Denali wolf numbers up slightly

A fall count of Denali National Park wolves indicates a slight rebound of the predator’s depressed population in the park. The overall population remains near a 30-year low, and fewer visitors report seeing the animals.

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A wolf carrying a caribou leg. (File photo: NPS)
A wolf carrying a caribou leg. (File photo: NPS)

Sixty-two wolves were counted in Denali National Park this fall, a tally up from last spring’s 52, a change park biologist Bridget Borg says reflects positive and negative trends among Denali’s 11 wolf packs.

“It seems like we’ve had some packs that’ve shown better recruitment, meaning they have more pups survive until the fall this year. But then we’ve had some larger packs — like, say the East Fork Pack — that have decreased in size.”

Borg says the long-studied and once popularly viewed East Fork Pack did not appear to den this year, contributing to its continued decline. She notes some increase in wolf sightings along the first portion of the park road.

“Because there was a pack there that had five pups and denning not far from the road. But farther along the park road where most of our visitors travel, we didn’t really see a change this year… although some of that has to do with where the packs are denning.”

Denali’s overall wolf population remains far below a 2007 peak of 147 animals, and wolf protection advocate Rick Steiner says that’s reflected in fewer park visitors seeing the iconic predators.

“The visitor viewing success rate actually declined further this year. Over 2014 it went down another percent. So this year only 5 percent of the 530,000 visitors to the park were able to see wolves.”

Steiner partially blames the decline on the Board of Game’s 2010 elimination of a wolf buffer zone. The area of state land along the park’s northeast boundary aimed to limit the annual public harvest of several Denali wolves as they roam outside the park. Steiner is pushing for a new larger protective area, but park resources team leader Dave Schirokauer contends it wouldn’t solve the broader Denali wolf decline.

“Harvest levels may affect particular packs and influence viewing opportunities, but for the population as a whole, other things are probably bigger drivers.

Schirokauer says those include moose and caribou numbers and location and wolves’ ability to take down the animals which is tougher in low snow-cover years.

Dan Bross is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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