Faced with the worrying economic decline of Alaska’s most valuable tourism destination, Denali National Park & Preserve, you’d think state government would want to do everything possible to turn this decline around, particularly with our struggling economy. Not so with the Dunleavy administration.
The National Park Service reports that the number of visitors to Denali fell from approximately 643,000 in 2017 to 595,000 in 2018, while visitor spending at Denali declined from $632 million to $602 million. That’s 48,000 fewer visitors and $30 million less spending, in just one year.
One of the main reasons visitors come to Denali from around the world is to see Alaska wildlife, including wolves. For many visitors, an up-close view of Alaska’s iconic wildlife in Denali can be the experience of a lifetime.
But due to the state’s irrational, ideological resistance to protecting wildlife along the northeast boundary of the park, wolf viewing this year dropped to its lowest level on record – just 1 percent. In 2010, just before the state removed the small protective buffer on state lands, visitor viewing success for wolves in the park was 45 percent. With 595,000 visitors, that would equate to more than 265,000 visitors having the opportunity to view wolves in the wild at Denali. But this year, only about 6,000 people would have had the same opportunity.
Due to the state’s mismanagement of wildlife along the park boundary, the visitor experience of more than a quarter-million paying visitors to Denali this year alone — among them, thousands of Alaskans — has been diminished. This is a tragic waste of a valuable Alaska wildlife resource, due to the same ignorant hatred of wolves that almost eliminated them from the Lower 48 in the past century. Perhaps the state of Alaska wants no one to see wolves as they truly are in the wild, out of fear that more people would see the “big bad wolf” mythology for what it is — mythology.
In contrast to Denali, after the 1995 reintroduction of wolves at Yellowstone National Park, wolf viewing success there averages 70 percent and contributes more than $35 million annually to the states of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. Again, that’s a 70 percent chance of seeing wolves at Yellowstone, 1 percent at Denali. Considerable economic potential exists at Denali if wolf-viewing success can be restored.
In an effort to do just that, Alaskans filed two emergency petitions this year with the Alaska Board of Game and Department of Fish and Game (in July and October), asking the state to close wolf hunting and trapping along the northeast park boundary. Both petitions were denied by the commissioner and the Board of Game has, so far, ignored them.
The commissioner has directed public concerns on the issue to the Board of Game, which will consider a limited, inadequate Denali buffer proposal at its meeting next March. But as the Game Board, comprised exclusively of hunters and trappers, has declined every Denali buffer petition presented to it for more than a decade, and even imposed a legally indefensible moratorium on considering any Denali buffer proposal for many years, citizens are not optimistic. And even in the unlikely possibility that the Board adopts the small proposed buffer at its March meeting, it would not take effect this season, leaving what’s left of eastern Denali wolves exposed to trapping and hunting throughout the winter.
Park research has shown that the loss of even one significant breeding wolf can cause the disintegration of entire family groups (packs), leading to a dramatic decline in visitor viewing. Put simply, Denali cannot afford to lose any more wolves to the few hunters and trappers along the northeast boundary.
Opponents of a Denali buffer argue that the park’s 6 million acres should be enough for wildlife, ignoring the fact that wildlife is fully protected only within the 2-million-acre wilderness core of the park. Further, Fish and Game admits that 97.6 percent of all land in Alaska is open to wolf hunting, with only 2.4 percent closed (the cores of the original parks at Denali, Katmai and Glacier Bay). So approximately 350 million acres is open to killing wolves, with 10 million acres closed. Isn’t 350 million acres, 97.6 percent of Alaska, enough for people who want to kill wolves? And while there are indeed multiple sources of mortality for Denali wolves — low prey abundance, severe winters, wolf-on-wolf mortality, etc. — the only source of mortality we can control is hunting and trapping.
Even more troubling is that Alaska’s multibillion-dollar tourism industry remains silent on this issue, and in fact on all wildlife issues. In 2016, Alaskans pleaded with the Alaska Travel Industry Association for its help advocating a Denali wildlife buffer on state lands, but the group declined due to its admitted fear of political retaliation by the state.
An opinion poll of Alaskans last year showed overwhelming support among Alaskans for a no-kill buffer to protect wolves, bears, lynx and wolverines on state lands along the boundary of Denali — 54 percent in favor, 37 percent opposed, 9 percent undecided. And if out-of-state visitors are asked, support would almost certainly be stronger.
To be fair, the previous Walker administration was not much better on this issue than the Dunleavy administration. Alaskans deserve better from our state government.
If Alaskans are concerned and want to weigh in on this, now is the time. People should email the Board of Game, care of its executive director, Kristy Tibbles (firstname.lastname@example.org), and request that the board hold an emergency meeting this week to consider the Denali emergency buffer petitions, and to close wolf trapping and hunting on the park boundary before the next scheduled opening Nov. 1. You may wish to remind the board that the Alaska Constitution requires that wildlife be managed for all Alaskans, not just a minority of hunters and trappers.
If the state acts on this request now, it could begin to restore wildlife viewing, visitor numbers and spending at Denali.
Rick Steiner, a marine conservation biologist in Anchorage, was a professor with the University of Alaska for 30 years.