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AK: Assembly seeks help for Denali wolves

By Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

The Fairbanks North Star Borough assembly passed a resolution last Thursday asking Governor Bill Walker to protect Denali National Park wolves and other predators on state land along the park’s northeast boundary. Denali wolves commonly use the strip of state land near the Stampede Trail, west of Healy, and several have been trapped or shot there in recent years. That’s contributed to a broader decline of the park’s wolf population to record lows and fewer visitors seeing the animals.

Much of Denali National Park’s wolf decline has occurred since a 10 year harvest ban was ended by the State Board of Game in 2010. Wildlife advocates have unsuccessfully pressed the state to re-implement protections. The North Star Borough assembly resolution lends weight to the effort, but revealed sharp contrasts in public opinion. Fairbanks resident Heather Koponen asked the assembly to pass the resolution, citing the value of Denali wolves.

“The decision by the Board of Game not to reinstate this limited buffer zone has caused serious setbacks in wolf research as well as damage to the draw for tourists,” Koponen said.

That sentiment was countered by commenters like Mark Knapp of Fairbanks, who cautioned that wildlife management is outside of borough government purview.

“The state has a mandate to manage wildlife for sustained yield,” Knapp said. “The state has in place professional biologists and wildlife managers to manage wildlife based on sound management practices. The Borough should leave management of wildlife to those qualified to do it.”

Others testified that state management is heavily bent toward consumptive uses because the Game Board is solely comprised of hunters and trappers. Resolution sponsor assembly member Van Lawrence said he brought the measure forward out of concern for the local economic impact of Denali National Park visitors who come to see wolves and other predators.

“Economic development is a power of this Borough, and Denali Park is a major economic engine for the state and for this Borough,” Lawrence said. “Almost 600,000 people visited it last year and more than that will visit this year. And at least half, if not more of those visitors, end up coming through Fairbanks.”

Lawrence acknowledged that harvest of wolves in the contested area is not the main reason for their decline, but said it is contributing to decreased wolf viewing in the park entrance area, where visitation is concentrated. Assembly member Diane Hutchison cited tourism promotional information, noting that wolf sightings are not billed as a primary draw.

“Nowhere is the wolf number one in any of these tours and I don’t think any of these tours are getting people here because they are guaranteed a wolf sighting,” Hutchison said.

Hutchison, and members Lance Roberts and Matt Cooper voted against the resolution, while members Lawrence, Janice Westlind, Christopher Quist, Guy Sattley, Katherine Dodge and John Davies voted in favor.

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