Alaska trapper shoots horse, uses it as wolf bait and snares important female wolf from Denali National ParkRick Steiner, Professor and Conservation Biologist
Oasis Earth, Anchorage
May 18, 2012 — FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
In an incident somewhat reminiscent of the “bad old days” of the Wild West, a trapper from Healy, Alaska apparently hauled a dead horse out to an area off the Stampede Trail near the boundary of Denali National Park - an area made famous by the 1996 book “Into the Wild” - and set snares all around the area hoping to catch wolves attracted to the carcass. Wolves from Denali National Park were drawn to the dead horse, resulting in the killing of a primary reproductive female wolf from the Grant Creek (also called Toklat West) pack from the park, along with at least one other wolf. It is unknown how long the two wolves were alive in the snares before being killed and collected by the trapper. In addition, the only other breeding female from the Grant Creek pack was just found dead yesterday near her den, and thus it seems certain that there will be no pups in this pack this year. The Grant Creek wolf pack has been one of the three packs most often viewed in Denali National Park.
The snares, set by Healy guide Coke Wallace, were on state lands along the north border of the national park, and within the former protected “Denali buffer” where from 2002 - 2010 trapping and hunting of wolves was prohibited to protect the park’s wolves. Ignoring several proposals and hundreds of supporting comments from citizens in 2010 to expand the no-take Denali wolf buffer zone - including a proposal from Denali National Park itself - the Alaska Board of Game instead eliminated the protective buffer altogether. At the same time, the Board also imposed a moratorium on future consideration of any Denali wolf protection buffer proposals until 2016. Some have questioned the legality of the Board restricting public process in such a way.
While the Stampede snares were required to be removed by the May 1 close of the trapping season, the dead horse remains at the site (see attached May 6 photo), continuing to be a nuisance attractant to bears and other wildlife (note the recent public safety hazard caused by the attraction of a brown bear to carcasses dumped along the Seward highway near Anchorage). And the rotting horse carcass is just 1/2 mile upstream from a cabin owned by Susan and Dave Braun of Healy, right next to, and below the high-water level of, the stream where they, and others downstream, get their drinking water.
While the Alaska State Troopers and Alaska Department of Fish & Game (ADFG) say the incident does not violate state law, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (ADEC) is looking at potential violations of state water quality regulations, which prohibit discarding carcasses in surface waters of the state.
The Grant Creek wolf family group (“pack”) may be one of the longest-studied vertebrate lineages in the world, dating back at least to the 1930s when Adolf Murie studied them in the park. The pack’s home territory is eastern Denali, and as it is one of the packs most viewed from the Denali park road, it is considered a high value resource for the several hundred thousand visitors that visit the park each summer (see attached photos of the Grant Creek pack from Dr. Gordon Haber).
Of concern in this incident is that the Grant Creek female was killed just after the mating season for Denali wolves (which is late February — early March), and thus it is likely that she was pregnant with what would have been a new litter of pups (perhaps this family group’s only litter), when she was killed. Last year, park service biologists observed her nursing pups at the ancient Murie den, thus she would likely have been preparing to do so again this year. As such, her death causes a significant loss of new pups/recruitment to this important pack, and thus a loss of viewing opportunities for the many thousands of visitors to the park wanting to see wolves in the wild.
Research by the late Dr. Gordon Haber, who studied Denali wolves for over 40 years before he died in a plane crash conducting wolf surveys in the park in 2009, has clearly shown that the loss of even one reproductive female from a pack not only leads to the loss of that individual and all of her future pups, but also can cause significant effects to the social dynamics, behavior, distribution, and integrity of the entire pack. Park service surveys show that Denali wolf populations are significantly reduced from what they were several years ago, and one of the likely reasons is the continued take by hunters and trappers along the northeast boundary of the park.
“If anyone needed more evidence that the Denali buffer is essential to protect park wolves, here it is,” said Rick Steiner, an Alaska biologist who was a friend and colleague of Dr. Haber’s. “For one guy in Healy to earn a few dollars for a wolf pelt, the state of Alaska has sacrificed the extraordinary value of these living wolves to hundreds of thousands of park visitors. I will be formally requesting ADFG Commissioner Cora Campbell to issue an emergency closure of state lands in the area to wolf trapping and hunting before the season is set to reopen this November, in order to protect Denali wolves from this continuing threat.”
Alaska writer Marybeth Holleman, who is completing a book on Denali wolves and Haber’s research, said, “Because Haber is no longer studying these wolves, we don’t know as much about this female as we could. However, based on his research, it’s likely she was the only pregnant female in the group this year, and without any pups as a ‘social glue’ for this summer, this most-viewed family group may disintegrate and disappear from the park entirely.”
Steiner has submitted proposals to the next round of Board of Game meetings (in 2013) to: 1) rescind the Board’s moratorium on Denali buffer proposals, 2) impose a no-take buffer along the south boundary of the park, and 3) to shorten the hunting/trapping season for wolves statewide to November 1 — March 1, to protect pregnant females in spring and dependent pups in the fall.
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