Wolves of Denali; Visitors decline due to Wolf harvest along border

Denali National Park and Preserve is located in Interior Alaska centered on Denali, the highest mountain peak in North America with a summit elevation of 20,310 feet (6,190 m) above sea level, in the Alaska Range. The park and preserve cover more than 6 million acres, 4,724,735.16 acres are federally owned national park. The preserve is 1,334,200 acres, of which 1,304,132 acres are federally owned.

Wolf monitoring in Denali NP&P began in 1936, but accurate data on population estimates did not begin until 1986 when David Mech (wolf biologist) and others initiated a large scale study. According to the National Park Service ” The current monitoring program consists of maintaining one or two radio-collared wolves in each known pack inhabiting the park north of the Alaska Range. Radio-collared wolves are located about twice per month, with additional locations during late September to early October to determine fall pack sizes and to count pups, and during March to determine late winter pack sizes.” This monitoring data is used to determine abundance and density of wolves, wolf movement, den locations, mortality factors, behavior and population dynamics.

In a recent study published on PLOS ONE, scientists examined the effects of killing wolves on the boundaries of both Denali and Yellowstone National Parks and the subsequent impact on peak wolf viewing tourism.The study concluded that wolf sightings were “significantly reduced” by killing wolves along park boundaries and adjacent to protected areas. Specifically in Denali National Park, sightings in the park were more than twice as frequent in times with a “harvest buffer zone”, than periods of time without it. Denali has a Wolf Viewing Project which concedes the fact that wolf viewing is one of the primary objectives for visitors to the park. However, in 2010 Denali’s harvest (killing) buffer was eliminated which could have led to the reduction in wolf viewing success from 45% in 2010 to 5% last year.

The issue arises from the fact that wolves travel, their territories are in constant flux and they don’t obviously adhere to the boundaries and borders of protected areas, creating hard to manage transboundary areas and conflicts. It was discerned that although killing certain wolves did not effect population numbers in general,  it could lead to the decline or demise of an entire pack. In a 2014 study that analyzed the “Impacts of breeder loss on social structure, reproduction and population growth in a social canid”, namely Gray Wolves in Denali NP. The study concluded that breeder loss from a wolf pack preceded 77% of pack dissolution during the study period , and that pack dissolution was greater when the loss of a breeder or both breeders occurred in a small pack.

Additionally, in the PLOS ONE  study it was determined that “population size, pack size and den site location were strong drivers of sighting opportunities for wolves within these protected areas. These findings suggest that harvest is likely to have particularly strong effects on sightings when harvest reduces population size or affects breeding behavior within protected regions.” Meaning, when wolves are killed “harvested” or used for “consumptive” purposes during breeding season in and adjacent to wolf viewing and protected areas, there is direct effect on “non-consumptive” viewing for tourists along park boundaries and roads.

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