A young wolf that captured the interest and sympathies of many Alaskans last March, after being orphaned as a pup in a radio-collaring accident, was trapped about three weeks ago just outside Denali National Park, in an area long advocated for a protective buffer zone.
The wolf, a 22-month-old female—the last known survivor of Denali’s “Sanctuary” family group, was being closely monitored by Dr. Gordon Haber. Haber is an independent wildlife scientist who lives outside the park in this area and has been doing wolf research in Denali since 1966. His research is supported by 200,000-member Friends of Animals.
“She had been doing well, making the best of the lousy hand she was dealt a year ago,” said Haber, referring to the death of her mother—the only adult left in the group—during a National Park Service (NPS) radio collaring effort in March 2001 (see accompanying press release and its attached report). “She was orphaned at only 10 months old, too young for wolves of this area to acquire much hunting expertise or knowledge of their family’s territory. But she enjoyed enough luck, skill, and drive to get going again and scavenge natural meals on her own, including from a fair number of winter-killed moose and caribou. Every time I saw her, she looked in good condition.”
Haber radio-tracked her 46 times between March 16, 2001, when she was orphaned, and March 15, 2002, a day or two before she was trapped. When he last found her on March 15, she was within 200 yards of the house and trap line of Martin Weiner, just outside the Denali east boundary and two miles from where she was orphaned a year earlier. Haber searched for but did not hear her collar after that. On March 26, biologist Layne Adams, who does research in Denali for NPS, told him she had been trapped and her collar returned to NPS sometime just before March 20. Haber told Adams she had been near Weiner’s house at that time and asked if he would confirm that Weiner trapped her. Adams refused and told Haber, “You can figure that out for yourself.”
Weiner, a part-time NPS employee, has trapped Sanctuary wolves along the east park boundary since at least 1999. His trapping was a major factor in reducing this group to only one adult and three surviving pups as of early 2001. Thus when the adult (mother) died during radio-collaring by NPS (Adams), the pups were at an immediate survival disadvantage, and two of them disappeared within three days.
For the next several days, the surviving orphan remained close to where her mother died, repeatedly call-howling and scenting tracks in the area with obvious distress. One of her first ventures was on March 22, seven miles northward, where Haber found her at the Denali National Park headquarters sled dog kennels, apparently drawn by howling that she thought was from other wolves.
She continued to range primarily within the same 7-10-mile segment of the east park boundary over the next few months, outside and inside the park, with continuing indications that she was inept at hunting but not too bad at scavenging natural meals. She did not venture much into her family’s established territory, i.e., beyond its eastern edge, probably because she had not learned it well enough as of when she was orphaned and because the neighboring Margaret wolves (3) were beginning to occupy it.
As of mid summer 2001, she was beginning to shift her activities 20-25 miles northward, to the heavily-developed Healy-Ferry area, where Haber radio tracked her through March 4, 2002. He continued to see her, in good condition but always alone, at naturally-dead moose carcasses. Several times he tracked her into residential subdivisions where sled dogs seemed the most likely attraction, for companionship.
Haber was surprised to find her back within the eastern fringe of her natal territory on March 8, 2002, 25 miles south of her March 4 location. This was the first time he had found her there in more than seven months. She resumed her previous pattern of ranging up and down the same 7-10-mile segment of the east park boundary, mostly outside. Haber radio tracked her eight more times through March 15.
By coincidence, the Margaret wolves (now 4) were outside the park in this area for several days. She found them and followed at a distance for at least a day, apparently trying to join them. Haber felt there were good odds that she would succeed.
But then she was trapped.
Three successive family lineages of wolves, most recently Sanctuary, have been excised from the eastern several hundred square miles of Denali National Park since 1982, largely because of hunting and trapping outside the east and northeast park boundaries. Haber says it is clear there would otherwise be persistence in this area, much the same as for the famous 62-year-old or older Toklat family lineage further to the west.
The new Margaret wolves are beginning to venture outside the east park boundary as well (e.g., 7 of Haber’s 49 radiolocations of these wolves since March 2001). Even Toklat goes there (and northward) now and then, as do at least 2-3 other Denali groups from as far away as 80-100 miles, in central areas of the park, according to Haber’s radio tracking data. Wolves can be legally killed without limit when in these dangerous, easily accessible, developed eastern and northeastern areas. The recurring trapping and hunting losses of Denali wolves have already led to major biological and visitor-viewing consequences, not to mention the ethical and esthetic problems.
A protective wolf hunting-trapping buffer zone has long been advocated for the east and northeast boundary areas but is opposed by NPS (usually indirectly) and the state department of Fish and Game, even though virtually all of the killing is recreational rather than for true subsistence. The policymaking state Board of Game has acted accordingly, most recently by tabling a proposal for an eastern buffer zone, less than one week before the Sanctuary wolf was trapped there.