Snared Wolves Return To Denali Injured, Underscoring the Need For Expanded Protection
 
The need for expanded protection of Denali wolves became more obvious recently when two wolves returned from trapping sites outside the park seriously injured with snares embedded in their necks.    One of the wolves (above and first photo below), probably an adult male, is of unknown identity, although the age of the neck wound and his light coloration indicate he could have been the Toklat East female’s mate and escaped from the same northeast park boundary snare set where she died in November (Nov 9, Dec 2, 2007 and Jan 23, 2008 blog entries).  There have not been any reported observations of this wolf since I photographed him during a brief, chance encounter on March 29.  
 
The other wolf, a young adult black male (last 4 photos below), is one of seven wolves that were missing when Toklat (East Fork) returned from a 2-3-day trip into the northeast boundary trapping area on February 23 (March 1 entry).  This was Toklat’s only trip into a trapping area following the observations of 17 wolves in the group several weeks earlier (Feb 3 entry, bottom photo).  He rejoined Toklat sometime between March 6 and 10 with a snare around his neck and a portion of the broken or chewn anchor cable still attached, though it was not until March 23 that I noticed the snare in my March 10-14 photos and reported it.  We have not seen him since March 14.  One or two other wolves are now missing as well, due to undetermined causes.  Only eight wolves, including the alpha male and female, were together in my latest observations, April 16-19.                
 
Denali National Park wildlife biologist Tom Meier has been prepared to remove these snares and bring veterinary assistance for several weeks, but there haven’t been any opportunities.  The first wolf is not affiliated with a radio collared group.  In most of the observations, he and his companion appeared without warning, then disappeared back into the trees or brush.  As noted above, the second (black) wolf returned to the collared Toklat group - which would have provided a chance to locate him for a capture - but then disappeared.    
 
The odds are diminishing rapidly for these wolves, assuming either is still alive.            
 
Below:  Same wolf as at top of page.  The wire snare has cut through the neck skin, which is hanging loosely.  The wolf seemed otherwise to be in fairly good condition and eating well when I took this photo on March 29, likely because his companion was helping him forage and was licking the wound.    
 
 
 
Below (4 photos):  A young adult male rejoined the Toklat family in March 2008 with a wire snare around his neck.  This wolf and six others were missing after Toklat returned from a February trip into the northeast park boundary trapping area.  Six are still missing, most likely some or all of which were snared in the same area.  As of March 10-14 when I took these photos, this wolf still seemed to be eating and moving well.  However, note the swelling of his neck and face, because of the tight snare.  The swelling can also be seen in the third photo (the charcoal-gray alpha male is warning him and another young adult away from his resting spot).  A section of the broken or chewn anchor cable of the snare can be seen extending from the left side of his neck in the second and fourth photos.  We have not seen him with Toklat or anywhere else since March 14.      
 
 
                      
 
                      
 
 
 
A continuing history of losses in the northeast park boundary area
At least 11 wolves, including four wearing NPS (Denali) radio collars, have been snared, trapped, or shot in the unprotected area outside the northeast park boundary between Savage River and Nenana River since late October or early November 2007.  This includes a wolf that was snared or trapped along lower Savage River shortly before my January 8 observations (Jan 23 entry) and another whose recently skinned carcass was found nearby in early April.  Two of the four collared wolves were from the Lower Savage study group (the alpha pair), one was from Toklat East (the female of a pair), and one was from Eagle (the only adult male).  There are no known Lower Savage, Toklat East, or Eagle survivors.  
 
Based on other information (earlier entries), it is likely that the above 11 include one or more wolves from the Margaret group.  The last GPS locations for the radio collared Margaret male (T. Meier, pers. commun.) were uploaded to satellite while this wolf was stationary in the northeast boundary trapping area over a five-day period in late March.
 
Most likely the two snared wolves in the above photos and most of the other Toklat wolves that are still missing were also caught or shot in the unprotected area east of Savage River.  This would bring the total number of wolves snared, trapped, or shot there so far this winter, and the number of Denali study groups affected, to 18-19 and five, respectively.
 
Losing so many of the Toklat wolves in just two and a half months (8-9 of 17) by itself would be reason to suspect trapping and shooting causes, even without knowing anything about Toklat’s February trip into the trapping area.  In a safer area of the park somewhat to the west, for example, at least 14 of the 15 Swift Northeast wolves were still together and seemingly in good condition as of my April 16-19 observations.        
 
The latest information means that since 2003, when the present state wolf protection areas were finalized, at least seven of the nine radio collared Denali study groups known to have spent time in the northeast boundary area suffered trapping and shooting losses in the unprotected Savage River-Nenana River section.  As was the case this winter, the earlier losses included key individuals (e.g., Margaret alpha male in 2004, Toklat alpha female in 2005) and resulted in major biological, scientific (research), visitor-viewing, and other impacts.    
 
Since 1987, when wolves were first radio collared in Denali, 19-20 collared wolves (among others without collars) from 11-12 Denali study groups have been snared, trapped, or shot in the northeast boundary area, i.e., the area of state lands bounded by the park on the north, west, and south. The 11-12 groups included 3-4 groups from areas west and northwest of Wonder Lake, seven from areas within and adjacent to the state area, and one from an area between (NPS data base, T. Meier, pers. commun., updated with the above information).    
 
Map boundaries and ecological boundaries
The gray-brown line in Figure 1 (below) identifies what has arguably been the park ecosystem’s most important wildlife wintering area since at least the 1960s (Haber 1977, 2002, 2007a, 2007b; Mech et al 1998; Meier et al 2006).  This area is especially important to Denali caribou, which in most years migrate northeastward from central areas of the park.  In some winters there are also major northward shifts of moose and sheep into the area, particularly the eastern half (Haber 1977: e.g., Figs. 17, 19).  Groups of wolves from central and southern areas of the park and elsewhere hunt these wintering ungulates at varying intervals, together with groups that reside in the area year-round.  
 
It can be seen from Figure 1 that in the eastern half of the wintering area the map boundaries, i.e., delineating the protected (blue) state area and the northeastern areas of the park, are essentially irrelevant to the ecological boundaries.  The map boundaries exclude the critical eastern end of the wintering area.  In their east-west orientation, they also cut almost arbitrarily across the prevailing southwest-to-northeast trend of the mountain ranges and foothills, which in turn define major habitat and wildlife-use patterns.  
 
The wolves that travel to this wintering area to hunt are adhering to these natural, traditional patterns, not the map boundaries, which they have no way of recognizing.  When they go beyond the map boundaries they are not “wandering” or “straying” outside the park, as journalists and others often put it.  Quite the contrary, they seem to know exactly where they are going and why, even from 50 miles (80 km) or more away (Dec 2007 paper, Reports2 page).  
 
It is commonly argued that Denali wolves will always go outside protected areas, regardless of where the boundaries are drawn.  I replied to this argument in the October 2002 report, linked on the Reports page.  To be sure, Denali wolves will continue to go outside the existing arbitrary boundaries and suffer losses, often.  It would be a simple matter to redraw the boundaries in a more ecological way and apply other measures to at least greatly reduce the losses.      
 
The area where park wolves most urgently need protection from trapping and hunting is shown in red in Figure 2.  There is reason to believe that one or more trappers began targeting coyotes in the same area recently.  Given that coyote snares and perhaps some coyote traps can catch wolves, and the ease with which a small wolf could be mistaken for a large coyote, there should also be restrictions on coyote-killing to meet the wolf-protection objective.                                      
 
Figure 1.  Eastern Denali National Park (green boundaries) and the adjacent state areas (blue) where wolves are currently protected from hunting and trapping (map courtesy of the National Park Service). The gray-brown line (my addition) delineates arguably the most important, traditional ungulate (caribou, moose, sheep) wintering area of the Denali ecosystem.  This area is usually occupied by two resident groups of wolves, but groups from near and far areas of the park also hunt there during varying winter intervals.  Note the general southwest-to-northeast trend of the mountain ranges and foothills.  These physiographic features largely determine habitat patterns and thus also use of the area by ungulates and wolves.  The park boundary and state protected areas are delineated almost arbitrarily with respect to these natural features and the eastern end of the wintering area, thus allowing trappers and others to easily target a half-dozen or more park groups of wolves.                    
 
 
 
Figure 2.  Denali wolves most urgently need protection from shooting and trapping outside the park in the red area of the map, between the Savage and Nenana rivers.  They are currently protected outside the park only in the green areas (blue areas in Fig. 1).  They also need more protection during their unpredictable forays further eastward and southward, especially within the remainder of the cross-hatched area (see Oct 2002 report, Reports page).  
 
 
 
What to do
Re-read the last section of the March 1 blog entry; this is still the best way to proceed.  The red area in Figure 2 is the priority: there should be a complete state ban on wolf trapping and shooting in this area, as in the adjacent green (blue) state area. There should also be restrictions on coyote trapping and shooting, to help effectuate the wolf protection objective.  
 
As I emphasized in the March 1 entry, in the last eight paragraphs of the December 2 entry, and in other entries, the responsibility for what is happening to Denali wolves on state land and for taking remedial action rests primarily with biologists of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.  The importance of convincing ADF&G to apply an emergency closure and pressure the policy-making Board of Game to take followup action is related in part to the board’s refusal to consider any further public proposals on this issue until 2010.  Moreover, a state Superior Court judge recently held, in effect, that the board is not legally required to consider any scientific input other than from ADF&G.  This means that on issues such as protecting Denali wolves, ADF&G can continue to remain silent before the board or make nonsensical biological arguments, recommendations, etc. without any meaningful way within this process for other scientists to provide alternative thinking or challenge these views (see also the Feb 18 entry).  Thus it is necessary to hold ADF&G biologists accountable in other ways, outside the board process.      
 
In the March 1 entry, I provided the phone numbers and emails of ADF&G’s three top-ranking biologists - Denby Lloyd, Ken Taylor, and Doug Larsen.  Decisions about Denali wolves in state areas will directly involve the ADF&G Fairbanks regional office as well.  Two biologists in particular from that office should be held accountable - regional supervisor David James (907-459-7222; david_james@fishgame.state.ak.us or david.james@alaska.gov) and area biologist Don Young (907-459-7233; don.young@alaska.gov).  In the same office, Cathie Harms (907-459-7231; cathie.harms@alaska.gov) usually speaks to the media for ADF&G and continues to dismiss the overtures for protection.    
 
Pressure these six ADF&G biologists at minimum, in the ways I outlined in the March 1 entry.  You will find all of them to be quite pleasant and full of reasons why they think nothing should or can be done.  But remember what is happening to the Denali wolves and think about their world-class importance, especially the 42-year-old-or-older Toklat family group.  There is no way any reasonable person, least of all a biologist in a position of authority, should look the other way or try to defend this.  Contact them at their offices and send emails.  If that doesn’t work, find out their home phone numbers (in Juneau and Fairbanks) and call them there.  As I recommended in the March 1 entry, be creative and persistent in every lawful way imaginable toward bringing whatever pressure it takes.  Ask others, especially scientists, to do the same.
 
Approaching the northeast boundary trappers directly might be helpful.  I know two experienced wolf trappers who voluntarily stopped trapping in this area over recent years out of respect for the opposing sentiments.  I know the identity of one current wolf trapper - Coke Wallace, a local resident (907-683-1200; trlrides@mtaonline.net; www.denalisaddlesafaris.com about_us.htm).  Contact Wallace and ask him in a civil, reasoned way to stop killing wolves in this area.  I will post the names and contact information for the other trappers if it becomes available to me.    
 
References cited
Haber, G.C. 1977.  Go to the link at bottom left of home (Alaska Wolves) page.
Haber, G.C. 2002.  Go to the October 2002 link, Reports page.
Haber, G.C. 2007a.  Go to the August 2007 link, Reports2 page.
Haber, G.C. 2007b.  Go to the December 2007 link, Reports2 page.
Mech, L.D., L.G. Adams, T.J. Meier, J.W.Burch, and B.W. Dale. 1998.  The wolves of Denali.  Univ. of     Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.
Meier, T.J., J. Burch, and L. Adams. 2006. Tracking the movements of Denali’s wolves.  Alaska Park     Science 5(1): 30-35.    
 
Apr 20, 2008
An adult wolf, probably a male, crossing the Alaska Railroad inside eastern Denali National Park with a wire snare embedded in his neck.  The wolf, most likely from a resident park group, broke free from a trapping site outside the park.  He was first observed ranging inside the park in March 2008, accompanied by a smaller adult.  There have not been any confirmed sightings of either wolf since I took this photo during a brief, chance encounter with the pair on March 29.