number of wolves in Denali north of the Alaska Range.
The relationship between the decline in wolf populations and the decline in viewing opportunities is complex. “We are just beginning to learn about the factors, such as pack disruption, that play a role in magnifying the impacts of individual wolf losses on viewability,” said Dr. Philip Hooge, Assistant Superintendent for Resources, Science, and Learning. The decline of wolf numbers has not translated to larger numbers of viewed prey species, the research data shows. The proportion of bus trips where bears, moose, caribou and sheep were seen varies by year, but none show the steady decline found with wolves.
The overall number of wolves in the packs north of the Alaska Range in the national park and preserve is also down. Spring counts went from 66 in 2012 to 55 in 2013, which is in the lowest level documented since counts began in 1986. Hooge said that while this low number has impacts on the visitor experience and may have ecosystem effects, the population remains viable.
Sport hunting and trapping are legal in Denali National Preserve, located on the far western edges of the park. Subsistence harvests are legal in the preserve and the 1980 additions to the national park. Most of the combined hunting and trapping efforts take place in the western areas of the new park lands, but documented wolf harvest is quite small. “We generally don’t see the wolves in the western portions of Denali moving to den near the park road,” Hooge said.
“The wolves commonly seen by visitors often leave the park to follow migrating prey species such as caribou,” Hooge said. “Prior to 2010, one of the areas at the boundary of the park most frequented by wolves was closed to hunting by the State of Alaska”. In 2010, the National Park Service asked the Alaska Board of Game to expand the buffer zone, which would have prohibited hunting and trapping in additional areas where many of the most-viewed wolves winter. The board declined this request, and voted to also eliminate the existing buffer zone along the park’s northeast boundary.
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The wolf viewing data is available on-line at www.nps.gov/dena/naturescience/wolfviewing.htm. Researchers will be explaining the data more thoroughly in a peer-reviewed paper expected to be available in the spring of 2014. The NPS will continue to gather wolf viewing data.
The park has a total annual visitation of over 400,000. Approximately 200,000 visitors travel on buses to Toklat (Mile 53) or beyond each year.
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