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Trapper who killed Denali wolves scoffs at notion of buffer zone

May 22, 2012|By Kim Murphy

Todd Hardesty/Alaska Video Postcards Inc.

One of the Grant Creek pack's two primary breeding females during the 2009-10 season at Denali. The wolf died of natural causes this spring, while the other female was snared in a trap.

SEATTLE — The prime breeding female wolf snared outside Alaska’s Denali National Park this spring — opening new controversy over hunting and trapping on the outskirts of the 6-million-acre park — was so thin that her backbone and hipbones were protruding, according to the trapper who caught her in a snare.

“I know quite a bit about animals, and I’m telling you, she was emaciated,” said Coke Wallace, a Healy, Alaska, hunting guide who snared the wolf after leaving the carcass of an aging horse as bait about a mile outside the park.

“Those wolves have a tough deal. I always assumed the wolf lived like our Labrador pets, 10 or 11 years? Uh-uh. The wolf lives six or seven years. They live a very tough life; they’re very cannibalistic on each other. I can tell you that wolves kill more wolves than people do by a margin of seven or eight times every year. That’s just the way it is,” Wallace said in an interview.

The irascible Alaska back-country character, who has been guiding hunts and laying traps along the fringes of Alaska’s premier national park for more than 20 years, has ignited a new debate over wolf preservation at Denali.

The deaths this spring of the Grant Creek pack’s two main breeding females — one of them in Wallace’s snare about a mile outside the park — have prompted new calls to reinstate a buffer zone around the park, eliminated by the Alaska Board of Game in 2010, that was intended to protect the park’s most visible wolves.

Wallace, who operates traps and snares in various areas outside the park, scoffed at the idea that a buffer zone would protect the wolves.

“This buffer zone? It’s a nonissue. It was never a biological issue; it was thrown out to appease the ecological people, and they’re not going to be happy until the buffer zone brushes up against Canada. I mean, you’ve got 6 million acres [locked up in the park]. How much is enough?” he said in an interview.

“The thing about those people is they take and take and take, and they never give,” he said. “Well, 6 million acres should be enough for you, and if it’s not, I’m sorry. You can’t have it all.”

Vic Van Ballenberghe, a wildlife biologist who has spent three decades working at Denali, said Wallace was correct in saying that the park’s wolves — whose numbers are down to just 70 wolves in nine packs — are indeed on the lightweight side. “They all look very thin. It’s quite unusual to see a wolf in Denali that doesn’t look thin. And in reality, the prey population there is quite low compared to what it has been,” Van Ballenberghe said in an interview.

The populations of nearly all the species on which the wolves live — mainly moose, caribou and sheep — have all dwindled, he said, forcing some wolves to patrol the park road in search of ground squirrels.

“Wolves can’t really make a living on ground squirrels. They’ve got to have access to larger animals to make it,” he said.

On the other hand, said Denali National Park biologist Tom Meier, wild wolves are often on the thin side, especially in the spring, after a hard winter.

The wolf that died in Coke's snare, he said, had plenty of internal fat, though admittedly not much surface fat. "Coke's wolf was in a trap for a week and was scavenged by a wolverine before he ever even saw it," Meier told the Times. "These wolves aren't starving."

Defenders of Wildlife announced Tuesday that it would join calls among other conservationists to reinstate buffer zones around the northeast perimeter of the park and along Stampede Trail, where Wallace trapped the female wolf and also another male wolf some distance away that was feeding on a moose carcass.

The Grant Creek pack's other main breeding female was found dead this spring near the pack's den site inside the national park, raising questions about whether the pack can survive as an intact unit.

“A lot of people had predicted that this would happen,” the organization’s Alaska representative, Theresa Fiorino, told the Los Angeles Times. “The concern is that the taking of this female wolf will likely negatively impact wolf viewing in the park this summer, and potentially for summers to come.”

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