Protection of Denali wildlife is wise in more ways than one

  • Author: Rick Steiner

Wildlife viewing decline

Today, against the wishes of many Alaskans, the state continues to permit hunting and trapping of Denali wildlife along the northeast park boundary. While this lethal take is relatively limited (a reported total of roughly 25 bears, wolves, lynx and wolverines per year), it has had a significant impact on wildlife viewing in the park.

For instance, just since the state eliminated the wolf buffer in 2010, park visitor viewing success for wolves plummeted from 45 percent to only 5 percent and has remained at this low level for the past four years.  This translates into an additional 250,000 visitors per year being deprived the opportunity to view wolves in Denali.

Studies confirm that killing Denali wolves along the park boundary (conducted by just two or three locals) has reduced the park population, denning near the park road and visitor viewing success.  The state has yet to concede these facts.


Economic value of wildlife viewing

One of the primary reasons visitors come to Alaska is to view wildlife. A 2011 study estimated that wildlife viewing in Alaska supported more than $2.7 billion in economic activity — over twice that generated by hunting. Wildlife viewing supports an estimated 18,820 sustainable jobs in Alaska, with visitor spending per trip averaging $6,000, compared with some 8,400 jobs supported by hunting.

[Why we need to stop killing Denali Park wolves, and how we can try]

For the many Alaska visitors who don’t venture from the road system, Denali is their best chance to view wildlife. Denali is Alaska’s most-visited national park, with 650,000 visits last year, 70,000 by Alaskans. Visitor spending generated by Denali in 2015 was estimated at $567 million (exceeding Yellowstone and Yosemite), supporting some 7,300 jobs. In fact, Denali is the fourth-largest revenue-generating national park in the nation, exceeded only by Blue Ridge Parkway, Smoky Mountains and Grand Canyon.

Much of this economic value is driven by wildlife viewing. A majority of Denali visitors cite wildlife viewing as the main purpose of their trip and that viewing wolves and grizzly bears is a main indicator of a satisfying visitor experience.

At Yellowstone, with an average visitor viewing success for wolves at 45 percent to 85 percent, the value of wolf viewing alone is estimated at $35 million a year. Some Alaskans who want to view wolves in the wild now go to Yellowstone, not Denali. It is easy to imagine the potential value of restoring wolf viewing in Denali to such levels.

Clearly, Denali wildlife is worth far more alive than dead.


Denali Wildlife Conservation Area

It is obvious that the Game Board will not and cannot provide a lasting solution to protect Denali’s watchable wildlife. The board remains ideologically opposed to protecting watchable wildlife in parks; even if the board were to enact a closed area, the closure would almost certainly be insufficient and could easily be rescinded by subsequent board action (e.g. the initial 1992 Denali buffer eliminated by the same board only two months later).

To restore, sustain and enhance the valuable wildlife viewing resource of Denali, an authentic and durable solution is needed.

Thus, in commemoration of Denali’s centennial, many Alaskans are asking Alaska Gov. Bill Walker to establish a permanent Denali Wildlife Conservation Area along the northeast boundary of the park. This would be similar to the 300,000-acre bison conservation area established last year on the boundary of Yellowstone by Montana’s governor.

As proposed, the Denali conservation area would include about 530 square miles of land (two-thirds the size of the original 1992 buffer), would prohibit take of predator species (bears, wolves, wolverine, lynx, etc.) and would remain open for take of ungulates (e.g. moose) and small game as currently permitted. The few predator hunters/trappers who would be displaced would retain access to millions of acres of state and federal lands to the north, east and south. As such, the conservation area would have minimal impact on overall wildlife use patterns in the region.

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