Denali Wolf Hunting/Trapping Closure Fails at Board of Game

by Nancy Bale

We’d like to thank the DCC members who sent comments to the Alaska Board of Game supporting a closure of the wolf townships, state land at the northeast corner of Denali National Park, to wolf hunting and trapping. This closure, requested by the National Park Service (NPS) in Proposal 186, was considered at the recent Region III Board of Game meeting in Fairbanks, held from March 15-22, 2024.

We’d also like to thank NPS for keeping the need for this closure active by submitting a proposal, despite the fact that no one from NPS attended the meeting to discuss or defend it.

The Region III meeting occurs only once every three years, and missed an additional year this time, in part because of Covid 19 delays.  Region III encompasses a broad swath of interior Alaska between Denali-area lands and the Yukon River drainages, and includes state lands on the North Slope and around the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The meeting was held at Pikes Waterfront Lodge, in a large, wood-paneled conference room. The Board, composed of seven members, sat at one end of the room, along with other Department of Fish and Game staff and leaders, and their Executive Director, Kristy Tibbles. Chairs for the public and tables with books of comments, recommendations, and regulations occupied the other end.  People flowed in and out of the meeting throughout the several days of testimony and deliberation.

Nicole Schmitt, Bill Watkins, and myself attended the meeting, spoke with participants, and testified in favor of Proposal 186. We stressed the importance of the specific wolf families whose movements take them onto state lands in the Stampede area, our desire to protect these wolves for viewing inside the park, and the strong past history of the Board of Game in closing state lands to wolf hunting and trapping, in just this area.  We and others had introduced or supported wolf hunting/trapping closure proposals for the past two decades, although the number of such proposals has been dwindling since 2010.

In my testimony, I acknowledged that such requests to protect living wolves are rare, given that most proposals to Alaska’s Board of Game cover consumptive uses. I reminded the Board that it has the authority to enact wolf conservation actions, and that such actions are reasonable and important in the Denali area.  I reminded the Board that the oldest and most comprehensive scientific study of wolves in Alaska has been at Denali, and that it is important to protect the living wolves that constitute the focus of this study.  I added that Game Management Unit 20C, where the closure would occur, has no management conflicts that would work against sparing wolves, as it is a low-density area with no Intensive Management designation. We all acknowledged the complexity of wolf viewability within the park, and the lack of biologic concern for wolf populations as a whole, but argued that it is clear that hunting and trapping could destabilize wolf families that use the park. Indeed, three wolves from the Grant Creek pack had already been killed in likely human-caused hunting/trapping events in the townships this winter.

At this meeting, I had the opportunity to greet or converse with the Commissioner, Doug Vincent-Lang, Director Ryan Scott, and Board members Al Barrette and Jake Fletcher. Fletcher came up to me after my testimony and acknowledged that he understood the importance of viewing wildlife because of his job as a river guide. 

The Board’s deliberations on Proposal 186 happened on the last day of the meeting, Friday March 22nd. They were as disappointing as ever. Our concerns were only minimally addressed, even mis-represented. Member Fletcher had the courtesy to state that two Advisory Committees, the Anchorage AC and the Rampart AC, had supported Proposal 186, although three ACs, including the local Middle Nenana AC, had opposed it.  Fletcher acknowledged “a lot of public testimony” favoring it. He did not bring up the importance of viewing that he and I had discussed personally.  Board Chair Jerry Burnett stated that there was no evidence that continuing hunting/trapping on the boundary would reduce park visitation, and that there was really no purpose in this proposal sufficient to justify “reducing opportunity” for hunters and trappers. Al Barrette stated that wolves were holding steady, by the numbers, and also, amazingly, he insinuated that the Denali Vehicle Management Plan was reducing wolf viewing opportunity (!)

Given their tendency to skew our arguments and that silly diversion about the VMP, the Board again went on record with its unwillingness to abandon its singular focus on  consumptive uses. Even the area biologist, Tony Hollis, presented the Department of Fish and Game’s recommendation as Oppose, where in the past it had been Neutral.

A most democratic, science-based  process

“We work to foster the highest standards of scientific integrity and promote innovative sustainable fish and wildlife management programs to optimize public uses and economic benefits.” This quote from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game website expresses a goal that, in my mind, is far from fully realized at the current Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

At every Board of Game meeting I’ve attended, the system of Advisory Committees and proposal generation is touted as a most democratic way of managing fish and game. This system, however, has not managed to steer wildlife management in Alaska toward broader ecosystem management or a diversity of management strategies. It’s clear that the politics in Alaska, emanating from our current governor, will continue to focus on control of predators, expansion of “subsistence” in an unsustainable manner, and anti-federal rhetoric and litigation.

The entities with most power to scold and find fault at the recent Board of Game meeting were the Native villages and representatives, who often expressed a lack of trust in state management and concern that outside hunters will damage their culture and ways of hunting. Even so, many Native villages have been proponents of wolf control in their areas, and the Department itself favors wolf and bear control in areas like the Mulchatna region where “subsistence uses” are allegedly being protected.

In addition to rejecting Proposal 186 at the recent meeting, the Board of Game approved proposals that could lead to increased predator control in Alaska. I suspect that the Department of Fish and Game may not actually enact them all, because of cost and lack of scientific support. Time will tell.

If sound wildlife management in Alaska is important to you, show your interest by joining the Alaska Wildlife Alliance (www.akwildlife.org), whose Director Nicole Schmitt has been an important ally on Denali issues and a tremendous force for positive change in Alaska’s wildlife management. Also, stay tuned to DCC for ongoing updates on Denali wildlife issues and for information on how to view the full-length documentary film, A Good Wolf, produced by Ramey Newell, which focuses closely on Denali’s boundary wildlife management controversy.


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