Where not in conflict with human interests, wolves may well be left alone. They form one of the most interesting groups of all mammals, and should be permitted to have a place in North American fauna. —Stanley P. Young
From the southwest to the northwest of North America, wolves are in trouble. Adolph Murie begins his seminal classic The Wolves of Mount McKinley with this quote from Young. Murie’s book portrays the wolves of the park, now appropriately renamed Denali, as they are. The writing is scientific but not bland, full of details and data with a majestic backdrop that might make you jealous. Murie had his experience in a wilder, less technology-driven time. The book also shows the vital importance of wolves in a healthy habitat—data backed up in subsequent studies, especially in Yellowstone since wolves’ reintroduction—and since its publication in 1944 the wolves of Denali have been one of the major draws to the park.
Now those very Alaskan icons are under threat. Over the last decade wolf numbers in the park dropped dramatically—at the moment, a visitor has about a 5% chance to see a wild wolf, whereas in 2010 the likelihood was 44%. One of the primary issues to the packs’ survival is trapping and hunting along the outer boundaries of Denali National Park. Up until 2010, buffer zones established just outside of those borders made trapping in those areas illegal, allowing wolves to move freely across boundaries they simply don’t recognize as we do. In 2010 those buffer zones were removed by Alaska’s Board of Game (BOG), and the impact was seen almost immediately.
In 2012, multiple organizations came together as a coalition to petition the BOG to re-establish no-trapping zones on the park’s east side after a trapper killed the lone breeding female of the Grant Creek Pack. At the time this pack was the most easily seen in the park and popular with visitors. The BOG ignored the petition. A second petition was sent and equally ignored. The ultimate result of the female’s death was the dissolution of the Grant Creek Pack after it failed to produce any pups the following year.
As recently as the fall of 2015, the BOG continues to stonewall against a buffer zone, even though the number of wolves in the park has dropped from 70 in 2012 to 46 at last count. One of the primary reasons a buffer zone would be so helpful is because Denali’s wolves, especially the East Fork pack, follow migrating winter caribou across the eastern and northeastern boundary of the park into state lands where hunting and trapping are legal. A buffer zone would prevent needless loss of wolf life like the two killings of members of the East Fork Pack last fall.
The East Fork Pack is now the most easily visible of all Denali’s wolves since the Grant Creek Pack dispersed. And this has serious economic concerns for not just Denali National Park itself but also for the larger Alaskan economy. Wildlife has a value not only for itself but also for tourism dollars. As we whittle away at what little is left of our wildlands, the value of outdoor experience only grows. Last year National Park visitorship in the United States set records, and as 2016 is the 100th anniversary of what Wallace Stegner called the United States’ “best idea,” it’s important to consider that as our society becomes more urbanized more people seek out experiences in wild places. For Denali alone, and the surrounding communities, 530,000 visitors spent $5.24 million in the park and surrounding towns, supporting almost 7,000 jobs. In contrast, only a handful of trappers are known to operate in what used to be the buffer zone, garnering a minimal income where the average value of a wolf pelt in Alaska is a meager $215.
What would the economic impact be of a Denali Park without wolves? It’s a thought Adolph Murie could not have entertained: “Aside from economic necessities…many persons wish to retain the wolf somewhere in the North American fauna…in wilderness areas where there will not be interference from economic interests.” We might ask ourselves why a living, breathing creature that has existed on the planet roughly 10 million years longer than humankind needs to justify its existence in our human-centric economic model. Why can’t things simply exist for themselves? Murie conducted a scientific study for a park that wondered whether or not it should “control” its wolves. If economic downturns, recessions great and small, and Great Depressions are the outcome of human economic control, we might want to redefine the term, because the natural world seems to do quite well without our misguided efforts.
Some things should just exist for themselves, like the wolves of Denali, who have been there long before us and will hopefully live on beyond human manipulation. We should enthusiastically support the buffer zone to keep these populations wild and intact. If this issue concerns you, visit http://akwildlife.org/ for ways that you can help. These are our public wild lands—we all have a stake in this fight.
Special thanks for Carl Johnson for photographing and sharing the beauty of Denali’s Grant Creek wolf pack (now dissolved) with us. View more of his work at Arctic Light.