ANCHORAGE, Alaska -

A number of Alaska conservationists want more room for wolves living in Denali National Park, saying protecting wolves from trapping makes good economic sense for the state.

The conservationists are asking Gov. Sean Parnell and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to consider a proposed land swap between the state and federal governments, which would create a buffer zone along a section of the park in which wolves would be protected from trapping.

The proposal comes as the National Park Service says it's getting harder to see wolves along the Denali Park Road.

To many environmentalists, wolves are seen as a symbol of the Alaska wilderness -- but there's a growing faction, including biologist and conservationist Rick Steiner, that's now looking at wolves and seeing dollar signs from the tourism they inspire.

“The state needs to understand the simple economics here, and that is that Denali wolves are worth far more alive than they are dead,” Steiner said. “And we all know that -- I think even the state knows that.”

Steiner says wolf trapping outside the boundaries of Denali National Park is taking a toll on the park's wolves. He says a survey just released by the Park Service shows that seeing wolves in the park is becoming a rare occurrence for visitors.

Of some 400,000 people who visit Denali annually, the survey shows only 4 percent reported seeing a wolf this summer. That's down dramatically from the 44 percent who spotted them in 2010.

“It's not a predator control issue, it's not a hunting versus non-hunting, trapping versus no-trapping issue, it's simple economics,” Steiner said. “And the economics say we need to grow and sustain Denali's wildlife viewing economy, and this is the way to do it.”

Along with other conservationists, Steiner says the way to do it is to establish a permanent buffer zone on state land along the Stampede Trail, near the town of Healy, in which the trapping of wolves that wander outside park boundaries would be banned.
     
“The solution is for the state and Department of Interior to negotiate an easement, a permanent wildlife buffer for conservation easement east of Denali National Park, to protect wolves and perhaps bears from take,” Steiner said.

In exchange for the easement, conservationists say the state would get another parcel of land or money.

It's a deal Tim Striker, Denali National Park’s superintendent, supports.

“In my mind, it's a good tradeoff -- win-win for the federal government and State of Alaska,” Striker said.

Bob Mumford, a member of the state Board of Game, says he’s open to any and all ideas concerning wildlife, but doubts whether a permanent buffer zone would work.

“If we've learned anything from the reintroduction of wolves in the Lower 48, wolves don't always stay where they are told to stay,” Mumford said. “We have a 6 million acre-plus park there; if we add a buffer zone, I believe the wolves will maybe re-den in the buffer zone, and then they are going to travel outside of that buffer zone.”

Striker says while it's more difficult to find wolves along the park road, that doesn't mean the park's wolf population is in trouble.

The latest count this spring shows 55 wolves living in the park, down from 66 last year. But wolf numbers fluctuate from year to year, and the Park Service says the population right now is at a healthy level.
Meanwhile, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game says about two to four wolves are legally trapped in the Stampede area each winter. The department says that's not enough to impact the park's overall wolf population.

What can affect the viewing of wolves is the type of wolf that's trapped. Two springs ago, an alpha female was legally trapped in the Stampede area. She was the lone breeding female in the Grant Creek pack that lived near the park road, and was perhaps the park’s most visible wolf pack.

Since that alpha female was trapped park biologists say the pack has dissolved, with the other wolves going their separate ways.