Denali East Fork wolf pack status currently unknown

Denali National Park’s long studied and once popularly viewed East Fork wolf pack is likely no longer. Several members of the park entrance area wolf group have been killed on state land, and the famed pack’s status is unknown.

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Denali wolf (Photo courtesy of National Park service)
Denali wolf (Photo courtesy of National Park service)

Denali’s East Fork wolf pack declined to just one known female and 2 pups earlier this summer. That after the pack’s last other member, a radio collared male, was spotted dead at a hunting camp on state land off the Stampede Trail in May.  Park Service wildlife biologist Bridget Borg says it’s impossible to know for sure if the mother wolf and her pups survived after her mate’s death, but there’s been no recent sign of the animals, and their den appears empty.

”We investigated a den site after,” Borg said. “There was clear evidence it was not being used as evidenced by vegetation that was growing around the entrance to the den site.”

The apparent demise of the East Fork pack comes amidst a broader steep decline of Park based wolves to around 50 animals.  The low point is attributed to more than human harvest outside the park, but it appears to be a significant mortality factor for entrance area wolves. Borg points to the human caused deaths of 3 of 4 East Fork Pack radio collared animals in the last year.

”If we just look at the collared wolf mortalities for this past 75% died as a result of snaring or being shot,” Borg said. “So this is really high compared to our previously published rate of less than 20%.”

Sean McGuire is with the small Fairbanks based advocacy group Alaskans for Wildlife.

“They’re allowing a handful of people to gun them down or trap them,” McGuire said. “We feel it’s a scandal.”

McGuire said the loss of Denali’s East Fork Pack takes with it valuable opportunity for Park entrance area wolf viewing, as well as a lot of history.

”This wolf pack has been probably the most viewed wolf pack in world history. It’s been studied continuously for 70 years. This was the pack that Adoplh Murie originally wrote the classic Wolves of Mt. McKinley.”

The Park’s Borg agreed it’s unfortunate to lose track of the long tenured and well followed East Fork group.

”But we should note that the potential loss of this pack doesn’t really mean the loss of the lineage of these wolves,” Borg said. “For example, the Riley Creek pack was actually founded by an East Fork female. In the summer one of her pups has dispersed and apparently found a mate and seems to be seeking out a territory along the park road corridor between Toklat and Wonder Lake.”

State wildlife officials point to robust wolf populations outside Denali. Alaska Department of Fish and Game Regional Supervisor Darren Brunning said the agency has no confirmation of the May East Fork wolf kill, as its radio collar has not been turned in. Brunning said with no other conclusive information about the pack’s status, there’s no reason for action.

”Hunting and trapping along the Northeast boundary of the National Park and the Stampede trail area is the purview of the Alaska Board of Game,” Brunning said. “The Department of Fish and Game would take no action unless directed by the Board of Game.”

The Game Board agreed earlier this year to shorten the spring wolf hunt along Denali’s northeast edge, and will consider proposals to re-instate a former no wolf kill area there at a spring 2017 meeting. McGuire said he has no faith in the board and wants the Governor to step in and close the Stamped area to wolf harvest.

Dan Bross is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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