By the time this story goes to print, the Toklat puppies I watched last summer will be 6 months old. It will be winter in Alaska, and the ground will be covered in snow.
The adult wolves will continue to provide for the puppies, until their legs are long enough to hunt for moose and sheep. If they survive, that is.
According to Haber, when Coke and two other hunters killed the Toklat alpha members in 2005, they erased years of sophisticated–and specialized–hunting practices. Toklat subsists on moose and, more importantly, an abundant sheep population. Only in lean years has it turned to caribou.
“But hunting sheep isn’t something you can just do,” Gordon says. “It takes two to three years to learn that stuff.”
The orphaned wolves have been lucky so far. Shortly after their parents died, the park’s snowshoe hare population exploded. Biologists estimate it peaked at 50 percent above average, and Gordon recalls spotting as many as 70 hares jumping around within feet of the wolves.
But now that explosion is dying off, and the wolves will be forced to test their skills on the treacherous slopes where sheep hang out. At 4 years old, the more mature wolves have begun to show some proficiency. But the next two years will be critical to their–and the puppies’–survival.
If the game board rolls the buffer back to the park boundary, the Toklat pack will be seven miles closer to the hunters’ traps and snares. Without hares, and faced with the difficulties of sheep hunting, they will likely turn to the Denali caribou herd for sustenance.
When the buffer comes up for review, state biologists will once again claim that the Toklat wolves are no more important than any other wolves in Alaska. Like Cliff Judkins, they’ll say the environmentalists will never stop, no matter how big the buffer gets.
“I think this controversy will go on until there’s no hunting in Alaska at all,” Judkins says. “Those people will never be happy. It’s nice to have wolves that come up to tourist buses, but that’s not what a wolf really is. [Denali] is like a zoo without a fence.”
In the past, the NPS has taken a hands-off approach to the buffer. But Assistant Superintendent Hooge says that hunters are increasingly targeting the park boundary, putting greater pressure than ever on the wildlife.
He tells me the park will likely come out in support of the buffer if the increased pressure continues. “The East Fork [aka Toklat] and Jenny Creek wolves are going to be real close to these areas,” he explains. “We don’t want the buffer to expand forever, but we do feel strongly that it is an essential wildlife habitat for the park.”
Last year alone, 13 collared wolves were trapped by 13 different people, six of them within a few miles of the buffer. In February, a visiting trapper caught six wolves in snares set near its border, and six Toklat members disappeared from the same area.
According to Al Barrette, the game board has already decided to roll the buffer back. Judkins says he’ll wait to hear public testimony, but adds that there’s simply too much opposition to limiting trapping in the area–and no practical way to protect just the Toklat pack. If there were, he says, the outcry would probably cease, and both sides could claim victory. “But you can’t put a halo over each wolf,” he tells me.
Barrette thinks there’s ample cause for removing the buffer. “The wolves went outside of it and still got caught,” he says. “The preservationists claimed that closing off this section would keep trappers from catching Denali wolves. It didn’t work.”